Inspiration comes in all forms. Dennis Schroder, the Atlanta Hawks' starting point guard, found his in a letter written by a middle-aged white technology firm manager in his hometown, the northern German industrial city of Braunschweig.
The manager: his father, Axel. The letter: a reminder of a conversation they had just a week earlier about what a career in basketball could do for Dennis and the entire family. Dennis, then 16, discovered the one-page letter in the belly drawer of his father's desk one day after Axel was found dead, sitting back on his couch after eating lunch, of heart failure.
"Everything," says Schroder, idly juggling a gold-plated iPhone in his spidery hands as he stares blankly across the Hawks' practice floor, "changed after that."
Up until then, Dennis had been a bit of a wild child. He could spend an entire day at Braunschweig's skatepark, music blaring as he found out how much air he could catch on his board, or on the adjacent outdoor hoops court, trying to master streetball moves he picked up from And1 Mixtapes on YouTube. Or he might play soccer in the park with friends or table tennis at a sports club. Occasionally, he'd even show up for basketball practice. No one could tell him what to do.
After Axel's death and the discovery of the letter, though, Dennis became obsessed with making his father's belief a reality.
"To take him from the park at 10 years old and see him now in the NBA, it's like an Oscar-winning picture," says Liviu Calin, the Romanian-born German coach who first saw Schroder on that outdoor court practicing Hot Sauce's slip-'n'-slide move. "It's like Slumdog Millionaire. This is Dennis. Exactly like that."
The Hawks appear to be the beneficiaries. If there's a reason to believe they can pose any sort of threat to the Cleveland Cavaliers, Schroder is it.
Power forward Paul Millsap is regarded as their best player, Kent Bazemore has developed into a capable slasher and center Dwight Howard's homecoming gives them rim protection they've sorely lacked in losing all eight of their meetings with the Cavs over the last two postseasons, but Schroder offers an ingredient indispensable to knocking off a defending champ: in-your-face fearlessness.
Coming off the bench in the Cavs-Hawks series last spring, he averaged 15.3 points and 4.8 assists in 20 minutes while shooting 47.4 percent from three-point range. In a 110-106 win in Cleveland in November, he had a team-high 28 points—only one fewer than Kyrie Irving, who took 11 more shots.
"He's a very competitive, edgy kid, which works both ways," Hawks head coach Mike Budenholzer says. "But if you're going to bet, he's the kind of kid you bet on.
"He genuinely wants to be great, and he's a competitive, edgy player on a regular basis. Those are the kind of characteristics you want to say, 'All right, he's the guy. We have to give him a chance.' It was just time to take a chance and push the envelope and put a little bit of faith in the locker room and that our culture can put both him and Dwight in a position to be successful on a regular basis."
THE NBA STEREOTYPE of Western European players has long been that they are generally fine fellows, highly skilled, but short on the killer instinct and unwavering nerve necessary to lead a team to a championship. The pop psychology theory is that, unlike players from drug- and gun-scarred U.S. neighborhoods or war-ravaged Eastern Europe, Western Euros have had it easy and are, as a result, soft.
Schroder's German predecessor in the NBA, Dirk Nowitzki, was viewed for years as a tremendous shooter except when it mattered most—in the crucible of a playoff game's final minutes. Same for Spain's Pau Gasol and France's Tony Parker.
Budenholzer, who spent his first 19 NBA seasons with the Euro-friendly San Antonio Spurs, laughed at the thought of Schroder fitting that stereotype.
"He's not built like a lot of the international guys," he says. "He's certainly nothing like anything that came through San Antonio."
Germany hadn't quite seen anything like him, either.
AXEL SCHRODER WAS ON VACATION in Banjul, the capital of West Africa's resort-laden Gambia, headed to a small German restaurant, Berliner, when he walked by a hair salon and spotted one of the stylists, Fatou Njie. A year later, she visited him in Germany on her way to see a sister living in Denmark. Not long after that, Axel convinced Fatou and her two adolescent children to move to Braunschweig. They were soon married and welcoming a son, Dennis.
Growing up as black Muslims in Germany was not easy. Dennis was one of two black kids in his school of some 800 and the only kindergartner, but at least he grew up with German as his first language. His older sister, Awa, and older brother, Che, were eight and five and had to learn German on the fly.
"Kids made jokes," Awa says. "You learn the language. You learn to protect yourself. It got better but not that much. You learn to live with it."
Dennis remembers being ostracized as well.
"I had a white friend, Fabian; we were really close," he says. "We still talk. Went to school 18 years together. But other people would say, 'Look at him. He's black. He's got dirt all over his body.' Stuff like that. When I started to get into basketball, then people didn't say anything. I still knew they didn't like black people, that they thought I'm different than they are. So I just accepted it and went from there."
