When the Mavericks won the NBA Championship in 2011, I was in a state of euphoria that lasted for maybe six months. It was a Sports High that I had never experienced previously and probably will never experience again. At some point in the hours following the final buzzer, Lindsey jokingly said to me, “You are insane right now. I think you’re happier now than you were when we got married.” I smiled sheepishly and replied, “Well…I mean…I’ve known Dirk longer.”
I cannot in good faith recommend that line of logic to any young (or old) men looking for marriage advice but there is a bit of truth to our exchange. I attended my first Mavs game in 1991 and fell in love with both the team and the game. My unbridled admiration was repaid with a decade of Mavericks basketball that was like something out of a Sports Nightmare. 11 wins (out of 82) the first season, 13 (again, out of 82; this is very not good, if you’re wondering) the following season, the devastating trade of my favorite player (Derek Harper), a hint of light in the form of Jason Kidd and the Three J’s in 1995 that was quickly dashed out by a feud involving Toni Braxton (she did NOT unbreak my heart), etc. The mid-to-late 90’s were mostly made up of bad basketball, embarrassing facilities, and a revolving door of stiff white guys who seemed to relish every opportunity to get dunked on by the rest of the league while Young Brian looked on in horror and disgust. It was all very, very bad and I watched or listened to every single game, pleading for a team that was merely competent if not actually good.
I was 15 when the Mavericks drafted a skinny white dude from Germany, and I was furious. If there was anything worse than a tall white basketball player, it was a tall white basketball player from EUROPE. Just one time I wanted to root for someone who had actual skill and athleticism, someone who was tough, someone who could maybe be the dunker instead of the dunkee every once in a while. I didn’t hate Dirk Nowitzki; if anything, I pitied him. He was very clearly not prepared for life in the NBA and the Mavs’ coach and GM, Don Nelson, kept touting him as a future great. It was embarrassing, really, and worse, it felt like Dirk was embarrassed, too. Like when you’re eight and your parents want you to sing in front of a group of adults and you know you’re really not that good of a singer in the first place and why do these random adults want to hear you sing about the state bird of Texas or something, anyway. That’s how Dirk looked on the floor.
At the end of that first season, you could begin to see, if you squinted your eyes really, really hard, an actual basketball player somewhere in there. Not necessarily a good basketball player and certainly not a future great like Nelson predicted; but just a solid, competent basketball player. “That would be something,” I thought. “If he could just be, like, a decent role player, that would salvage something out of this draft pick.” And then he went home to Germany and hung out with his savant coach, Holger, and he worked. his. butt. off. The next season, he was, almost unbelievably, a good basketball player! And then he went home to Germany and he hung out with Holger and he worked. his. butt. off. The next season, he was one of the 15 best players in the league and the Mavs won a playoff series for the first time in over a decade. And then he went home to…You get the picture. Every season, Dirk Nowitzki came back from the offseason a better player and a stronger man, physically and mentally, ready to take on whatever the NBA had to throw at him. His work ethic is the stuff of legends in NBA circles. He became a top-five player. He won the MVP award. He battled with some of the best players the NBA has ever seen spanning two (and maybe even three) generations. And he won a championship in the most unlikely fashion imaginable.
There were many things I didn’t know about Dirk Nowitzki when his rookie season ended in 1999. I didn’t know how much joy he would bring me over the next 20 years. I didn’t know about his brilliant, dry, self-deprecating sense of humor. I didn’t know how incredibly hard he worked. I didn’t know that he would lead my favorite team, a truly cursed franchise, to unbelievable heights and nearly unparalleled long-term success. I didn’t know how angry I would get when someone, anyone, disrespected him or his legacy. I didn’t know that by the end of it all, he would stand amongst the very best of all the players to ever pick up a basketball by virtually every statistical and anecdotal standard known to man. I didn’t know that he would someday strap his team, the organization, the city, and the fans to his back and almost single-handedly carry us all to Basketball Glory. I didn’t know I would spend the week surrounding his retirement in a constant state of tears-or-almost-tears. I didn’t know that 21 years after that first game, I’d be making my son watch an old man limp up and down the court in hopes that he would retain some memory of seeing him play.
