Cowboy Way: Dirk still loving the ride
Editor's note: This story originally appeared in the Feb. 15, 2016, issue of Sports Illustrated. To subscribe, click here.
On the afternoon of Sunday, Nov. 29, Dirk Nowitzki was in Dallas, waiting to board the Mavericks’ team plane for Sacramento, when he heard the report: Kobe Bryant was retiring at the end of the season.
The news saddened Nowitzki. In part because he has long admired Bryant, often hurrying home from his own games to catch the fourth quarter of the Lakers’ West Coast feed. But also because he and Bryant are the same age, 37, and to see a peer betrayed by his body is to grapple with his own athletic mortality. Now, lying on a massage table in his suite at the Sacramento Hyatt later that night, he can’t help but think about the future. Hovering over him is Casey Spangler, the team’s massage therapist, who works on Nowitzki most days, one of many measures the 13-time All-Star uses to keep playing in this, his 18th NBA season.
Normally, Nowitzki is not much for introspection. He tried to keep a journal 10 years ago, in a small brown notebook, at the urging of his longtime mentor, Holger Geschwindner. But then he got a few weeks behind and felt compelled to catch up on every detail, and it became a burden, not a tool, so he stopped. Similarly, he dislikes fanfare. When the Mavs won their first and only title, in 2011, he fled the court—vaulting the scorer’s table, face buried in his jersey, embarrassed by his tears. He returned only to collect his Finals MVP trophy after Tim Frank, the NBA’s head of p.r., chased him to the locker room, pleading with him to come back out because This is a moment you’ll treasure someday—and, besides, it would be really weird if he wasn’t there.
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.”
Fortunately, that’s not just yet. Former nemesis Kevin Garnett, 39, is now essentially an assistant coach in Minnesota. Paul Pierce, 38, slowly withers in Los Angeles. Tim Duncan, 39, and Manu Ginóbili, 38, are fellow outliers in San Antonio, though neither is asked to carry an offense. And then there’s Dirk. He remains the focal point for Dallas, averaging 17.6 points and 6.6 rebounds through Sunday while lifting an overachieving squad into playoff position. He is, in many respects, the same player as ever. He still sinks threes. His one-legged fade-away remains both ungainly and unblockable. And, of course, he’s still 7 feet tall.
Indeed, Nowitzki has been so good for so long that it’s easy to take him for granted. Good ol’ Dirk, swishing his knock-kneed free throws while humming Counting Crows. The guy no one wants in their fantasy draft, because this has to be the year he finally tails off. The guy who looks comically stiff on defense. Then you remember all that he’s done. First European-born player to win the MVP award and, four years later, the first to be the best player on a championship-winning team. The original stretch four. Took a pay cut (twice) to help his team. Evolved from overwhelmed kid to beloved elder statesman. One of the greatest clutch shooters of his era. Has scored more points (and counting) than all but five men in league history.
So in the event Dirk does disappear one day without warning—reduced to an alert on your Twitter feed, a ticker at the bottom of the sports bar’s TV—it is best to stop now and appreciate this singluar talent in his extended prime.
When Nowitzki entered the league, as the No. 9 pick in the 1998 draft, he did so with high expectations, a regrettable haircut and one inescapable comparison. “I always used to tease him,” says former Mavs forward Gary Trent, who drew Nowitzki as his “rook,” NBA-speak for mentee-slash-errand- boy. “I’d say, ‘[Larry] Bird’s gone, we need another blond-haired guy to save the league. C’mon man, it can’t be all brothers!’ ”
Trent was joking. Sort of. At the time the league was fresh off a lockout and reeling from Michael Jordan’s second retirement. Scoring was down. Isolation play was rampant. Nowitzki provided a potentially intriguing alternative, not only because of his heritage—there were only 38 international players in the NBA at the time, compared with 100 now—but also because 7-footers of that era were by and large lumbering behemoths.
