After 24 years of coaching in Germany, Dirk Bauermann had to leave his home country and move to Eastern Europe for the first time in his career.
The nine-time German champion and former coach of the Germany national team landed a job in Poland this season as head coach of its national team and also took over the coaching position in Lietuvos Rytas Vilnius, Lithuania.
RealGM sat down with Bauermann in Vilnius to talk about the changes in his life, time with Lietuvos Rytas, German basketball, Dirk Nowitzki, his new role with Poland national team and much more.
RealGM: First of all, I've heard that Toronto Raptors' assistant general manager Maurizio Gherardini was the person who helped you to get in touch with Lietuvos Rytas. Could you tell me how did you end up signing a contract with Lietuvos Rytas?
Bauermann: Well, he called me and said that he had helped the club in many different ways and they had asked him for advise in terms of who to look at for a possible replacement for the old coach. He [Maurizio Gherardini] recommended me, we have known each other for a long time. He was the GM in Treviso and we played against them with both, Bamberg and Leverkusen, in the Euroleague. He recommended me to them and I guess they had me on the radar as well. They called me and it didn't take long to come to an agreement. The negotiating process took only one or two days. I had been waiting for the right situation, a top professional European team and seemed to be a good fit.
RealGM: After joining Lietuvos Rytas, you definitely found things you liked or didn't like. Could you name the positives and negatives of the situation you found in Vilnius?
Bauermann: The one thing that I didn't like was all that snow. Even at the beginning of April, we had minus 10 degrees in Celsius at night. Other than that, it has been very good three weeks here. Fans in Vilnius welcomed me with open arms because it's a basketball country. I was happy about the positive reception. The club is very professional and the only purpose is to win. Everybody is investing in winning and I really like our team. We have a young group, which invested in winning and so far everything is good.
Of course, before I came here, I looked at the tons of video. After I signed here, I looked at even more video. I just thought that the team had room for improvement at the defensive end of the floor. They needed to develop a collective identity. I thought that working a lot on defensive fundamentals, schemes, rotations we could then develop team identity. Something we can base our game on. That was the first cornerstone sort of speak of what I've tried to do here.
RealGM: In the Germian media, you've mentioned that you're the first German to come to work for a Lithuanian basketball team. What does it personally mean to you?
Bauermann: I think it's a sign of respect for myself, which I appreciate, but it's also a kind of respect for German basketball. Europe recognize that we're not just a soccer country. And we're not a country that just has [Dirk] Nowitzki and that's it. We have good players, good coaches and hopefully I'll be able to open the door for other coaches. Hopefully that will be a side effect of signing here.
RealGM: Is there a thing or two that Lithuanian basketball could learn from Germany?
Bauermann: I would never say what somebody could learn from somebody else. They have to decide. But I think German basketball has grown in the last few years a lot. Because first, the league is very strong and well governed. The management of the league (BBL) is at very high level and they do a very good job. We have great infrastructure and all the gyms are pretty much brand new. Also in Germany, you have a very interesting loyal fan base. The basketball community is tremendous. Almost all the games are sold out on the regular basis. The normal sports fan is not interested in basketball, that's the difference. In the States, they are interested in football, baseball, basketball or even hockey. And they have preferences and they watch one sport more than the other. In Germany, the regular sports fan is a soccer fan, who doesn't care about basketball. That's the problem. Like I said, the league is very strong and professional, teams are doing a good job. And what I think that really helped is the fact that we have gone from possibly having 12 Americans on your roster to now six-max, which I think was a really important step.
RealGM: You've been coaching one of the most ambitious European teams, Bayern Munich for two seasons. Bayern is well known for its soccer team, but they haven been declaring intentions to establish itself on elite European basketball scene as well.
Bauermann: Obviously, being one of the biggest clubs in Europe, I think you can legitimately compare them to Real Madrid or Barcelona. It was a huge step for German basketball that they decided to focus not only on soccer, but also start developing basketball as well. The club has great recourses and they really want to do it. They can easily build a Final Four Euroleague team. They have money, resources and sponsorship. And also the city is great and is made for basketball. Another question is what are the goals. Do they just want to play in the Euroleague or do they want to become one of the top basketball teams in Europe and compete for championships. That's what they do in soccer and if they decide they want to be in basketball where Real Madrid and Barcelona is now, they can very easily do that, that's not a problem. So far, the program has grown very quickly. The gym is nice, the fan support has been great and sky is the limit for them.
RealGM: Taking you back to Lithuania, one of Lietuvos Rytas' players, Nemanja Nedovic, might be drafted in the 2013 NBA Draft. So far, what's your opinion on Nedovic?
Bauermann: Nemanja definitely has NBA potential, there's no question. He's super athletic, but a lot of guards are. It's important to be athletic, especially in the NBA, but more importantly he has tremendous court vision and scoring ability, which is important nowadays in modern basketball. He's not just a scoring point guard, who dominates the ball and makes everybody around him fall asleep. He has a very good feel when to take over and when to be distribute and facilitate. He's still young and it's a difficult position to play, but I think most importantly he needs to make a personal commitment to the defensive end of the floor. With his athletic ability and his instincts, he can dominate the game on the defensive end. But it must be something that he wants to do. And then I think he can be a very complete and a very good NBA guard.
