Back in December, I joined my brother Denbigh and my son Cooper in taking in a Houston Rockets-Dallas Mavericks game at the American Airlines Center in Dallas.
Decked out in our Yao Ming, Steve Francis and Hakeem Olajuwon Rockets jerseys, we clearly weren’t there to cheer for the home team. As long-suffering Houston fans, we are genetically disposed to despise all things Dallas.
And we did – or, rather, do. Yet during the pregame festivities, we paused our booing momentarily when Dirk Nowitzki was introduced. Denbigh and I glanced at one another, then politely applauded.
You’ve got to respect game – and Dirk has game.
Nowitzki joined one of the most elite basketball fraternities around earlier this week when he became the sixth NBA player to reach 30,000 points. You could make a pretty stout six-man rotation from that group – Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Karl Malone, Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant are the others.
I’ve been a fervent NBA follower for some 35 years, and Nowitzki has distinguished himself as one of the most unique of the league’s all-time superstars. Moreover, in his 19th season in a Mavericks uniform, the 7-footer from Wurzburg, Germany, has cemented a permanent place of significance in the history of Dallas and Texas sports.
I’ll admit that I was slow to give Dirk his due as one of the all-time greats. And it had nothing to do with his Mavs jersey.
Early in his career, I viewed him as a bigger version of Reggie Miller, one of the more overrated NBA stars of his generation. Basically, a deadly perimeter shooter who didn’t do much else.
In my mind, he was Irk Nowitzki – no D needed, because he certainly didn’t play any.
But Dirk won me over in 2011, as he carried the Mavericks to the franchise’s only NBA title. He was a Volkswagen stick shift during those playoffs that year, one heck of a German clutch performer. Nowitzki averaged 27.7 points and 8.1 rebounds in the 2011 postseason, nothing really out of the ordinary, as his career playoff averages of 25.3 points and 10.0 rebounds make him one of just four players to reach those standards for his career. The others wouldn’t make a bad team either – Elgin Baylor, Bob Pettit and Hakeem Olajuwon.
A better seven-foot outside shooter does not exist. Maybe by the end of his career, Kevin Durant will rival Nowitzki, but not at this stage. (Durant is technically listed at 6-foot-9, but having walked past him in a hallway, I can assure you that KD must duck to clear any 6-foot-11 doorways. Also, Durant admitted to Slam Magazine last year that he’s actually 7-feet tall, but just likes “messing with people.”)
Nowitzki has buried more than 1,700 3-pointers in his career at a 38 percent clip. He’s the only seven-footer in the top 50 in career treys. He redefined what a big man was supposed to do. Nowadays, the “Stretch Four” is a thing. Twenty years ago, it wasn’t. Credit Dirk for that.
Of course, Nowitzki was just as nasty when he stepped a few feet inside the arc. His one-legged fadeaway jumper has to be one of the most unblockable – and, thus, unstoppable – shots in the annals of the NBA.
Naturally, his 30,000th point came on that patented move. Nowitzki took a pass on the wing against the Lakers’ Larry Nance Jr., pivoted to face the basket, then faded and launched that rainbow jumper that has touched so many pots of gold and befuddled so many defenders over the past two decades.
Nowitzki needed 20 points coming into that game against the Lakers, no given anymore. Yet in classic Dirk fashion, he ripped up the nets and had the milestone by early in the second quarter. In fact, he reached 23 points before the Mavs could call a timeout to recognize the milestone, eluding a defender behind the arc and hoisting a 3-pointer that touched nothing but twine while the AAC crowd exploded.
Once the timeout was called, Mavs owner Mark Cuban and Nowitzki’s teammates pulled him into a group hug, whacking the face of the franchise on the back in congratulation. It was a moment of sheer glee and appreciation.
That’s probably what I respect most about Dirk – the fact that he’s been such a great teammate. He had ample opportunities to leave and maybe chase a ring elsewhere, yet he stayed in Dallas, becoming the rare one-city star. He always seemed like a fun guy to play with, a franchise player who was as relatable to the 12th man as he was to his fellow All-Stars.
Case in point: I’ll never forget Dirk filling in as an announcer for a Mavs game five years ago. He was injured and wearing one of the sharpest ensembles from the Big and Tall Store, so the Dallas announcers decided to conduct an in-game interview with the big man.
Things were going about as expected until Dallas forward Brandan Wright broke loose for an alley-oop dunk, sending Dirk into histrionics.
“Ohhhhhhhh! Shut it down! Let’s go home!” Nowitzki yelled, flashing an ear-to-ear grin.
Shut it down? Let’s go home? Nah, stay as long as you want, Dirk. You’ve earned it.