Don Nelson, then the Mavericks’ coach and dreamer-in-chief, wasted no time touting Dirk as a favorite to win Rookie of the Year, but the 20-year-old from Würzburg, Germany, was no savior, at least not that first year. He averaged 8.2 points and shot 20.6% from beyond the arc. He was too skinny to get to the basket on offense, too weak to guard anyone on defense. In the second game of the season, he faced burly Warriors power forward Terry Cummings. “Way too strong for you, my friend,” Nellie told Dirk. Instead Nelson put him on Muggsy Bogues, the 5'3" point guard, with instructions to keep him out of the paint. “A total circus,” Nowitzki recalls.
Civilian life was equally intimidating. Nowitzki was a naive kid from a small Bavarian city known for its churches, the son of Jörg (former international handball player) and Helga (onetime star of the German national hoops team). He had no idea how to use an ATM, much less navigate an American metropolis. A Mavs front-office staffer had to pay his bills for him.
Teammates found Nowitzki alternately confounding and entertaining. Instead of buying a Benz like any self-respecting new millionaire, Nowitzki rented a midsized Chevy for the duration of the lockout-shortened season. (Only in the final two weeks, after sweating through a Texas spring, did he figure out how to turn on the AC.) He had the temerity to tell Trent that peanut butter and jelly should never be in the same sandwich. “This is America,” responded Trent, who preferred his with three pieces of bread, the better to maximize both the PB and the J. “We put those two together here.”
Still, Trent worried about the rookie. On the plane he watched Nowitzki read in newspapers about how he was going to get Nellie fired, about how he was a bust. Trent told him to put that trash away, that one day he’d throw those words back in their faces. Nowitzki, a born pessimist, wasn’t so sure. “I was never the most confident man in the world,” he says. “When I first got here, I was shy, I couldn’t speak [the language], didn’t know if I was going to succeed. Now you watch some of these young guys, and they come in this league thinking they belong here, they’re meant for this. That wasn’t me at all.”
Mention this to Nowitzki’s current teammates and they laugh. Shy? Lacking confidence? This is not the Dirk they know. Sure, many arrive in Dallas with a certain perception. As Chandler Parsons, who signed as a free agent in July 2014 and grew up wearing a Mavs number 41 jersey, says, “Before I got here, I figured he was a quiet, foreign player who comes in, works hard, gets buckets, doesn’t say much.”
And then, well, here’s Nowitzki at shootaround in Sleep Train Arena, the morning after his massage, engaged in a three-point contest with guard Devin Harris. The rules: five shots, five locations. It’s all tied up on the final spot, on the left wing.
“I MAKE LOVE TO PRESSURE!” Dirk bellows in an enthusiastic monotone.
He shoots. Swish.
“WALK WITH MEEEE!” he roars.
Harris is up. He matches.
Standing in the key, Georgian center Zaza Pachulia inadvertently deflects the return pass from the ball boy to Nowitzki. “C’MON, ZAZA,” Nowitzki yells with a toothy grin. “IF EUROS DON’T STICK TOGETHER NOW, WHEN WILL THEY?” Then, noticing that rookie Justin Anderson is looking at his phone rather than this shootout, he hollers, “HEY, ROOK, YOU GOTTA WATCH THIS!”
Finally, with everyone’s attention properly focused, Dirk gathers and . . . misses.
Harris hits. Game over.
Nowitzki waves his hand, dismissing the loss. Heading toward the bus, which waits to take the team back to the hotel, he sees reserve guard J.J. Barea doing an interview. Without stopping, Nowitzki sticks his finger in Barea’s ear. “DON’T TELL HIM ALL MY SECRETS!” Dirk shouts.
So, as you can see, not shy. Indeed, become friendly with Nowitzki and he will cease using your name, instead referring to you as “that donkey” or a “burger” (a term he learned from Trent, who ate up defenders in the post). Or, if he really likes you, “numbnuts.”
As in: “CAN YOU BELIEVE THIS NUMBNUTS HERE?”
Progress to the second level of familiarity and Nowitzki will invade your personal space, as he does with Barea. Then there are his really good friends, like former Mavericks forward Brian Cardinal. Last year the Mavs went to Indianapolis, and Nowitzki and a few team staffers dropped by Cardinal’s house to say hello. Only Brian, now working for Purdue, was away on a speaking engagement. So Nowitzki & Co. hung out with Cardinal’s wife and kids and generally had a good time. Later that night Cardinal received a picture of Dirk standing in his closet, grinning as he held up one of his suits. The text read, “Yeah, I don’t think I’d ever wear this either.”
