If you took Dirk Nowitzki’s word for it at the time, this modern-day reality was once his worst nightmare.It was early April 2013, nearly two years after his Dallas Mavericks won their one and only title and a few weeks shy of a playoff absence that would spark a league-wide debate about whether he’d want to finish his storied career where it had started.
“Now that I already reached my goal (of winning it all), I really want to finish my career in Dallas,” Nowitzki told me at the time. “But saying all that, I don’t want another year next year with the same as this year, (with) the frustration and playing for the eight or nine seed. I think we all know that this is a very big summer for us.”
That summer and beyond, with three first-round bow-outs still yet to come and the annual affair that was the Mavericks’ free agency disappointment, this would become a familiar reprieve. But when Nowitzki scored his 30,000th point on Tuesday, in a 122-111 victory against the Lakers that could help the Mavericks inch closer toward the eighth spot that he once bemoaned and put him up there with Kareem, Karl, Kobe, Michael and Wilt in this elite scoring club, there was a redeeming value to the moment that few saw coming a few years back.
Even with this challenging landscape that he had lamented, with Dallas far from dominant and Nowitzki’s current teammates including an out-of-nowhere point guard named ‘Yogi’ and the other Curry (Seth, not Steph), there was still a joy in Nowitzki’s game that has never wavered.
Nowitzki rose up on that right baseline early in the second quarter, muscling the step back jumper up and over the outstretched reach of the Lakers’ Larry Nance Jr., and the American Airlines Center building that has been his for so long now exploded. Cuban raised his arms in celebration once, then again moments later when Nowitzki added a vintage bit of dramatic flair, and the Mavericks’ owner was dancing like a blissful child. Nowitzki buried a three-pointer from the top – one dribble to the left, re-set the feet and fire away – and found himself engulfed by a mob of teammates at mid-court. That smile that finally came, perhaps as much as the wicked, one-legged step back and the every man persona, is the most memorable element of Nowitzki’s legacy.
“It’s amazing,” Mavericks owner Mark Cuban said via Twitter direct message this week. “Dirk is an icon. He is Dallas basketball. He is global basketball. He is a better person.”
NBA commissioner Adam Silver offered his praise following Nowitzki’s milestone jumper, too.
“Throughout his 19 seasons with the Mavericks, Dirk has been a model player and terrific ambassador for our game. The latest accomplishment further establishes his legacy as one of the NBA’s greatest players.”
When it comes to these latter years, it’s Dirk’s loyalty that Cuban knows has been so rare. At a time when so many NBA stars were taking the impatient route, players like Carmelo Anthony and Dwight Howard chasing rings and rainbows to no avail while seeing their respective images take a hit, Nowitzki hung on in Dallas and hoped the basketball Gods would eventually smile back again.
Never mind that Cuban had busted up their title team, opting not to re-sign Tyson Chandler, Caron Butler and J.J. Barea as a preemptive strike of sorts against the post-lockout landscape (Nowitzki once deemed it the “building on hope” approach). Or that they missed out on Deron Williams in the summer of 2012 (he re-signed in Brooklyn), or Dwight Howard and Chris Paul in 2013 (Houston and the Clippers, respectively).
Nowitzki remained calm, then signed a well-below-market deal in the summer of 2014 (three years, $25 million) that was engineered to give the Mavericks a selfless edge: less money for him, of course, meant more for players to put around him. They inched closer to a return to relevance during the Monta Ellis/Chandler Parsons era, and Tyson Chandler even returned for the 2014-15 campaign in which they went 50-32, but one-and-done became their new norm in the postseason nonetheless. No free agent caused more Mavericks angst, of course, than DeAndre Jordan when he reversed course and re-signed with the Clippers in the summer of 2015.
It was a brutal combination of bad luck and sheer circumstance, the kind of thing that could have easily turned Nowitzki sour on the franchise that brought him their way (via trade with Milwaukee for Robert “Tractor” Traylor) on that draft day in 1998. Instead, his loyalty – which was repaid last summer in the form of a two-year, $50 million deal that he is expected to play out before retiring – never wavered.
The eight-year long partnership with coach Rick Carlisle has played a pivotal part, as Nowitzki has simply never understood why other top-tier players didn’t flock to play for the 57-year-old who is widely considered one of the game’s best. There was another key development along the way, too, one that seems to have changed his perspective: fatherhood.
Nowitzki and his wife, Jessica Ollson, had their daughter, Malaika, just a few months after his first playoff absence in that summer of 2013. Their first son, Max, arrived in March of 2015, and the second, Morris, was born earlier this season. Having kids didn’t lower his professional standards, but it certainly seemed to simplify them. There was, as he explained in early Nov. 2015, a certain satisfaction that came with simply competing – no matter the context.
“Once you play and you move and the competing is there, that will always be fun,” Nowitzki told me on the night that Jordan played in Dallas for the first time since spurning the Mavericks. “But the summers, man. The summers are a beast sometimes. I’m usually in Germany (training), so if I was (in Dallas) working out with four or five guys all summer, that’d probably be easier, but I’m by myself basically, so I’ve got to push myself every day. Get up in the morning, leave the kids and go work out like a maniac for a couple of hours. That’s hard. That’s hard. But the playing will always be fun.”
As good times go, there may still be more ahead.
A playoff berth this season would be a unique accomplishment, especially considering the Mavericks’ turnaround coincides with Nowitzki’s return from his Achilles tendon injury (after starting the season 8-21, they’re 18-15 since). What’s more, with the Mavs having found something with the undrafted Yogi Ferrell (12.2 points, 4.9 assists per game), a productive Seth Curry (12.9 points per game, 43.2% from three-point range), new addition Nerlens Noel and a blossoming Harrison Barnes, there is promise ahead. Maybe their free agency fate changes for the better this summer, and Nowitzki goes out on a high note.
But even it doesn’t turn out that way, if this turns out to be Dirk’s last, best highlight, the beauty of it all is that it’s OK. Nearly two decades later, he has provided many more than most.
“Game 6 (of the 2011 Finals against LeBron James’ Miami Heat),” Cuban wrote, when pressed to pick his favorite among them. “(Nowitzki goes) 1 for 12 (shooting) or so in the first half. We are down by 2. He takes over the second half.”
He finishes with 21 points, 11 rebounds, and one Larry O’Brien trophy.
“Second fave is during the celebration after we won our first playoff series of my tenure in 2001 (in Utah against the Jazz) on a Calvin Booth putback, (and Nowitzki) sprains his ankle in the celebration :)”
The smile, from then until now, has survived.