Some promises are obligations in disguise.
Dennis Schroder had barely turned 16 and was still more than 4,000 miles and a good four years away from knowing squat about the NBA life.
Still, he announced: Dad, I promise you I’m going play among LeBron and Dwyane and, yes, Dirk, one day.
He was just a skinny kid trying out for the German National team, and out popped this brazen vow. He was an accidental basketball player — discovered by chance at age 11 during a rainy day at Braunschweig’s Prinzenpark, when a youth coach suggested he put down the skateboard and come inside the dry gym. And all of a sudden he was measuring himself for the ultimate league.
Less than a month later, Axel Schroder, who worked for the engineering company Siemens, was dead of a heart attack. There never would be a chance to amend the promise, or gradually walk it back. What other choice did Schroder have but to follow through?
“Everything changed. I was going to be on time (for practice) and do everything right. It’s a sad story that my father died, but it’s also a good story that he would be proud of me now,” the Hawks second-year point guard said, all of 21 years old now.
“That made it all serious,” Schroder’s mother, Fatou, said.
Some promises are at first only well-informed guesses.
The highly speculative nature of every draft was spelled out in great detail with the Hawks’ first selection of 2013. With the 17th overall pick, the team took a wispy guard from the German Bundesliga, a teenager who had shown up some other teens at a Nike Hoops summit just two months before.
What kind of European penny-stock was this pick? We’d have to take the word of the Hawks brass that this selection — built along the lines of a Slim Jim — had the potential to run Mike Budenholzer’s clockwork offense. And the word coming out of that particular boardroom had been spotty through the years.
When Schroder did show up on this continent, the only thing distinctive about him was a square of gold dyed into his dark hair. It certainly set him apart, which was his mother’s idea from the beginning. In Germany, she used to run a hair salon, and it was her vision to color Dennis entirely blond. He balked. The unique spot treatment was the product of intense negotiation and compromise.
In Schroder’s rookie season, promise was about all he had going for him. Budenholzer trusted him about as much as an 18-handicapper trusts his swing. Schroder scarcely saw the floor, even serving some penance in the developmental league. It was a debut written completely in lower case, punctuated entirely by question marks.
“I think last year was a big shock for him,” Hawks guard Kyle Korver said. “When I talked to him this summer, before he said anything else he said, ‘It’s going to be different this year. I’m going to be different this year.’
“And he has been.”
Some promises are sacred.
Within the crowded schedule of a NBA season, it can be difficult to get away for the five-times-daily prayer required of Schroder’s Muslim faith. But he manages because there are certain responsibilities that rise above the convenient excuse.
The interconnected strands of his family and his religion make up the dominant backdrop of life away from the court. His father was German, his mother from Gambia, and their union produced five tightly bound children. “Family over everything,” reads a tattoo on Schroder’s right arm.
After all, it was older brother Cheyassin who, after breaking his arm skateboarding, practically twisted young Dennis’ arm to consider a different tack. Dennis’ boyhood was all about soccer and then about sailing the sidewalks on a skateboard. Convincing a pre-teen far more likely to idolize Tony Hawk than Tony Parker to spend more time in the gym with that insistent youth coach was no simple task.
Then once the basketball took over, and Schroder went pro at the age American players are picking out their prom tux, his family never was far away. Between visits from his mother or his siblings, even now in Atlanta, he is seldom disconnected from relatives.
“The reason I came so far, I had everybody behind me,” he said.
Another benefit of Schroder’s upbringing is a strong sense of sobriety. As part of his religious observance, Schroder said he never has tasted alcohol. His father used to tell him that he could try it at 16, but he didn’t feel the need to use that exemption.
Given the NBA high life, surely that is going to be a most difficult streak to maintain.
“No,” Schroder said, “I want to keep building on that. I don’t want to let that go.”
When the promise-keeping starts to come together, it can be a sight to behold.
In the past month, we have witnessed Schoder deliver on multiple evenings. Jeff Teague was out four games with an injury in December, and with Schoder in his place, the Hawks went 4-0.
He made one memorable drive past Dirk Nowitzki, then immediately pounced on a careless inbounds pass from his famed countryman and stuck the short jumper.
The biggest ah-ha moment may have been blowing by LeBron James in Cleveland two weeks ago. “Everybody tweeted me that that I passed LeBron and went for the layup. It’s a great feeling, but at the end of the day it’s two points. And we won. That’s what matters,” Schroder said with unforced modesty.
It’s a little easier now that he’s averaging better than eight points per game to remember that his name is pronounced “SHROO-der” — rhymes with shooter.
Even if his slight build may put him at a physical disadvantage down low against bigger guards, Schroder compensates by being an end-to-end pest. He is quicker than an Internet rumor. “That what I try to work on — every game bother the point guard,” he said.
Some say the difference in Schroder this season is an added dose of confidence. Although his coach, who now is letting him see the floor an average of 18 minutes per night, may disagree slightly. “One of the things that makes him unique,” Budenholzer said, “is how confident he is. Even last year he was unbelievably confident.”
A growing comfort, maybe, is the better way to put it. “A much higher level of understanding,” Budenzholzer said.
“He has natural abilities and he has the desire to be great. He has the desire to win the point-guard matchup every night no matter who he’s against,” Korver said.
Added the 11-year vet: “He’s still a young guy, there are going to be ups and downs. We have to stay patient with him. We all see the potential in him, what he can be one day.”
There are promises still to fulfill.
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