Two NBA champions were selected in the 1998 Draft. One won the title with the Boston Celtics who selected him at number 10. His name is Paul Pierce. One pick ahead of him, the Dallas Mavericks swooped in to trade for Dirk Nowitzki. If they hadn’t, he would’ve been a Celtic.
To understand how this all went down, we need to go back to 1998. The Big Lebowski and Saving Private Ryan were in theaters, a young kid named Britney Spears appeared on the music stage with “…Baby One More Time”, and you went online with a 56k modem – the rich kids had blazing fast ISDN at 128k. Scouting and selecting a non-American player was much harder back then. Hell, scouting a player from the opposite coast, presented some challenges.
So everything people know was that there was this tall German kid who was supposed to be good. His name was Dirk, the last name unpronounceable, and the first times NBA would get a proper chance to see him was at the Hoops Summit. So when he didn’t show up on Day 1, everyone was disappointed. Dirk was playing back in Germany and had to sneak out to the USA, so his trip got delayed.
When he did show up, he lit everyone on fire. Dirk put up 33 points and grabbed 14 rebounds. A 7 footer that can run the floor and shoot? Still, a lot of teams were reluctant to pull the trigger on a player they had so little information on. The two teams that instantly fell in love? Dallas and Boston.
The Celtics head coach at the time was Rick Pitino. The Pitino era isn’t remembered fondly in Boston, but Pitino was on Nowitzki before anyone else. He was in Italy on vacation with his wife and friends when GM Chris Wallace called him about doing a workout with a German kid.
The GM told Pitino it was important no-one knew about the workout, so they found a tennis bubble with baskets to work him out. Pitino was there with his brother-in-law, a Wall Street stockbroker. They got gym shorts for the brother-in-law, Pitino showed him how to pass a basketball to assist with the workout. An hour later, Pitino knew he found a unicorn.
“I was shaking after the workout. He was supposed to stay in the military another year publicly, and we were gonna draft him with the Boston Celtics at 10. Nobody knew about this young man.”Rick Pitino
The Celtics kept things very quiet and were ready to select the next Bird, but they had competition. Dallas had seen a lot of Dirk during the Hoops Summit, and Donnie Nelson was locked in. Pitino and the Celtics knew they were in trouble when the Mavs called them on draft night and offered their 11th pick and $3 million for Boston’s 10th pick. When Dirk was on the board after the first seven picks, it seemed like they would get the unicorn from Germany. Then they found out that Dallas had made a trade to jump them and get the 9th pick.
The Celtics were desperate that they lost out on Dirk, but then someone noticed Paul Pierce was still on the board. Why was such a fantastic player still available. The Celtics quickly asked around about his health, and when they found out it was all OK, The Truth became a Celtic.