Says Donn Nelson, Nellie’s son and the Mavs’ general manager, “There are very few world class competitors who truly appreciate the ride.”
In Sacramento that night the Mavs jump out to a 14-point lead. For a quarter they look amazing: well-timed cuts, fast breaks, layups. Under coach Rick Carlisle, Dallas emphasizes ball movement aided by a flurry of screens, the latest in a series of offenses designed around Nowitzki. First it was Nellie, empowering Dirk to handle on the perimeter. Then Avery Johnson installed left block post-ups and a go-to play, Horns 45, a pick-and-roll with center Erick Dampier. And then the free throw line isos of the title days, which Carlisle still dials up on occasion. Most of the time, though, Nowitzki serves as a playmaker, spot-up shooter and towering floor-spacer, his mere presence shifting defenses.
Still—and this is weird to say about a Hall of Famer—it’s hard to watch him sometimes. Every trip downcourt begins with a hitch step, as if he’s priming a rusty engine. Rebounds occasionally slip out of his hands. Defensive switches can be disastrous; earlier this season a crossover by Trail Blazers guard C.J. McCollum caused Nowitzki to do a full 360. Every movement appears creaky, in an AT-AT–type of way. Then again Dirk’s never been all that limber. Tyson Chandler recalls coming to Dallas in 2010, excited about joining a contender—until he arrived for training camp. “And I’m watching Dirk move, and I’m like, S--- we don’t have a chance,” says Chandler, now the Suns’ center. Finally, a few days later, he approached Casey Smith, the Mavs’ head trainer. “What the hell happened to Dirk?” he asked. “Is he hurt? Is it his knee?”
“No,” Smith said. “That’s just what he looks like.”
That was the year, of course, that Dallas won the title.
Amar’e Stoudemire might have put it best, back in 2007, when he described the challenge of guarding Nowitzki: “You can’t anticipate his shots because he does so much awkwardly.” Perhaps it’s physiology—his left foot a half-size smaller (151⁄2) than his right. Even Nowitzki’s greatest asset, his jumper, is awkward—the exaggerated knee bend, the elbow hoist, the splay-legged follow-through. Then, of course, there’s his signature one-leg fade-away, with the right knee raised like a chair fending off a bull and the crazy-high release.
But what a deadly weapon it is. Kobe began shooting it. Then LeBron James. Then Kevin Durant. “It’s awesome, it’s humbling, to know that the guys respect that shot,” says Nowitzki. Then, because he has to minimize his success, by nature: “I honestly don’t think it’s a hard shot to shoot if you have balance. If you have touch.”
This was Geschwindner’s goal—creating a towering marksman—ever since the former captain of the 1972 West German national team saw potential greatness in a gawky, 6' 10" 16-year-old at a Würzburg gym. Geschwindner set to work, having Nowitzki do the splits, practice with a weighted vest and walk to half court on his hands. A physicist, he created a computer program to model Dirk’s shot, eventually deciding 60 degrees was the optimal angle for the release. He insisted Dirk get his high school diploma, because the game is about more than the game. He played chess with him and required he take up musical instruments. In time Nowitzki learned guitar and piano, becoming just good enough to realize how much work it takes to reach the next level. He took up saxophone—continuing until 2001, when Spurs guard Terry Porter knocked out his front tooth during a playoff game and the endeavor became problematic. And every year he dutifully read the books Geschwindner assigned him. Some, like the Jack London stories, went down easy. Others, like the tomes on the history of math, were slogs. Occasionally, as with Jamila, a love story by Russian novelist Chingiz Aitmatov, Nowitzki found himself unexpectedly moved.
It has been said that Geschwindner is both a genius and a little crazy. (He named his hoops academy the Institute of Applied Nonsense.) Not even Nowitzki is sure which is more true. All he knows is that the methods work. To this day, whenever he has a bad shooting night he thinks back on Geschwindner’s myriad rules: Breathe in on the shot (to provide stability), start on your heels and roll forward (to avoid tipping on your toes), create a V with your first two fingers to guide the ball (so you can only miss long or short, not left or right).