There have been so, so many great things written and said about Dirk over the last few days. (This piece from The Ringer is great, this video that fronted the TV coverage of the final home game absolutely gutted me, and this video brought Dirk to tears in the arena on Tuesday. Also, this and this and this and this and this.) Likewise, there are thousands of stories I would like to include here and in fact, I have written and cut out many, many words from this piece and tucked them away into a file I’ll definitely open someday when I definitely write that book about basketball I am definitely going to write. In the interest of time, I want to touch on two points that have come up frequently in the Dirk coverage.
One, during the post-game ceremony on Tuesday night - which saw Dirk surprised by the arrival of his five basketball heroes - both Charles Barkley and Larry Bird referenced their respect for Dirk because he, “Played the game the right way.” The aforementioned work ethic. The fierce, fierce competitiveness and intensity that burned through him on the court. The 80-odd million dollars he left on the table over the years in order to give the team a chance to bring in free agents, rather than demanding the very last dollar he was entitled to in each contract negotiation. The fact that, as has been the source of much celebration this week, he played with one team his entire career, riding the roller coaster that is professional sports in the ups and the downs and providing a source of stability in a world that rarely sees it. The consistency with which he made the right decision, the right play, over and over again with no regard to his own ego or statistics. (Even on Tuesday, during his swan song, with the crowd going INSANE every time he touched the ball, multiple times he passed up difficult shots because it was the right basketball play.) There’s a humility to Dirk that almost doesn’t exist within professional athletes and it flows through everything he does on the court and off. That stuff is contagious and it’s why you can scarcely find a player with anything bad to say about Dirk, it’s why the Mavericks were able to take in players with bad reputations and “fix” them multiple times over the years, it’s why all-time legends like Bird and Barkley will come out for his last game and laud him effusively.
The second thing that’s been a great point of emphasis is the connection between Dirk and the city of Dallas. In the video I linked above, Mark Followill (the Mavs’ play-by-play broadcaster for the last 19 years) mentions the sense that permeated the Metroplex during the epic run of 2011 that we wanted the Mavs to win, of course, because this was our team, but also, and maybe even more importantly, because we wanted it for Dirk. I had kind of forgotten about that in the years since 2011 until this week and it hit home while watching that video. There was this bond between us all, a shared sentiment, that our experience, our happiness, was less important than Dirk’s or maybe that our prospective happiness was tied into Dirk’s happiness. You almost couldn’t talk about the Mavs and their pursuit of the championship in 2011 without someone (or everyone) saying something like, “I just want Dirk to win a ring. That guy deserves it.” That feeling has only grown in the post-championship years. We feel this way because he’s played the game the right way and because, whereas some superstars shirk responsibility while simultaneously seeking recognition, Dirk has always operated in the exact opposite fashion: He’s actively gone out and sought the pressure that comes with carrying a team and a city and a fanbase while never making it about himself. Add to that his openness off the court, his willingness to do stupid bits for in-arena videos, his charity work, his unprecedented loyalty to a team, even when, frankly, the team did not deserve his loyalty, the kindness that he willingly shows to his fans (especially kids), and the genuineness with which he has carried himself from the beginning. What you see with Dirk is who Dirk is and because he’s shared that with us, we’ve embraced him in a way that is almost entirely unique in this era of sports. I hope you can understand how rare that is, even if you don’t know a thing about sport.
My generation and I are the luckiest of all Mavs fans. I have quite literally grown up with Dirk Nowitzki and watched him grow up as well. I got a long, terrible taste of what it was like to root for the Mavs pre-Dirk and then rode along with him for 21 years, 1500 games, 15 playoff appearances, and one glorious, perfect championship. He IS Dallas to me and I’m far from alone in that sentiment. It is highly unlikely that any team will ever have THIS, this feeling, this moment, this experience, again, let alone the Mavs. And even still, even with the sense that it’s likely all downhill from here, we should consider ourselves among the luckiest of sports fans.
Thank you, Dirk. Thank you for teaching me about hard work. Thank you for providing stability for a franchise that desperately needed it. Thank you for being the rare athlete with an actual sense of humor. Thank you for over 31,000 points and 1,000 wins. Thank you for being Uncle Dirk to hundreds of sick kids and their families. Thank you for playing with unbelievable intensity that almost never boiled over into hostility. Thank you for sticking around long enough for my son to know your name. Thank you for 2011.