In recent months, I spent time around Dirk Nowitzki and the Mavericks for a feature story that you can read here.
As often happens, we had to cut out some good stuff to squeeze the feature down to magazine size. So here, for the Dirk-minded readers out there, are outtakes from my conversations with Nowitzki, Mark Cuban, Steve Nash and others, covering topics from Dirk’s coaching prospects to his poker prowess to David Hasselhoff.
Warning: This story contains explicit language.
Dirk on… his peers
“I always thought Kobe was the greatest player of my time. Even though Shaq’s close, Tim Duncan’s close, [Kobe] was so good offensively it was unbelievable. The Lakers could be down 20 and they were never out of the game with Kobe. I love how he played, the killer instinct he had.”
Dirk on… playing against Kevin Garnett
“At first I was new, from Germany, and he tried to intimidate me and I was like, ‘Holy crap, this is intense!’” And I was a little intimidated the first year or two. Once you start to get better, your confidence goes up and you just try to ignore it as much as you can.”
Chandler Parsons on… Dirk’s lack of confidence
“On the basketball court, he’s very confident. But you can tell when you’re talking about stuff he’s uncomfortable about, he's not confident. Talk to him about fashion, he’s not confident. Look at his haircut..."—and here Parsons points out to the court, where Dirk is taking warm-up shots—“That’s not a confident haircut. But I’ll take him on the court any day.”
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Dirk on... David Hasselhoff:
In the middle era of Nowitkzi’s career, at the recommendation of mentor Holger Geschwindner, Dirk began humming songs at the free-throw line to calm his nerves. Most famously, he sang “Mr. Jones,” by Counting Crows, a tune he still loves.
During the team’s run to the Finals in 2006, reporters caught wind of the humming and, as Dirk recounts, began asking questions: “One guy was trying to be funny and he said, ‘What about David Hasselhoff? And I said ‘For sure, Looking for Freedom!’"
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Now, those who knew Dirk knew he was joking (though he was, he stresses, a big fan of Knight Rider growing up). But that’s not how it was reported. Instead, word got out that Dirk loved the Hasselhoff anthem, and the news finally reached the man himself.
“And he showed up!” remembered Dirk. “Hasselhoff showed up in Phoenix to the game and I kind of revived his career.”
Did Nowitzki tell Hasselhoff the truth when they met, letting him down easy?
“No, no,” Dirk said. “I said, ‘Big fan, Dave!’”
Mavs trainer Casey Smith on… Dirk’s work ethic
In addition to working for the Mavs, Smith has worked with the U.S. Olympic team. He says he’s seen only two players in all his years with a work ethic comparable to Dirk’s: Kobe Bryant and Jason Kidd.
Mark Cuban on… trying to Shoot like Dirk
Cuban, who still plays pickup hoops at 57 despite two hip replacements, once tried to mimic Dirk’s shooting techniques—the finger V, the breathing, rolling over on your heels on the shot—but quickly realized it was futile. “The thing about Dirk is that he practices til you can’t get it wrong,” says Cuban. “It’s the whole 10,000 hours thing. Most people can’t do it. It’s not just repetition. I can go out there and shoot but by the time I get a little tired, my elbow is going out, I’m leaning back, I’m tired. Not Dirk. The variance is minimal.”
Dirk on… the one-leg fadeaway
Nowitzki said he never really practiced what has become his signature shot. Holger deemed it too off-balance. Then, in a game against Miami in 2006—to the best of his memory—he was hot and figured, why not? So he leaned back, stuck that leg out and…swish. The announcers laughed. A HORSE shot! Then Dirk kept hitting it, year after year. At first it was the other big guys who copied him. “Watch Ryan Anderson’s warm-up routine,” says Al Whitley, Mavs trainer. “It’s basically all of Dirk’s shots.” Then Kobe and Durant and LeBron mimicked it. Earlier this season, Kelly Olynyk of the Celtics tried a one-leg fadeaway on Dirk himself, missing it. Says Dirk: “I said ‘Don’t give me my own shot!’” He pauses. “I’m glad he missed it, actually.”
Dirk on… taking a salary cut
“To me it was important. I wanted to be on a good team. Especially in 2010, I hadn’t won it yet. I wanted us to have money for guys to come in and play well. Cubes has been loyal to me. Even with that, I was still the second or third best-paid player in the league. I made a lot of money in the league. And to me it wasn’t about making the last dollar, I wanted to be on a good team”
Dirk on… taking a salary cut (again)
“I wasn’t quite sure what to do, in 2014. I think Cubes kind of wanted to sign me for the minimum. Told him pretty quick, minimum isn’t going to happen but will definitely take a pay cut. Think it’s a fair deal what we did. Able to get some players in. “
Dirk on… the defenders that gave him the most trouble
“Kind of like these schmedium guys like a Shawn Marion, a guy that was long enough to contest my shot but still quicker than me and more athletic, so when I made a move to drive they were already there, and I’d have to spin, and he was there again. Had some great battles with Shawn over the years. KG was a great defender. K-Mart was physical. It was usually those smaller guys.”
