BERLIN Dirk Nowitzki has been chasing an Olympic dream since he was a 10-year-old boy and has not lost sight of his ambition even though he is now one of the top players in the NBA.
"I love playing basketball and I love playing for my country," Nowitzki told Reuters ahead of a pre-Olympic qualifying tournament when asked why he gives up his off-season vacations and plays his heart out for Germany.
"The Olympics are simply the greatest thing there is for any athlete," he added. "I already get goose bumps just thinking about what it'd be like walking into the opening ceremony with the Germany team. It'd be the icing on the cake for me."
The Nowitzki-led team missed qualifying for the 2000 Games in Sydney and, even though they got a bronze medal at the 2002 world championships, narrowly failed to qualify again for the 2004 Games in Athens.
Germany missed the chance to qualify earlier for the 2008 Olympics by finishing fifth in the 2007 European championships and will be chasing one of three Olympic berths still open at a 12-team qualifying tournament in Athens from July 14-20.
Nowitzki, who became the first foreigner to win the NBA's Most Valuable Player award (2006-07) and has helped to make the Dallas Mavericks perennial NBA title contenders, has spent the last two weeks training hard with the German national team.
He is optimistic Germany will finally qualify this time.
"I'm 30 years old -- I don't have a lot of chances left," he said after leading Germany with 21 points to a 92-70 win over Poland in a pre-tournament warm-up match in Berlin on Monday.
Germany looked sharp with Nowitzki in fine form. They also appear to be stronger all around and less reliant, at least in recent friendlies, on their towering NBA player than in the past.
"We've got a great camaraderie on the team and had some fantastic successes," said Nowitzki, more than happy to be out of the spotlight and part of a more balanced attack.
"You can't beat five other player with one player," said the 2.13-metre tall Nowitzki who has earned 112 caps in 11 years for Germany.
He first saw the Olympics on television, watching the 1988 Seoul Games.
"I've been watching the Olympics on TV ever since I can remember," he said. "The opening ceremony, the Olympic flame, the whole thing just fascinates me.
"It's got to be a once-in-a-lifetime feeling to live together with the best from around the world in the Olympic village and getting to know people from different sports."
The tragedy for Nowitzki has been that Germany's best seasons came in the wrong years, when they peaked too early to qualify.
They got third at the 2002 world championships, second at the 2005 European championships and fourth in Europe in 2001. But they failed to qualify for the 2000 and 2004 Olympics after poor European campaigns -- seventh in 1999 and ninth in 2003.
Nowitzki, eager to change all that this year, said he enjoys the more relaxed attitude to patriotism that has changed the country since the 2006 World Cup tournament that Germany hosted.
"It's really a privilege for me to play for Germany and I'm proud to be part of it, to hear the national anthem and to sing along with it," said Nowitzki. "It's a wonderful thing that Germany has become more relaxed about all that than before.
"What's wrong about waving a German flag out of sheer joy?"
He shrugs off the criticism from some that toiling for Germany in the off-season might hurt his performance in the NBA.
"Playing for Germany has actually helped me a lot more than it might possibly have hurt me," he said.
Nowitzki also politely disagreed with Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, who was quoted in the Dallas Morning News as saying he did not believe Olympic-bound NBA players were motivated by patriotism but by money.
"I can understand Mark doesn't like to see his players playing for their national teams in the summer due to the risk of injury," said Nowitzki, whose insurance for Germany matches is paid for by the German basketball federation.
"But to his credit he has always let me play. Mark knows how much I enjoy playing for my country and that the Olympics has been my dream. It has nothing to do with money."
(Editing by Clare Fallon)