RealGM: On his latest interview to RealGM, Nedovic said that Lithuanian and Serbian basketball school is pretty much similar, while your coaching style reminds him American basketball style. Could you explain that?
Bauermann: Obviously, what I do is in terms of general approach to the game that we're taking, it's definitely a European approach, a very team and defense oriented. I shouldn't say that American teams aren't [playing] pass oriented, not off the dribble, not a whole one-on-one, but like a team game. Obviously, there are a lot of American teams who play like that. I think if you look how NBA teams play. Nobody moves the ball better than Miami Heat or executes better in half court than San Antonio Spurs. I think it's almost unfair to say that the American game is more individual or more off the dribble. But I think it's probably more about how I carry myself and how I relate to the players. That sort of things. Not the basketball part as much, but how I relate with players, how I coach them and how I try to get most out of them.
RealGM: In your opinion, what the future holds for German national team after the retirement of Nowitzki?
Bauermann: I think we have an up-and-coming generation of players that turn 23 or 24 this year and will be a foundation for our national team for years. Tim Ohlbrecht is the oldest one of that group and he's now with the Houston Rockets. And then you have five-six players, who in couple years will definitely be Euroleague level or even NBA - Tibor Pleiss, Ohlbrecht, Robin Benzing, Philipp Schwethelm, Ellias Harris, who might be drafted, Bastian Doreth and Per Gunther. It's very balanced and it's not like four big guys and no shooters. We have a really good balance and I think sky is the limit for our national team. I gave them first opportunity to play national basketball when they were 19-year-old. They played in U20 European championship and two days later they were in the national team's training camp. Later they all played in EuroBasket 2009, 2010 FIBA Worlds and EuroBasket 2011. Now they're all national team players and the future looks very bright.
RealGM: You had a chance to work with Nowitzki for such a long time. Could you name at least few things what you've learned from Nowitzki?
Bauermann: I think the main thing they see is that you can be a world's superstar, but it doesn't have to change who you are as a person. That's number one. So to turn nose up is not a good thing. I think they all learned from Dirk that you can be a humble person, a regular guy, who is friendly to everybody, to the kids, just be a normal person and still be a superstar. Second thing that I think they learned was an unbelievable work ethic. You practice hard, you try to win every drill and scrimmage. And you always work extra - after every practice he stayed longer and worked on his outside shot, obviously. A lot of players and coaches talk and say things, but to me talk is cheap, it's what you do. He lead these young men by example. By being humble and normal, and talking to them. He showed them how really you need to a professional, how hard you need to work. The dedication and making winning your only priority, not the stats. In German basketball, we could not have asked a better role model.
RealGM: We all heard many stories about Nowitzki's work ethic, but is there anything specific about his training?
Bauermann: I think he does some drills with Holger Geschwindner, his mentor and coach, that were specifically designed to help him, being a 7-footer, balance his mobility, technique, but more importantly, his footwork and balance. Those things are unusual, but very well designed and very creative. You have to give Holger a lot of credit for Dirk's development.
RealGM: Do you think that humbleness is what separate Nowitzki from other superstars and makes him so popular?
Bauermann: I don't know many superstars, but Chris Kaman was the same way. He was a cool guy, very coachable and fun to be around. I can't say, but I know that he's one of the most pleasant, humble and smartest players that I ever coached.
RealGM: Moving to your other new position as a head coach of Polish national team, how did you end up landing a job there?
Bauermann: They contacted and they obviously they knew me from all those championships. They liked how I coached and how my teams play. It didn't take long to come to an agreement. It's a lot of fun to coach at EuroBasket. You play against some of the best teams, players and coaches. With that regard, it was kind of no-brainer for me. Plus, I think the team really has a lot of potential. I think it has a really good combination of older guys, who both played in the NBA and Euroleague level. Maciej Lampe, for example, is having the best season in his career with Caja Laboral. But also we have a really good generation of young players, who were born in 1993. [Przemek] Karnowski, [Tomasz] Gielo, [Mateusz] Ponitka. I think it will be fun to work with both these young guys same as with very good veteran type players.
RealGM: How do you look at this job in Poland - as a challenge or as an opportunity to archive great results?
Bauermann: With the results, you never know. If you base it on that, you could be quickly disappointed. I think you have to base it on substance, level of commitment that the team and federation have, people that are responsible. People in the federation are great and it's all about the people, professionalism and commitment to winning. Like I said, EuroBasket is a tremendous challenge, our group is very difficult. It's just fun to work at the highest level.
RealGM: Some time ago Marcin Gortat and Lampe made a commitment to play for Poland in the upcoming EuroBasket 2013. What was your reaction to this?
Bauermann: I talked to both of them. I talked to Gortat and he played in past summers. So with him it was never a question. Lampe had some problems last summers because he had bad ankle. I talked to him and I told him what the plans are and how important I thought he was for the team success. He immediately told me he's coming and just tell me when I need to be there.