It’s been a long time since German basketball fans have seen Joe Herber play like this. The German international wingman has blossomed in his new role with Tübingen this season as he hopes to bring Walter Tigers to the playoffs for the first time in their club history – and return to the German national team.
One of Herber’s biggest highlights of his basketball career came on September 12, 2007 when he collected 12 points and six rebounds in helping Germany overcome a lackluster showing by Dirk Nowitzki to beat Italy 67-58 in the quarter-finals of EuroBasket in Spain. That victory kept alive Germany’s dream of reaching the 2008 Olympics.
Of course we know the history of Nowitzki carrying the German black, red and gold at the Opening Ceremony of the 2008 Summer Games in Beijing.
But for Herber, those nights in Spain are a distant memory.
“That’s a really long time ago. It’s a good memory, but that’s about it,” said Herber following Tübingen’s recent loss at Brose Baskets Bamberg.
For Herber, just being on the court against the reigning BBL champions is a minor success story. The 28-year-old entered the 2010-11 season having played a total of 137:05 minutes in 17 games since the 2007 European Championship. And his last appearance was a 2:33 minute showing for Alba Berlin in the semi-finals of the 2009 playoffs against Telekom Baskets Bonn.
What followed Spain for Herber reads like a nightmare for any athlete.
Three games into the 2007-08 season he tore his left ACL. That ended his season and his hopes of playing at the Beijing Olympics. After a contract extension with Alba, Herber finally returned late in the 2008-09 season. And in the training camp for the German national team ahead of the 2009 EuroBasket in Poland, Herber once against tore the ACL of his left knee. And that meant zero minutes of action with Alba in the 2009-10 season.
“It’s really been a tough stretch over the past three years. After the first injury I thought well it happens to almost every athlete. You just have to work hard and come back stronger. Then I came back and I was ready to play but coach didn’t think I was for a whole year which was a really frustrating phase,” said Herber, who averaged just over 7 minutes in 14 games during the 2008-09 campaign.
“And then right in the summer of 2009 when I was really thinking I was getting back into shape and would get my chance with the national team, it happened again. And that was really a blow to my whole confidence and belief in hard work. You grow up and think you just have to work hard and something good is going to happen.”
Herber said he tried to remain up-beat – as much as possible.
“Sometimes it just takes longer. But now I’m back to that thinking again. But there was a time when it was really rough, especially in the fall of 2009 after it happened. I was in rehab and I knew I would probably play again but it was just hard being away from it all. I didn’t have any contact to the Alba team either.”
When asked about the status of his knee now, Herber said it feels great.
“I don’t have any pain or swelling. I had some trouble pushing off on it, and jumping and switching direction. That was the main problem, especially on defense. But I’ve gotten better at it. I’m still not the fastest player but I never really was. I feel good.”
One of the main reasons for his move from Alba to Tübingen in February 2010 was an increase in playing time.
“Personally it’s really great to be back on the court,” admitted Herber.
“That was the point. I really had the chance to come down here and get some minutes. I trusted (head coach) Igor (Perovic) from the start that he would give me the minutes and have confidence in me and not put pressure on me.”
And Herber has not disappointed, averaging 6.9 points, 2.5 rebounds, 2.0 assists and 0.8 steals while averaging more than 25 minutes in 30 games.
“I feel here in Tübingen in this role I can do some more things that I couldn’t do at Alba. Run more pick-and-rolls and be more aggressive on offense.”
Herber admits that he didn’t want to have too high of expectations coming into the season – the first time he was coming into a season healthy since after Spain.
“At the start of the season I really didn’t set any goals for myself. I just wanted to be healthy and play. In the middle of the season I kind of felt I need to step it up a little bit. So I was ready to set some higher goals and got more ambitious again,” said Herber.
“I felt better moving laterally. I had a lot of fouls reaching because I couldn’t stop people on defense in the first half of the season. Now I think I have gotten a lot better. It’s good to play.”
Herber scored 18 points against Ludwigsburg in the fourth game of the season and reached double figures in back-to-back games against Bamberg and Skyliners. But he could not keep the Tigers from dropping to a 7-12 record.
Still, it’s no coincidence that Herber’s best stretch of the season came when Tübingen reeled off six straight victories to jump to 13-12 and right in the thick of the race for the playoffs.
In that six-game span, Herber averaged 10.3 points with four games in double digits scoring, capped off with a 13-point, 9-rebound, 5-assist game in the Tigers’ win at home over Giants Düsseldorf.
When asked about the playoffs following the loss in Bamberg – which dropped Tübingen to 13-13 – Herber said: “It would be awesome. Our six straight wins kept us in the hunt. A while ago we were looking closer to the bottom of the table. So we’re just happy to be in the hunt. It would be great for the team and the club if we could make the playoffs.”
The turn-around came, Herber said, when Tübingen had a week off following their second straight bad loss – losing at home against TBB Trier after losing at Phoenix Hagen.
“We came back after the week off and we were really motivated. We went to Bonn and were down at halftime by 13 points and something happened in the second half. We fought back and stuck together. And ever since it seems we have been more focused. But I think that was the problem in the first part of the season. We weren’t focused collectively. There was always someone straying away – in the wrong position on offense or a missed assignment on defense. But now I think we’re sticking together better, making us a better team,” said Herber.
The Tigers would end up following their six-game winning streak with a five-game losing streak, including games against each of the four Top Four teams – Bamberg, Skyliners, Braunschweig and Artland.
Herber was still confident about the playoffs after the Bamberg loss, though he knew the up-coming stretch would not be easy.
“I think we definitely have a good chance. It’s kind of on us to keep winning. We have some tough road games ahead of us, but also some tough home games. But I think it’s doable. And at some point if you want to make the playoffs you have to win those games.”
While Tübingen appear likely to miss the playoffs now, Herber still has plenty to play for as he hopes to impress German national team boss Dirk Bauermann enough for an invitation to training camp for the crucial 2011 EuroBasket in Lithuania.
Herber said he was talking to Bauermann about possibly taking part in the Germany camp ahead of the 2010 World Championship. But he did not feel he was ready.
“The training camp is pretty intense. I just didn’t feel in shape yet and didn’t have enough trust in my leg to be able to go through the camp and take on the competition.”
What about this summer?
“I’d like to try to take on the competition. I’ve been inconsistent this year at times but I’ve had some good games. Hopefully I’ll get my chance,” said Herber.
“It would just be great to be nominated again. I just think it would all come full circle – just to be among the players to be nominated.”
Herber would once again love to help Dirk Nowitzki and Germany reach the Olympics – this time walking behind him at London 2012 with a healthy left knee.