Even in his 18th season Nowitzki remains obsessive. He takes the early bus to games, with the rookies and bench guys, so he can fit in his 30-minute- pregame shooting routine. He gets in an extra 30 minutes of jumpers after every home shootaround, and gets up extra shots at night at the Mavs’ practice center. That three-point contest with Harris? Nowitzki concocted it to get in extra reps because he doesn’t have access to a gym on the road, and “I can’t just kick everyone off the floor so I can shoot.” Watch carefully and you’ll notice that he even sneaks in extra shots as his teammates jog to center court for pregame introductions—three wing jumpers, one free throw and one deep knee-bender—because otherwise he might lose his rhythm in the 10 minutes between the national anthem and tip-off.
All of which makes it surprising when he misses open looks, as happens in the second quarter against Sacramento. It’s not just Dirk; the whole team goes cold. Dallas moves the ball well enough, pinging it side to side, but the shots don’t fall. The lead disappears. A team this thin on talent can only be so good, and on this night, it isn’t good enough.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way. For years Dallas would enter the off-season with cap space cleared. Last summer the Mavs finally got a commitment from a big-name free agent, center DeAndre Jordan, who, in a well-chronicled saga, rebuffed them at the last moment to re‑sign with the Clippers. (“He could have handled it better,” says Nowitzki, “but, hey, we’ve all changed our minds a million times.”) Instead, the team ended up with Wesley Matthews, a solid but unspectacular shooting guard, and Pachulia, whom they stole from the Bucks. The result is a team that can’t seriously contend, and everyone knows it. “I respect Dirk so much for what he’s doing this year,” Chandler says. “For him to lead this team again and be in the middle of the Western Conference. Honestly, I’ve been in awe.”
Then again, Nowitzki’s accustomed to playing short-handed. Before last season, when Monta Ellis gunned his way to 18.9 points per game, Nowitzki had led Dallas in scoring for 14 consecutive seasons. The last five years in particular have been a succession of one-and-done teammates. Carlisle takes pains to point this out whenever he’s asked to compare Nowitzki with Bird, a teammate of Carlisle’s in the 1980s. “The difference is that Bird was playing with four or five Hall of Famers the majority of his career,” says Carlisle. “Dirk’s had a couple in here. But by and large he’s carried this franchise on his shoulders for 18 years.”
Technically, it’s more like 16. Year one was a near disaster. Year two was better, but it was still Michael Finley’s team. Then, in his third season, Nowitzki blossomed. He’d grown into his body a bit, gained confidence and realized that the team’s short Canadian point guard was, in fact, his soulmate. Dirk recalls his days with Steve Nash fondly. A blitzkrieg offense. Regular trips deep into the playoffs. Tearing up the town, or at least the town’s dive bars. Indoor Olympics in Nash’s apartment. Christmas Eve gatherings with friends and Jörg (known as J-Dub) in the back room of The Loon, a Dallas pub, for the Round Table, a theoretically German tradition in which participants reflect on the year and have a vodka and a beer. Only, as Al Whitley, the Mavs’ equipment manager since 2001 and a close friend of Dirk and Nash, says, “obviously, we had more than one vodka and one beer.”
Times have changed. These days Nowitzki never drinks in season. (Surprising fact: Dirk has never really liked beer, but, he says, “as a German, I couldn’t really get away with not drinking it.” When he does partake, he opts for red wine—“though the calories, man!”) Concerned about his body, he stopped eating sugar when he was 27. Last Thanksgiving he had dessert for what he says was the first time all year: pumpkin pie, Cool Whip and, carried away by the moment, a cupcake. He groans, remembering the moment: “The next day I felt it in my ankles. I have bone spurs and they’re really close together, and when I get some inflammation in there, I feel it immediately.”
