Dirk Nowitzki was not headed to an American college before the NBA. Like most of the best European players — Giannis Antetokounmpo, Luka Doncic, Pau Gasol, Tony Parker, even going back to Tony Kukoc and others — he was taking a straight trip from his European team to the NBA.
That didn’t stop Charles Barkley from trying to get him to go to Auburn.
It wasn’t meant to be, but Saad Yousuf at the Athletic tells the story of Barkley trying.
The Auburn alum reflected on his first meeting with Nowitzki, in 1997 at a Nike exhibition game in Germany, in which the Big German put on an offensive clinic against a team featuring Barkley, Pippen, Michael Jordan and other NBA talents…
Barkley called Nike and made a strong push to get to Nowitzki through any channel, legal or not. “Just tell him, anything he wants, we’ll get it done,” Barkley recalled in 2012. “Just give him anything he wants; he’s got to go to Auburn.”
Barkley didn’t stop there, though. Nowitzki left such an impression on Auburn’s greatest hoops export that Barkley even talked to Cliff Ellis, Auburn’s coach at the time, to encourage the program to make a run at this relatively unknown teenager in Europe.
Ellis notes that in 1997 he couldn’t just jump on YouTube and find clips of a player, there wasn’t much film of European players. Still, the coach was willing to go on Barkley’s word and reached out.
Turns out Kentucky, Stanford and other colleges did as well, but to no avail. Nowitzki went straight into the 1988 NBA Draft, where the Bucks took him ninth overall then executed a draft-night trade sending the big German to Dallas for Robert “Tractor” Traylor. The rest is Hall of Fame history.
For Barkley, Ellis, and Auburn fans, it’s quite the “what if.” That was a 29-4 Auburn team in 1997-98 that was an NCAA Tournament No. 1 seed led by a couple of future NBA players (Mamadou N’Diaye and Chris Porter). Add Nowitzki into that mix and… we will never know. But it could have been glorius.