Shedding the Labels

By Josh Eberley #41

“As you guys might expect, this is my last home game,” said Dirk Nowitzki following the Mavericks victory over the Suns last Tuesday.

Nowitzki seemingly spoke off the cuff, totally unfiltered, and the words didn’t appear to come easy. It has been 21 years but that didn’t make the realization any easier for him or his captivated and heartbroken fans. This was the final farewell.

His rival, Dwyane Wade, handled everything so differently. Fans knew; peers, coaches, and media members knew the end was here and they acted accordingly once Wade announced that the 2018-19 would be dubbed #OneLastDance. There was no guessing game, no hope for tomorrow.

In earnest, the masses didn’t know how to differentiate the goodbyes to Nowitzki and Wade. Through their desire honor the Baller from the G, an awkward situation arose.

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The League was pushing; every kind gesture, in-arena tribute, penned dedication to his legacy and heartfelt quote from a peer was indirectly a small nudge towards the door.

Nowitzki never said this was his last year, on the contrary, many times this season it appeared as if a 22nd campaign was possible, if not probable.

The lack of clarity around Nowitzki’s future and the fact that the overall situation in Dallas seemed to be improving with the drafting of young star Luka Doncic and the trade for promising Kristaps Porzingis led many to believe Nowitzki would be back for one more run, to officially pass the baton. I was certainly fooled and it made the sting of his departure that much more poignant.

In February 2016, Sports Illustrated’s Chris Ballard chronicled the career of Nowitzki, and among the highlights was this paragraph outlining how Nowitzki thought it would all end:

“Unlike Bryant, Nowitzki has no interest in a farewell tour. “I don’t want people to high-five me everywhere I go or make this a big deal about me,” he said. “What [Derek] Jeter did or what the closer, Mariano Rivera, did—every ballpark you get some gifts, you know, sausages in Milwaukee?” Nowitzki shook his head, shifting onto one elbow. “No chance I’d ever do that. I’m not the guy who will say, ‘This is my last year.’ ” He paused. “When I’m gone, I’m gone.””

An admirable sentiment that he lived out in confidence. Not once did Nowitzki ask to be worshiped or celebrated this season. He kept his head down and tried to contribute in a meaningful way despite the best years of his career long gone. That’s just the kind of guy Nowitzki is.

Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

Despite Nowitzki’s uncertainty and lack of interest in a farewell tour, I’m glad the League chose to honor both he and Wade with special All-Star allocations. It was an excellent gesture and really helped differentiate the heights to which Nowitzki and Wade had climbed. Nice to see the League really did love them like that.

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They do not make them like Nowitzki anymore. You may believe players have every right to dictate their futures, move offseason-to-offseason, and embrace a greater sense of autonomy within the League—you’d be right. But that also underscores how unlikely of a pairing Dirk and Dallas were.

Nowitzki’s brand of loyalty, affection for the city and affinity for the franchise haven’t been seen anywhere else. There were no trade demands.

Of all the current players who have an argument for Hall of Fame enshrinement one day, there are only three who even have a shot at retiring with the same day one jersey they put on: Stephen Curry, Russell Westbrook, Damian Lillard and maybe Klay Thompson. That’s it, and nothing is certain between now and their retirement. Even when it came to Nowitzki, there was no guarantee. Mark Cuban said repeatedly over the years Nowitzki could stay as long as he wanted but also would understand if his star wanted to leave and chase a title later in his career. How many owners offer more money than the player and agent are asking for? It’s tough to think of a player-owner combination in any sport closer and more forthcoming with each other than Cuban and Nowitzki.

In a time where players come and go, then sometimes come back again, Nowitzki’s commitment to the franchise puts him in rarified air. There are very few athletes in any sport that have such a deep-seated connection to their fan base.

The list of players who made 10 All-Star games, won an MVP, won a Finals MVP, and helped the only franchise they ever played for win the team’s first title: Bill Rusell, Tim Duncan and Dirk Nowitzki. That’s it. [Ed note: Russell never officially won a Finals MVP, but the Finals MVP trophy is named his honor after all.]

Nowitzki’s the only player ever to work 21 years with the same jersey on his back. In fact, if we changed the list to allow players who met the prior criteria but did wear another jersey at some point, we could add in LeBron James, Michael Jordan and Hakeem Olajuwon. The company Nowitzki holds on the all-time leaderboards is nothing short of elite.

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It’s hard to imagine now, but try and picture Nowitzki as he was coming into the league. A tall, goofy kid that many ungrateful pundits immediately coined soft because of his European descent.One such ESPN article, written by Eric Karabell said:

What they need: Despite having a big man with few peers when it comes to height, wingspan and the ability to block shots, the Mavs are softer than a fifth-place NFL schedule. Nowitzki is a European big man—need we say more?

Well, 21 years later that “European big man” is the sixth highest scorer of all-time. A mere 732 points behind Jordan and a stone’s throw (141) in front of the indomitable Wilt Chamberlain—need we say more?

The trust Nowitzki shared with Cuban, Donnie Nelson and the Dallas brass at large forged a relationship that would lead to unparalleled success over its tenure. Only the Spurs won more games than the Mavericks over the same 21-year run. Nowitzki was a patient man and worked a lot of those years without a bonafide second option. The Mavericks’ intrastate rival had 15 seasons during his career pan where a player not named Duncan was recognized as an All-Star; the Mavericks had 6 such seasons from players not named Nowitzki. Despite playing with greats like Steve Nash and Jason Kidd, you could argue Nowitzki never had a fellow Hall of Famer at their peak any point in his career.Nowitzki literally didn’t have an All-Star on his roster since 2009-10, when a 36-year-old Kidd was acknowledged for the last time, mostly on reputation. The last decade of Nowitzki’s career, including the infamous 2011 title run, he was without a second star.

Bleacher Report’s Andy Bailey cited some of the amazing influence Nowitzki has had on the game, specifically the way he opened up the floor and provided a new role for big men:

But beyond the style of play, Nowitzki helped open the borders for foreign-born players to be taken seriously.

Hearing Nowitzki officially call it a career was an emotional affair for Dallas Mavericks fans everywhere but also for fans of the game who now have to come to terms with one of the greatest ambassadors the game has ever had hanging it up.

In the 51 years prior to Nowitzki being drafted, 23 non-American born players were taken in what we would now consider the lottery range (picks 1-14.) Nowitzki was taken ninth overall in 1998 and in the 20 drafts since, there have been 60 non-American born players taken picks 1-14! (via basketball-reference.com)

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Basketball has no borders and in many ways the NBA embodies that reality, having 108 international players on the opening day rosters from a record 42 countries. That number of international players has more than tripled (31) since 1997-98 (the season immediately preceding Nowitzki’s debut.)

Nowitzki was the success story many NBA executives needed to give their heads a shake. How many, “The next Dirk,” comparisons have we got leading up to draft day over the last 20 years? They’ve all fallen short, but it’s only because Dirk is not easily replicated. Some casualties include Nikoloz Tskitishvili, Darko Milicic and Andrea Bargnani.

The NBA has expanded their lens, the world continues to fall more in love with the sport of basketball, and the social media era has created an inclusive culture for fans everywhere but it’d be impossible to explain the modern era of play without Nowitzki and the influence he had on the hearts and minds everywhere across the globe.

A big man who changed how the NBA game was played and who was out there playing it, that’s Nowitzki’s legacy. Scouts can keep looking for the next four decades, there won’t be another Dirty Dirk.