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The broader logic is simple. The lighter Nowitzki is, the lighter the load is on his knees and ankles. So, at an age when most men, and even pro athletes, inexorably thicken, Dirk is lighter than he was a decade ago. In season he is forever pestering those around him. Did he eat enough? Should he eat more during a back-to-back? “Over and over,” says Scott Tomlin, another longtime Nowitzki friend who works in media relations for the Mavs. “Never-ending.”
Last spring Dirk and his wife, Jessica, had their second child, a boy they named Max; their daughter, Malaika, is 21⁄2. As a result Dirk now sleeps by himself some nights. The rest is too precious. In the summers he no longer relaxes, as he once did. (Important distinction: Nowitzki loves basketball; he does not love conditioning.) Last May, after losing to the Rockets in the playoffs, he went all of three days before forcing himself back into the gym. Smith, who was also Team USA’s trainer for eight years, has used an electronic balance board to measure body control. Despite his height Nowitzki has the highest score of any player he’s tested, Olympians included. Donn Nelson tells the story of a Mavs first-round pick who declared he would work out whenever Dirk did and then stay even longer. Says Nelson, “That lasted about a week.”
Those around Nowitzki believe he will play out his contract—one more season, at $8.7 million, a discount he offered in hopes of bolstering the roster. Dirk says he will play “as long as the body can do it and as long as it’s still fun.” He’s never really had quickness or hops, anyway, and that lack of springs may actually help him make it. As Smith points out, “His deceleration and change of direction aren’t quite the same challenge as it would be for someone who’s more explosive.” Told of this, Dirk shouts, “MAJOR DISS!” and says, “I’m about to YouTube my stuff.” (For the record, he says he was operating mostly between “25 to 28 inches” of vert during his career, and now “if it’s 15, it’s a good day.”)
Carlisle already rests Nowitzki some nights, breaks up his minutes into chunks—rarely more than six at a time—and encourages him to sit out drills. Mavericks owner Mark Cuban is quick to say that Nowitzki has “a contract for life,” but adds, “How much longer he plays depends on the type of team we put together. If we can put together a team where he can come in and be a catch-and-shoot guy and get us buckets, he can play five more years.” Cuban pauses. “If he has to carry it, then it will be harder.”
The final score in Sacramento is 112–98. “Good luck getting quotes tonight,” mutters a Mavericks locker room attendant as reporters enter. Some players don’t talk. Parsons, coming back from off-season knee surgery, gripes about his minutes limit. Once upon a time Nowitzki might have dispensed a few platitudes before fleeing, or just waited out the media. Instead, he stands in front of his locker and talks for 10 minutes, the last Mav left, an unlikely team spokesman.
“I always felt like it’s your responsibility as a franchise player,” he says, now in a room at The Nines hotel in Portland the following morning, ahead of a back-to-back against the Blazers. “Monta last year, he snuck out all the time. But if you want to be the face of a franchise, you got to do it. You gotta face the music.”
Besides, nothing can compare with the public pain of 2007. A year earlier Dallas had taken a 2–0 lead in the Finals—“the parade route was printed in the paper,” Nowitzki says mournfully—before dropping four straight to the Heat. The next season, after winning a franchise-record 67 games, the Mavs became the first No. 1 seed to fall to a No. 8 in the modern era, bested by Dirk’s old mentor, Nellie, and the small-ball Warriors. After the clinching loss Nowitzki, storming toward the visitor’s locker room, grabbed a 60-pound trash can and flung it, puncturing the hallway’s sheetrock more than 10 feet off the ground. (A few years later, ever the good sport, Dirk signed the plexiglass that encases the hole at the request of the Warriors.)
Then, the cruelest part, to Nowitzki’s mind: He won the MVP, which meant he had to make a speech. “I knew they were all thinking the same thing,” he says of the crowd gathered at American Airlines Center in Dallas that day. So he addressed the loss right up front. He looked miserable, talking about “trying to see the positives,” while using words like heart-breaking and debacle. It was the least celebratory speech in the history of celebratory speeches.
