What's behind Germany's basketball World Cup win?

14 Sep


Germany's national team have made history by defeating Serbia to win their first World Cup, having beaten USA in the semifinal. What's behind this achievement, which just a few years ago would have been unimaginable?


A tense 83-77 win over Serbia sealed an unlikely maiden basketball World Cup win for Germany on Sunday. It was a triumph some years in the making, and captain Dennis Schröder said he hoped it would become a watershed moment for the sport in his homeland.


"Basketball is a great sport and I hope we can get the respect for what we've done the last two years," he said. "I would like to see every single game on TV [in the future]." Around 4.6 million people watched the final on public broadcaster ZDF in Germany, with the win coming hot on the heels of a 113 - 111 win over the United States , in the semifinal, which caught public imagination but was only available on a streaming platform. Throughout the tournament even non-basketball fans have been glued to those streams to witness what was almost certainly Germany's greatest-ever achievement in the game.

Simply getting to that semifinal against the Americans had already been a major achievement for the Germans, who hadn't advanced that far at a World Cup since 2002. Similar to the current team, a strong team spirit and a special brand of unity were two of the biggest strengths of that German squad led by NBA superstar Dirk Nowitzki 21 years ago. That team would win bronze, just Germany's second international medal in basketball since a team of less-known players surprised everyone by winning the European title at home in 1993.

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"Dirk was the best player in the world," Patrick Femerling, one of Nowitzki's teammates at the 2002 FIBA World Championship in Indianapolis told DW. "But that wasn't the only key to success. The team accepted and embraced their role. Everyone brought their maximum performance to the court."


Two lost generations

The 2002 team were essentially kept intact in the following few years and in 2005 they won another medal – silver at Eurobasket – after losing to Greece in the final in Belgrade. After that, things started to come apart, with Germany falling into the doldrums for almost two decades. This changed last year, when under new head coach Gordon Herbert, Germany won bronze at Eurobasket – in which Germany was one of four co-hosts.

"In the past, teams in the Bundesliga (Germany's top league) were relying on an increasing number of foreign players," Femerling said. "As a result, you basically lost two generations of (German) players who didn't see professional basketball as a viable option." However, according to Femerling, this has changed in recent years. "The clubs have been putting more of an emphasis on giving young (German) players an opportunity, and that's definitely one reason we now have a good national team."


Continuity and commitment

This increased focus on developing young German talent coupled with the hiring of coach Herbert in 2021 are among the main contributing factors to the national team's current success. "He's a very calm and level-headed coach," Femerling said of the 64-year-old Canadian. "He's a good fit for the team." The recipe for success is as simple as can be: continuity and trust. This applies to the coaching and support staff, but particularly to the makeup of the squad. Nine of the players that Herbert won bronze with at last year's Eurobasket are also part of this World Cup team. Also, the Penticton B.C. native who spent most of his career as a player in Finland, demands one thing of himself and his players – complete dedication.

"Without commitment, you can't achieve your goals," Herbert said. "Everyone always talks about achieving goals, but first and foremost you need dedication and sacrifice. And all my players have that commitment." The coach sees his main task as truly forming a team, something he puts a lot of time and effort into. Prior to the World Cup he flew to North America to visit Schröder, now of the Toronto Raptors, Orlando Magic brothers Moritz and Franz Wagner, and Daniel Theis of the Indiana Pacers.

Herbert enjoys going out to dinner with his players, opportunities he uses to get to know them not only as players but also as people. "I didn't know Daniel that well before, so I was really looking forward to the dinner. We had really good conversations," Herbert said of his meeting with Theis. "Gordie knows how to talk to the players. He knows what he's doing," Femerling said." "And he has a good connection with Dennis, which is very important. So it all fits together very well."


'Dennis has grown up'

Dennis Schröder is the captain the undisputed leader of this edition of the national team – a bit like Dirk Nowitzki all those years ago. His good relationship with the coach may be one of the reasons he's been one of the top performers in most of Germany's games. "I can't explain why things match up this well. He knows exactly what he needs and what he wants. But he also lets everyone in the dressing room know that they are important," Schröder said in an interview with the DBB (German basketball association).

Once seen as an "enfant terrible" Schröder has matured – both physically and mentally – since leaving Bundesliga outfit Braunschweig to join the NBA's Atlanta Hawks in 2013. "Dennis has grown up, he had developed very well," Femerling said. "Sometimes his role was very big, as were the expectations of him. But you've been able to see a very good development in the past couple of years."


Focus on youth development

But what if the captain has a bad day? Against Latvia in the quarterfinals, Schröder made just four baskets – and not a single three-pointer. "It was my worst game ever as a basketball player," Schröder later admitted on Instagram. Fortunately for Germany, others, like Franz and Moritz Wagner, Andi Obst or even Johannes Thiemann stepped up.

"We have a lot of quality across the board and the age structure from young to experienced is also very good," Femerling said."This is the best national team we've ever had." While it will be years before we can assess whether the direction German basketball has taken is sustainable, Femerling doesn't fear a drop off like the DBB experienced a couple of decades ago. "I hope that youth work – both male and female – will continue to be pushed and promoted. And that people will continue to reap the benefits."


Authors: Thomas Klein, Chuck Penfold

Edited by: James Thorogood 

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