When I was a 7th grade hoopster with big dreams, I wrote a letter to Dirk Nowitzki. It was preluded by an assignment and a problem. The assignment was vague; a two-page report about a famous person that I looked up to. I, being the devout young fan I was, chose the 7-foot German cornerstone of the Dallas Mavericks. The report was adequate and drew from questionable Internet sources that gave details about Dirk’s childhood and off the court life. In itself, it was unremarkable. Not even my best adolescent work. It would have been easily forgotten had it not been coupled with a problem.
The problem was eligibility. The UIL, the governing sports entity of Texas, requires student athletes pass all of their classes with a minimum average of a 70. This proved to be a struggle for many of my teammates and the effect on our depth chart was devastating. It was so bad that I was promoted from scrappy off-the-bench defender to starting point guard despite a complete lack of ball handling ability and offensive acumen.
We lost a lot of games with me at the point. I was in over my head and we needed help. I decided to turn to the closest thing I had to a basketball deity, Dirk Werner Nowitzki. Upon my teacher’s suggestion to contact him, I sent him a three-page letter outlining our dilemma and pleading for some intervention. We lived three hours from Dallas and it was in the middle of the NBA season, so my parents and teachers made sure to temper my enthusiasm and tell me not to expect a response. But I was young and filled with ideals and I would hear none of it. I knew an answer was coming. I believed in it.
A few weeks went by until a letter arrived in the mail. It was typed on fancy Maverick stationary and was autographed by Dirk Nowitzki in black marker at the bottom. It was addressed to my classmates and me, and the principal read it over the PA system at school that day. It was one of the proudest days of my life. The next grading cycle, our team was restored. Everyone managed to pass their courses and I was able to resume my proper role as a high-energy role player.
I was just five years old when Dirk made his debut with the Mavericks. I have never known a Dirk-less NBA. The man has been an institution throughout my life, the sole constant in a sea of roster turnover and falls from grace. He is the only icon of my youth that remains active and untainted. Sammy Sosa, Mark McGwire and seemingly the entire sport of baseball turned out to be fueled by steroids and HGH. Ray Lewis may or may not have murdered a man during the Super Bowl in Atlanta. Heck, even the cancer surviving golden boy of cycling, Lance Armstrong, wound up being a fraud and overall terrible person.
The truth is that athletes aren’t role models. Charles Barkley was right to point that out. Ray Rice did a pretty good job illustrating his point this summer. Athletes are just human beings that happen to be really good at a specific task the world is willing to pay to watch. Fans are often placed in a moral dilemma when their hometown hero gets caught committing misdeeds.
Dirk has never done that to Dallas fans. His lone blemish being the Cristal Taylor scandal, where his one time fiancé turned out to be convicted for theft and forgery committed under various aliases. But who among us hasn’t dated someone who could have been a felon? He was conned by a con artist. If anything, it seemed to just make him more relatable.
It’s very easy to take Dirk for granted, but that would be a travesty. His consistency and overall lack of controversy throughout the past decade and a half make it easy to overlook his exploits. The only one in the NBA who can rival him in those two categories is Tim Duncan, the human equivalent of an oversized beige polo shirt who happens to be great at basketball. The only thing anyone ever said about the Dirk was that he couldn’t win the big one. The Mavericks fell apart in the 2006 Finals. They were upset the following year by Don Nelson and the eighth seeded “We Believe” Warriors. For a while, it seemed like there may be some truth to the claim that he couldn’t take home the title, but then he did in 2011. More fittingly, he did it against a team that was heavily favored and had big plans of winning not one, not two, not three, but a lot of championships.
After that, Mark Cuban opted to let the supporting cast dissolve. Key pieces Jason Terry and Tyson Chandler were allowed to walk in order to clear room for a superstar that never came. The plan was to build a team where Dirk could be a complimentary piece, the wise old vet handing the keys over the new guard. Dirk was Obi Wan, and the plan was to find him a Luke.
But maybe that was the wrong metaphor. This team is very much so Dirk’s team and there’s some poetry in that. Dirk has never won by himself, but for the bulk of his career he’s done it without the help of a bonafide hall of fame running buddy. He never had a Scottie Pippen; there was no Stockton as Malone had, no Magic and Kareem. Sure, Nowitzki had Steve Nash and Michael Finley for a while, but they were all stars, not superstars during their shared tenure. He also spent time with sure-fire future hall of famer Jason Kidd and, more recently, Vince Carter. But no one would ever mistake the Dallas version of those players with the athletes that terrorized the Eastern Conference in their prime.