It shouldn’t have been that way. For years Nowitzki was called soft, a label sloppily pasted onto all European players, and here he was, the first Euro to be MVP. But that’s not how his brain works. He is a man capable of both great joy—NUMBNUTS!—and great darkness. When the Mavs falter, he often goes straight to nihilism. Cuban tells of a time Dallas dropped four in a row and Dirk, sure the season was toast, sent a string of texts consisting almost entirely of the f‑word. So, up on that MVP dais, Nowitzki could think only of disappointment. “He felt an enormous pressure to win a title,” explains Donn Nelson. “I’ve never come across a player more committed to winning.”
The next few years were tough, one early playoff exit after another. During the 2009 postseason his fiancée, Cristal Taylor, was arrested at his house on charges of probation violation and theft of services warrant. The relationship ended, and Taylor ended up in jail. Other than admitting to naively showing “bad judgment,” he doesn’t like talking about it. “He refused to analyze it,” says Sebastian Dehnhardt, who spent two years filming The Perfect Shot, an illuminating, largely flattering documentary about Nowitzki that debuted last April and is available on Netflix. “His feeling is that you can’t change the past.”
“Watching the movie brought some old memories back but not like you want to change something,” he says, stretched out for another massage in the Portland hotel. “You have to go through that experience on and off the floor. Make mistakes and make bad decisions, you learn from them. I’m not sure I’d change anything. I always wanted to learn and improve. I want to see myself as a student. Keep learning, keep improving, keep your eyes and ears open.”
For a moment—“a hot second,” in Nowitzki parlance—he thought of leaving Dallas, in July 2010, when his contract was up. He met Cuban at his house, minus Geschwindner, who’d negotiated his previous deals, declining a commission. (Dirk’s never had a real agent.) Nowitzki didn’t know what to expect. Then Cubes got a little teary-eyed. “I was like, Well, this is going to be emotional,” Nowitzki recalls. “He said, ‘We’re in this together. We built this place up and I need you.’ ” Nowitzki pauses. “The first sentence kind of totally hit home, the long years we built this together. And he was right.” Dirk signed a four-year deal for $80 million, taking a $16 million pay cut to help the team. “Of course, we didn’t know in the first year of that deal that we’d win it all,” Nowitzki says. “After we won it, I didn’t need to go anywhere to chase a ring at the end. I can finish where I belong.”
As the years pass, that 2011 title seems even more unlikely. The Mavs’ roster, as Donn Nelson puts it, “was like the island of misfit toys. The starting two guard, J.J. Barea, is like 4' 1". And Jason Kidd is 57 years old.” In the Finals the Mavs lost Games 1 and 3 to Miami. And then: two wins in a row. Suddenly it was Game 6 and they were up two at halftime. Even so, Nowitzki was struggling, only 1 for 12 from the field, overthinking everything. Entering the locker room he found Cardinal, the Mavs’ backup forward and his friend, there to greet him.
“YEAHHH!” Cardinal shouted, offering a double fist bump. “You’ve got them right were you want them!’
Dirk was stunned. “What the hell’s wrong with you?”
Cardinal, undeterred, high-fived him. “You’re getting all your misses out of the way!”
To this day, Cardinal maintains that might be his greatest contribution as a Maverick. Faced with a hyped-up, balding Cardinal, Dirk had no choice. He laughed. “He’s a donkey, man,” Dirk says now. “Even though the team is up, I’m a little frustrated. I got my head down a bit, I’m thinking, What the hell am I doing out here. And Cardinal’s, like, high-fiving me. This weirdo.”
Nowitzki scored 18 points in the second half, and the Mavs were champions. Finally, he felt complete. He had carried the flag for his country in the opening ceremony of the Olympics in 2008 (bawled). Now he had won an NBA title (bawled). Says Donn Nelson, “That’s why Dirk’s so respected—the scars he has, and the grace by which he wins.”
A year later he married Jessica Olsson, whom he had met in 2010. Half-Swedish and half-Kenyan, she was smart, self-assured and athletic. (Both her brothers are professional soccer players.) Friends had been surprised Dirk was ready to date again, then relieved that he could. The couple live in the Preston Hollow neighborhood of Dallas. They’re teaching their kids three languages, and Dirk’s idea of an awesome Friday night is sitting on the couch, Max snoozing nearby, with a full slate of games on NBA League Pass. “Oh, man,” he says, “I love watching Steph Curry. When he’s hot, every time he gets it, I’m like, SHOOT!”