Fatou taught her children that they would have to go above and beyond to succeed because of their ethnicity.
"I put in them that they had to go over 100 percent," she says. "You have to do more, you have to be better than."
She encouraged Dennis, in particular, to stand out. She was the first to suggest that he dye his entire Afro blonde; Dennis agreed to the patch above his left temple that is his signature.
"Do it so people can recognize you on the street," Fatou told him.
Says Dennis: "Everybody was looking at me crazy. I was, like, 'Yeah, this is what it is.'"
Che took refuge by becoming a star at Braunschweig's Prinz-Albrecht skatepark, earning a clothing and equipment sponsorship from a local shop, Boardjunkies. Dennis soon followed and, at 11, made a name for himself, too.
"We had one gap [at the park] that was pretty high, but no one did it because everybody was older, so everyone was kind of scared," Dennis says. "I was like 11, so I didn't care. Every time when I got to the park, I'd jump it. My brother was older, so he knew it was pretty dangerous. Or if we were somewhere with 12 stairs or steps and everyone was backing down, I'd jump every time. Now, I wouldn't do it. All the stuff I did back in the day, I would never do again."
Che, though, was the one who broke his arm while attempting a trick called a bluntslide in the rain, prompting Fatou—or Agi, the nickname her kids use—to insist her sons compete in something other than skateboarding.
"I still do it," Dennis says. "I've got my skateboard in the car. I'm just not doing all the tricks. It's like a bicycle—I just ride around."
Schroder's swagger was not exactly appreciated by his German basketball coaches. He showed up at his first organized basketball practice in skinny jeans, a windbreaker and Vans.
He was good enough at 14 to be among the 39 players invited to a youth national team training camp, but Schroder says the coach, Frank Menz, now the head coach of Braunschweig's first-division team, was not impressed.
"He said, 'Dennis, you're not going to make it,'" Schroder recalls. "He wasn't talking to me at all through the whole camp, and then at the end he was like, 'You have no future in basketball. Not even in the first league [in Germany].' That's another reason I worked so hard. You can't say that to anybody."
Calin never discouraged him, but he finally told Dennis he couldn't play for him if he wasn't going to show up for practice.
"One week he'd go, next week he wouldn't," Calin says. "He couldn't deal with frustration. He'd scream. If he lost, he was ready to leave the gym. Very strong personality. From the time he was 11 years old, he liked to decide everything—when he went to bed, went to school, went to practice."
Axel and Fatou had an amiable separation, moving into houses a few miles apart. Dennis recalls that it was a Tuesday when Axel didn't show up to fix the Wi-Fi at Fatou's hair salon, Agi's Beauty Shop. That was completely out of character.
"I went to school, but I didn't feel well," he says. "I thought, 'Something must've happened.' I went home, and everybody was in the kitchen. They said, 'Sit down. Your dad passed away.' I was 16. I said, 'That's not true.' I had to go over to his house. I said I wanted to see him. He was still laying there. I had to touch him. That changed my whole life because I told him the week before, 'I'm going to take it serious with basketball.' Because he supported me, too. He was there for my first game. After that happened, I was like, 'I have to get in the gym.'"
He also had to get back on a team. A friend playing for Calin, who was coaching Braunschweig's development team, convinced Calin to give Dennis another chance. Calin took him back but tested his resolve with a basic one-on-one drill: the defender stays on defense until he gets a stop.
"Thirty times in a row he had to stay on defense," Calin recalls. "He cried. But he stayed."
The days of hanging at the skatepark from 10 in the morning until 10 at night were over. Schroder got out of school at 3:45. He had to hustle to catch a bus that took him to the youth team's gym in time for a two-hour practice that started at 5. After that, he'd stick around and jump into another team's practice that lasted until 9. Then he'd play in pickup games from 10 to 11:30 before catching the bus home and collapsing into bed around 1 a.m.
Point guards with Schroder's combination of quickness, size (6'1"), wingspan (6'7"), shooting range (40 percent from three as a second-year pro in Germany) and stifling defense were a rare commodity in Germany, but he still had more critics than advocates because of how he carried himself.
The flashy way he dressed, the blond patch in his hair, the relentless way he challenged teammates and opponents alike overshadowed his developing skills.
"He fought everybody in all forms," Calin says. "The pink cap and red shoes and yellow pants—he's always dressed like that. In practice, he'd defend you 94 feet. He has a strong belief in what he can do. In Germany, they like the stone face. They can't see the talent behind the personality. I thought, 'This guy is better suited to live in America than Germany.' He wants to fight and win every time."
His family did nothing to discourage his combative style.