Maybe Dirk is much more like a pirate captain, conducting harrowing raids with his crew on opposing defenses. The Mavericks are the Dirty Dozen and Dirk their Lee Marvin. He works his real magic with characters like Terry and Monta Ellis, the NBA’s version of vagabond gunslingers, spreading the floor and demanding the attention of the defense. Players like Ellis who excel at finishing at the basket and handling the rock benefit immensely from Dirk’s ability to run the pick and roll. JJ Barea managed to turn a postseason’s worth of pick and roll penetrations into a four year, $18 million contract with a Timberwolves team already chalked full of point guards.
Dirk is also one of the NBA’s best passing big men along with Joakim Noah and the Gasol brothers. His ability to kick out of double teams and find the open man is invaluable. It’s also why spot up shooters like Terry experience a bump in field goal (+0.084 increase) and 3 point percentage (+0.073) their first year in Dallas. Dirk is one of the few non-point guards who can claim to make everyone on offense better. The Mavericks all time offensive rating with Dirk on the court is 112.4, three points higher than last year’s league leaders, the Los Angeles Clippers.
There will never be another Dirk Nowitzki. To an extent, this is true for any player, but there are players that come into the league and create something entirely new. Dirk did that with the stretch four position, an NBA niche previously uncarved that now constitutes common practice. Seven footers historically did their damage close to the basket, where physics demands that the tall are more suited for survival. Seven footers weren’t supposed to shoot, and when they did it was a novelty. Don Nelson and Dirk turned it into a weapon.
There are only so many ways to get a ball into a hoop. One could easily assume that all effective variations of that task have long been established. But signature shots have emerged throughout the league’s history. Kareem Abdul-Jabar and the Sky Hook. Hakeem Olajuwan and the Dream Shake. Michael Jordan and the things he was able to do once his feet left the ground. Dirk’s iconic one-legged fade away lacks the grace of the aforementioned signature shots, but it holds up in terms of effectiveness. The new guard of NBA superstars, led by Kevin Durant, has confessed openly to attempting to emulate it, but only few will ever be able to.
Only nine players in the history of the league have scored more points than Dirk. Only one of them has done it all with the same team (Kobe). Throughout my time as a Mavericks fan, I’ve got to experience something few fans have: a superstar that stays and stays no matter what. LeBron is back home in Cleveland, but I’m sure thinking about him winning two titles in Miami is still heartbreaking to Cavalier fans. Even Boston had to say goodbye to Paul Pierce, a staple of the franchise since entering the league the same year as Dirk.
The two exceptions are what Spurs fans have had with their core of Duncan, Parker and Ginobili and what the Lakers have had with Kobe. Dwayne Wade has a chance to do that in Miami, but that’s yet to be seen. Dirk has reflected the commitment that the franchise and ownership have made to him, and that’s rare. That commitment cumulated in his willingness to take a pay cut in the off-season to let Dallas steal Chandler Parsons from division rival Houston.
Dirk is 36 years old and while it is foolish to assume that his body is going to fall apart at any moment, it’s equally unreasonable to assume that he’ll play forever. Since signing with the Lakers at age 38, Steve Nash has played in a total of 65 games over the past two seasons. This year he won’t play a single game, due to a nerve root injury in his back. Bryant, aged 36 and Nash’s theoretical backcourt mate in an injury free world, missed almost all of last season with two devastating injuries. Kobe Bryant is a creature held together by competitive fire and a general disdain for all competition and, while I would never count him out, to what extent he can come back and return to form is yet to be seen.
There will come a day when the number 41 will be found hanging from the rafters at American Airline Center, where it used to grace the hardwood below. That might sound melodramatic, and truthfully it is, but it’s also accurate. This year’s squad is one of the most intriguing ever to be assembled under the Maverick banner. They have firepower, a healthy mix of youth and experience, and they carry many a chip upon their collective shoulders. They’re hungry and led by one of the best developers and in-game adjusters in the league in head coach Rick Carlisle. The cast has been assembled and what they can accomplish is yet to be seen. But no matter what happens, it’s safe to assume that whatever comes next will have a lot to do with their franchise cornerstone, Dirk Werner Nowitzki. In truth, it always has.