He remains, at heart, a fan of the game he plays. For years Nash encouraged him to explore avenues outside the game. “He’d be open to it, feign interest,” says Nash, now a part-owner of two soccer teams as well as a film producer. “But it never stuck, and I respect that in a way. He found what he loved and he stuck to it and didn’t deviate. Some people get caught up in being a renaissance man, but he follows his heart. And isn’t that what it’s about in the end?”
Why does Nowitzki keep playing? Why do any of us do what we love?
Now it’s January 12, and the Cavaliers are in Dallas. Dirk versus LeBron. It’s as big a home game as the Mavericks get these days, especially since they enter the night as a surprising fifth seed in the West. Everyone is hyped. At 5:30, two hours before tip-off, a handful of Mavs are out on one end of the court, warming up. There’s point guard Deron Williams and the rookie Anderson and there, at the top of the key, an unfamiliar player. Pale. Dark hair. Shortish. Oldish. Cutoff T-shirt. Mavs shorts. The ball boy has to decide: Do I pass it to Williams or to the team owner? The ball boy is not stupid. He passes it to Cuban.
Cuban points his toe, raises his elbow, swishes a 20-footer. He misses a couple, hits two more. When finished he’ll head back to the Mavs’ locker room and pound away at the StairMaster, then lead a reporter to the tunnel just off the court, where he has what can best be described as an in-arena man cave. Leather couches. Wet bar.
It’s hard to believe, but Cuban is 57 now. He’s owned the Mavs for 16 years. He and Nowitzki grew up together, in some respects, and he cherishes the bond. Cuban talks about the old days, flying to All-Star Weekends and road-tripping to Miami with Dirk and Nash. Asked what he’s learned from Nowitzki, Cuban pauses, runs his hand through his still-sweaty hair. “I think more than anything else, he taught me about discipline and effort,” he says. “I learned the discipline that it takes to be great.”
He feels a responsibility to Nowitzki: “There are some things I’ve—we’ve—done right because of Dirk. Some things we’ve done wrong. We could have kept Nash, but I listened to the wrong people. We turned over some people when maybe we should have stayed pat, just trying to get for Dirk, get for Dirk. To this day it’s, Let’s respect Dirk’s years and do everything we can. Because I know Dirk, and there’s nothing he hates worse than not being able to compete.”
Two hours later the lights go down. The stands are packed. And at forward, in his 18th season, the big daddy, tall baller from the G, number 41, Dirrrrrrk Noooowwwitzki!
He takes the court, exchanging a hug and smile with James. For a night it feels just like old times at American Airlines Center. In the front row, kitty-corner to the Dallas bench, Cuban hollers in his blue Mavs T-shirt and jeans, hydrating as frenetically as the players. In the back corridors the Mavs ManiAACs—a bunch of middle-aged fat men who dance during timeouts and have become local celebrities—await their moment, practicing. Some in the crowd are here to see LeBron. It’s his only visit of the season.
But it is Nowitzki—good ol’ Dirk—who strikes first. A right elbow jumper. A swing pass to Pachulia. A midrange J over Tristan Thompson. Then he nails a contested three from the top of the key and the arena is rocking and Nowitzki is throwing his three-finger salute and it all feels perfect. He’s rolling over his heels, not his toes, breathing in on the jumper, the ball sliding off the V of his first two fingers. At the 6:26 mark in the first quarter he comes out with the Mavs leading by 10, already having piled up seven points, three rebounds and two assists. In the ensuing hours Dirk will pull out a one-legged fadeaway (money), appear on the big screen wearing a goofy blond wig in a Trump spoof, declaring, “I want to build a wall . . . OF NOISE!” and, in the end, lose a heartbreaker in overtime 110–107, after which he’ll take longer than usual to get to his locker, sitting quietly in front of the printout of the Larry O’Brien trophy that’s posted in each stall. But that’s all to come.
Better for us to leave him here, walking off the court as the fans roar and the Cavs argue about who left the big blond guy open, a Hall of Famer no longer living for That One Moment but rather all of the moments, no matter how big or small.