"My brother told me every day, 'You're something special. There are not a lot of people in Germany who think like you do,'" Dennis says. "They don't say, 'I'm going to win against this guy. I'm going to go at him.' People weren't used to that. They said I was arrogant. I was like, 'I'm not arrogant.' Everybody who knows me from day one to now knows I haven't changed at all."
SCHRODER IS A DISARMING MIX of supreme confidence and genuine awe over where his talent has taken him. He couldn't quite believe the NBA was interested until he saw a scout with a Houston Rockets logo on his shirt in the Braunschweig stands. He was initially incredulous about reports that his draft stock went from the late second round to the late first round after an impressive practice at the Nike Hoops Summit, but he fully believed he was mid-first round-worthy after he outplayed Kentucky's Harrison twins in a game. His eyes widened the first time he shared a practice court with veterans Millsap, Al Horford and Elton Brand, but he became increasingly upset as a rookie over his limited playing time.
"I was like, 'I want to get out of here,'" Schroder says. "I was talking crazy. I was , trying to get on the floor. I was like, 'Man, I'm doing everything to play.' But everybody told me, 'Be patient.' Paul was one of them."
He is also relieved the rumors about a rebuilding project stopped when Kyle Korver was dealt to Cleveland for Mike Dunleavy Jr., Mo Williams and a future first-round pick.
|Highest Field-Goal Percentage in Clutch Situations|
|Player||Team||FG Att.||FG Made||Pct.|
|CJ McCollum||Trail Blazers||16||31||.516|
"It's a big step to be a starting point guard, first of all," Schroder says. "To be honest, I wouldn't know what to do if we didn't have Paul. He's just amazing on and off the court. He brings it every night. Even if he has a bad game, he's helping his teammates, being positive. That's what I learned to do from him."
Schroder's unbridled confidence and hunger to prove himself may not have changed, but how he goes about expressing that confidence and sating that hunger has. If it hadn't, the Hawks would not have taken the sizable leap of faith they did when they traded away an All-Star point guard in Jeff Teague and locked up Schroder with a four-year, $70 million extension in October.
"There was a youth and stubbornness that first year that was—let's just say he was young," Budenholzer says. "There was a lot of growth and maturation from year one to year two, including Dennis the human being. That stood out as much as anything—how much he grew his first year to the second year. He was much more open to his teammates, to being a part of a group, to coaching, to learning from pretty smart, older guys."
And then there was the fearlessness of that 11-year old sailing through the air on a skateboard. Only now it was sailing over two of the best defenders on the league's defending champions, the Spurs. Teague was the starting point guard, while Schroder battled with Shelvin Mack for backup minutes. Mack missed all three of his shots in the first half in San Antonio, prompting Budenholzer to tell Schroder at halftime to stay ready.
He scored nine points in eight minutes, the last of them on a drive and dunk he finished between Kawhi Leonard and Tim Duncan and followed with an impudent stare at Leonard.
"He just crushed it, and we were like, 'Whoa, f--k!'" Budenholzer recalls.
Says Schroder: "That's when I thought, I can do this."
Not all the rough edges have been filed down. There have been times this season when Schroder has appeared to be angry with everyone on the court—his four teammates included.
"He's coming into new money, a new position. There's a lot on his plate," Howard says. "I know where he's at. I've been through that stuff. I just try to let him know I have his back."
Millsap understands Schroder is a work in progress as well, but one worth completing.
"We need him to be aggressive, but within that you have to play the game and learn how to control your emotions," Millsap says. "But that's why you have teammates. We've got to help him out with that."
THE WILD-CHILD REPUTATION off the court remains. He is obsessed with gold, having adorned one of his two Audis with a wrap that makes it appear to be a 24-karat gold bar on wheels. (The other is wrapped in camouflage, a color scheme he also used for the Lamborghini he also owns.) One rival Eastern Conference executive insists Schroder is a party animal. Schroder did open his own night club, DS17 Lounge, where he has been known to hang out late and smoke a hookah now and then, but he says he has never had a drop of alcohol and does not do drugs. Told of Schroder's proclamation, the executive rolled his eyes.
However he is spending his free time, Schroder is making the Hawks look prescient for dealing Teague to the Pacers for a first-round pick that turned out to be Taurean Prince and signing him to a deal that is starting to look like a bargain. He still puts in extra work after practice as if he were trying to earn an extension. His shooting percentages overall (46.2) and beyond the arc (36.5) are career highs, and along with his work at the free-throw work line (82.4 percent) all rank in the top 20 among point guards.
He has not forgotten, though, the man who handmade him a one-of-a-kind bright green bicycle with a fat car tire in the rear, a low-slung banana seat and high handlebars. Or the promise he made to that man and the letter that asked him to keep it.
Che is asked if he knows where Axel's letter is now.
"Dennis has it," Che says. Then he taps his chest. "Here."
Ric Bucher covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @RicBucher.