The Mavericks have the Würzburg-born big man market cornered. Dallas added another player from Dirk Nowitzki‘s hometown this summer in Maxi Kleber, a 25-year-old power forward who gets high marks for his work ethic, which has helped him well when it came to rebounding for numerous injuries that delayed his arrival in the NBA.
He recently caught up with HoopsHype about his journey to the States.
Were you kind of expecting the Mavericks to sign you this offseason or was it a bit of a surprise?
Maxi Kleber: Once it was done and I signed the contract, of course I wasn’t surprised anymore because I knew before, but when actually my agent came to me and said that there’s serious interest from the NBA I was really surprised. I know there’s a lot of interest and people are always watching guys from every team, but until you make the step and finally get a team to sign you… It was kind of surprising that we got a team to negotiate with us, and I’m very happy about this opportunity.
When did your agent tell you that there was this interest about you going to the NBA?
MK: I knew during the season there were some teams with a lot of interest, but I told them I don’t want to hear too much about it until the season is over because I want to focus on [Bayer Munich] and I want to play my game. So I didn’t want to hear anything about it. We actually started talking about it basically after the season was over, end of May or the beginning of June. Then I knew, ‘OK, something could happen’ but we weren’t sure. There was a lot of time waiting, but at the end of June I knew that the scouts were really into me. I knew the interest was high but obviously we couldn’t really talk to them, especially my American agent, we couldn’t talk to anybody because of the rules in the NBA, so we had to wait anyway.
Were you nervous waiting for it to happen?
MK: Of course I was nervous. Playing in the NBA was a childhood dream… Still is. I couldn’t really wait for it, I stayed up nights waiting. I was kind of nervous.
So you were kind of looking at the phone at night hoping for it to happen?
MK: Yeah, I tried to get my sleep and rest, especially after the season. I still tried to get my rest because I think it’s important, but obviously I was kind of nervous and checked my phone once in a while because I wanted to know what was going on.
When you finally knew it was going to happen, how was that first day for you?
MK: I was super happy, I was so excited… I can’t put it into words. I remember when they said, ‘OK, Maxi, it’s gonna happen’, I was really happy. But the day that I really signed and I knew I did it, then I couldn’t really sleep, I was so happy about it.
When in your career did you first realize you had a chance to play in the NBA one day?
MK: That’s a good question because it was always a dream of mine, I was dreaming about it all the time. The first time I really thought I could make it was back in 2012 when I went to the Eurocamp in Treviso. I left a good impression and the scouts were really interested in finding out who I was. So I would say Treviso was the first time that I really thought, ‘OK, I could make it.’
You came close to signing a contract a couple of years ago. I’ve heard that you were working out with the Hawks and it was about to happen, but you got injured at the end of the workout.
MK: Yeah, I had a foot injury. Actually, it was supposed to be a really cool summer. I had a really good year in Spain (with Obradoiro) and my plan was to go to the U.S., do some workouts and play in the summer league, but I got injured and I was really frustrated about that. Also in Treviso I left a good impression and I injured myself… Always when I was right before making it, something happened. It was kind of frustrating, but I now did a good job staying healthy and it all worked out.
Mentally, which injury has been the toughest for you?
MK: Mentally, every injury was tough, every long injury I had. But the toughest was probably the foot. Like I said I had a really good year in Spain, my agent said, ‘Look, there’s a lot of interest…’ and I was really happy about my year in Spain, then the foot injury happened. Also, I was supposed to play way earlier than I actually ended up playing because it took so long, nobody could really say how long it takes because it’s a special injury, so mentally it probably the toughest one.
I’ve heard a lot of compliments about you as far as your work ethic and how much you work on your body. I actually heard a story that when you moved to your team in Spain, one of the reasons that really made you sign with them was that was the person who was going to do physical work with you spoke German. Is that right?
MK: [Laughs] Yeah. He helped me a lot. I couldn’t speak Spanish, so it was really important to have somebody who speaks your language. But for me the key was I knew the club always recruits young players, they develop them and send people to the NBA. Also, Moncho [Fernandez] is a super smart coach who can teach you a lot. So actually those were the key points for me to sign with them.
How did you start playing basketball? Was it because Dirk Nowitzki was from your hometown?
MK: I actually started playing because of my brother. I think he was eight and I was six back then. I watched him play all the time, he went with his friends and I couldn’t really play because I was too young. But when I was old enough I finally started. We always watched NBA and the NBA itself was kind of the reason why I very much got into this. The older we got the more we knew about basketball, and then we found out about Nowitzki, what he was doing. When I was eight, Nowitzki was already playing there and of course got pretty big after that.
So your first memories of Dirk Nowitzki are with him playing in the NBA, you don’t have memories of him playing with the local team in Würzburg.
MK: I’ve watched the films from his old games in Germany, but I was too young, I can’t remember actually.
Do you have a relationship with him?
MK: We text each other once in a while but we don’t have really a close friendship just because of the fact we’ve never played together. I wish I could have played with him on the National Team but I never got to do that. I’m really happy that I can play with him in Dallas, I can learn so much from him now. But yeah, I’m from Würzburg, he’s from Würzburg, so it’s going to be special, there’s going to be a good friendship. He’s the king of the city and can really walk outside when he visits and he was my hero when I was young.
So are you going to be a little starstruck when you arrive in Dallas and he’s your teammate?
MK: [Laughs] No, once I step on the court I forget everything. I just think in a way that he can really help me a lot and teach me a lot. I’m not going to be asking for his autograph while we practice.
You’re going to be a 25-year-old rookie. What kind of expectations do you have for your first year?
MK: I know of course about the situation with the rookies over there. I’ll be kind of a rookie when I get there, I know that, but I just want to focus on the game and not what’s happening around. I’m kind of a clown sometimes off the court, making fun, that’s not a problem for me… but I want to focus on the game. The NBA is faster and more athletic, and the individual skills are way higher. I just want to adapt to the NBA game. I work hard every day, I want to prove I can play in the NBA. I just think if you put in the work and do good, you will always have a chance.