By Zach Naidu
Not going to lie, this sucks.
Dallas Mavericks’ legend Dirk Nowitzki is likely playing his final two career games within the next 48 hours – with his home finale tonight against the Phoenix Suns.
“Impending retirement” provides an insufficient phrase to describe the waning days of Dirk Werner Nowitzki’s decorated career. Dirk has meant so much to me, many of my childhood friends and the entire city of Dallas for a multitude of reasons, making it rather challenging to chronicle the illustrious career of The German Wunderkind from the eyes of one of his most fervent supporters.
Writing this column is hard. It would be like if someone asked you to write no more than a few pages about the best memories of the last 15 years of your life – and gave you a deadline.
To begin, I want to touch on Dirk’s impressive statistical achievements: a necessary component to any player earning the classification as a “legend.”
In NBA history, Dirk is top 10 in the following categories: Points, seasons played, games played, All-NBA selections, All-Star game appearances, free throws made and wins. Moreover, there are only five players in NBA history who attained status as 10-time All-Stars, regular season MVP and Finals MVP: Bird, Jordan, Kobe, Magic Johnson and Dirk. In addition, Dirk is one of only seven players to eclipse 30,000 career points – sitting at number six all-time – and is the only player in NBA history to play 21 seasons with one team. While there is a slim possibility of Dirk returning for a 22nd, the highly-likely scenario involves Dirk concluding his career by the end of the week.
There are many talented NBA players every decade. But only a handful reach All-Star status and a much smaller contingent of those players are dominant enough to lead a team to a championship. But even among those players, there exists only so many who impact the game in a way that endures long after they make their last basket. Dirk’s one-legged fadeaway did just that. The most unguardable shot in the league since Kareem’s skyhook terrorized the Celtics is emulated by the likes of Kevin Durant and LeBron James today.
However, Dirk’s impressive accolades and invention of the one-legged fadeaway only scratch the surface of why he means so much to Dallas. His full value to the city is largely rooted in the origins of his tenure, and the Maverick’s franchise narrative before it acquired him in a draft-day trade with Milwaukee with the ninth overall pick.
Dirk arrived in 1998 as a lanky, raw European unknown who had stunned Americans at the 1998 Nike Hoop Summit. While the Dallas Cowboys were cementing their status as “America’s Team” in the 1990s with three Super Bowls, the Mavericks were busy riding the Ferris wheel of atrocity, missing the post season eight straight years with an astounding level of incompetence – eclipsing 28 wins just once, and posting an infamous 11-71 record in 1993.
Five years after that dismal 1993 season, Dirk’s career began quite inauspiciously in 1998 as he struggled in his rookie year – a condensed 50 game season in which he averaged less than 10 points per game. It was a season during which he questioned whether or not he belonged in the NBA. But Dallas was in no rush to see if Dirk would realize his potential. After the sub-par rookie year, he took off in year two – doubling his scoring average –achieving full-fledged All-Star status by year four.
People now often forget or aren’t even aware of the fact Dirk was more ridiculed than lauded for the majority of his career and well into his prime despite sustained success.
In 2006 the Mavericks blew a 2-0 series lead against the Miami Heat, and in 2007, despite Dirk taking home the regular season MVP award, he and the Mavericks infamously became the first number one seed to lose a best-of-seven series in the first round to the eighth-seeded Warriors. Those were two of the lowest points of my childhood.
For almost a decade now though, Dirk has cemented himself as a first-ballot hall of famer, largely driven by his ousting of the reviled Miami Heat in 2011. During that championship run, Dirk is remembered for his one-man expedition of vanquishing his playoff demons and beating a star-laden Miami Heat squad that featured LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh.
A lot of time has passed since that memorable championship, which has given fans time to truly soak in Dirk’s greatness each year as the end draws closer.
When I think about Dirk’s retirement below the surface level, perhaps initially summing up the words to write about something I always knew would happen is so hard because I never really accepted it would happen. When something has been the way it is for as long as you’ve been alive, it’s pretty hard to fathom that ever changing.
Grass is green.
The sky is blue.
Dirk plays for the Mavs.
And yet there’s the beauty in Dirk’s career. For such a long time, while MVP candidates and perennial All-Stars were jumping from team to team throughout the late 2000s and into the current decade, Dirk prospered as a stalwart pillar of success and excellence for Dallas and the entire NBA.
There’s a very big part of me that wants to ramble on and on and on and on about how Dirk wasn’t appreciated for the majority of his career. A part that wants to cite the many things people had wrong about Dirk – most notably that he was just another “soft” European player who would never achieve all-time great status.
But a column with such accusatory, vindictive or — above all else — petty rhetoric would be the antithesis of the very legend I want to laud.
Dirk is humble and — above all — loyal.
Dirk, you have no idea what you have done for me and numerous other Mavericks fans. You instilled in me an unfettered, borderline bewildering love and passion for a game I haven’t played competitively since the seventh grade.
Next to being accepted into college and graduating high school, the day you clinched the city’s first basketball championship in 2011 stands as one of the most memorable highlights of my childhood.
I sobbed, I cried, I rejoiced when you held that trophy. Not just because my team had won but because you stuck by the city that stuck by you when you had a rough going to start your career, a loyalty seldomly displayed in today’s sports realm.
I will miss seeing plays of you powering your way to the basket with your tongue sticking out. I will miss your “Euro-style” celebration of three pointers – your arms stretched straight in the air with your thumb, pointer and middle finger extended. And of course, I will miss that one-legged fadeaway.
When you lace it up for the last time, be it tonight, tomorrow or next year, I will almost assuredly cry again. Cry from joy, sadness and appreciation.
On behalf of every Mavericks fan of the past two decades, thank you, Dirk.
Contact Zach Naidu at znaidu ‘at’ stanford.edu.