Steve Nash on… Dirk’s mindset
Early on, Nash says he was the one “ingratiating Dirk to our culture and the league.” But as time went on he learned from Dirk’s approach. “He was always so dedicated and serious,” says Nash. “I didn’t always take it so seriously. He was a good boundary for me, a reminder, or motivator.” (Similarly, Dirk credits Nash with being the one, a few years later, who got him to really focus on recovery and prolonging his career.)
Dirk on… teammates
Nowitzki says Nick Van Exel was one of his favorite teammates, reliably warning the team that, “As soon as I make one three, I’m dribbling up and shooting the next one.” He reminisced about Brad Miller, chewing dip at halftime of an All-Star Game (“What a circus!”); the uberconfident Jason Terry, who could be 0-of-9 but yell, “It’s fourth–quarter time!” As for teammates he wishes he’d had, he named a pair of big men, Shaq and Tim Duncan.
Chandler Parsons on… Dirk’s tennis game
Once a ranked junior player in Germany, Dirk now has a tennis court at his house.
“I thought I was good until I played him. I always played doubles in tennis, in Orlando. I went to his house this summer and he’s really really good. His serve is unbelievable. He could be pro. It’s insane how good he is at tennis.
"He can’t cover the court, but he has so much spin and velocity on his hits, he doesn’t need to.”
Brian Cardinal on... meeting Dirk
When Cardinal played for the Mavs from 2010–12, he and Dirk became good friends, and the two remain close to this day. The first time they met, however, a couple years earlier, Cardinal was playing for the Timberwolves. Midway through the game, Cardinal—a career reserve whose inelegant style of play earned him the nickname of “The Custodian”—came off the bench and drew the assignment of covering Dirk. As Cardinal remembers it: “I’m trying to guard him and I start fouling him a bit and he said, ‘You’re a bum. You’re a burger! I don’t even know what you’re doing in this league!”
Cardinal looked up at him and responded, “Yeah, I don’t know either! Isn’t it unbelievable?”
And thus a friendship began.
Sebastian Denhardt, director of The Perfect Shot, on… Dirk’s life philosophy
“I met Dirk and at first he didn’t want to do the movie. He said, ‘I’m so boring, you can’t make a movie about me.’ In the end, Denhardt prevailed, but found Nowitzki an anomaly among celebrities and athletes. “He is really so focused with basketball and the rest, pfffff, he is not interested in. He’s not interested in being a famous person, or a lot of money in terms of advertising. He wants to play. He has so much money, he can never spend it in his life. He’s not searching for money or something like this.”
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Dirk on… the “soft” label that plagues Euros
“I just think when you’re tall and you come over [to the U.S.] and you’re a jumpshooter and not a back–to–the–basket player, I think that’s where that came from. …I always define toughness not necessarily as dunking on somebody. You can be mentally tough, or play tough. Try to play sick and hurt and try to be there for my team. That’s toughness to me. I could never dunk on somebody, so that was toughness for me.”
Nash on… Dirk’s honesty
“He had no problem being honest. I’m more of a people pleaser. I’d err toward the side of what people wanted to hear. He didn't mince words. He’d tell you what he felt, even if it didn’t make him look good, or it was hard to hear.
"In his way he feels like he’s not a confident man, but it takes a lot of confidence to be honest. That’s another form of confidence….I think he has a tremendous amount of confidence, it just might not be in the high school football movie variety, pounding your chest. He knows who he is. Maybe that doesn’t align with the superstar NBA personality he feels he should have but he has a quiet confidence that comes out in his honesty and his directness.”
Parsons on… the pecking order in Mavs poker games
According to Parsons, it goes (from best to worst): Parsons, Casey Smith, Al Whitley, Dirk. “Dirk is actually the worst player with the least amount of wins but Whitley is always complaining that he’s tired and we have to convince him to play.” Parsons pauses. “I want you to quote me saying Whitley is just straight up bad.”
Dirk on… Don Nelson
“A genius in a way, offensively. I love him.”
Dirk on… branding
“All these deals guys make, I never looked at myself as a brand. I always wanted to be known as a basketball player. I was fortunate to have two partners my entire career, the bank of Germany and Nike. Almost like family now. Instead of 50 little things—a bar there, and then you do yogurt on TV, almond milk. Not really my thing. In the summer, I always played national team in my 20s. Those one or two months I was off, I wanted to travel, not have these 10 firms come in and say, we want a photo shoot.”
Cuban on… whether Dirk would really hate a farewell tour
“Bullshit! Bullshit, bullshit, bullshit, bullshit, bullshit, bullshit! Yeah, he loves that little wave when he comes out and passes a milestone. He loves it. LOOOVES IT! I don’t care what he says. ‘I don’t like going to the All-Star Games. I don’t want a farewell tour.’ He loves it!
"I remember his first All-Star Game, we literally told him he had to pack a knapsack, just in case we roadtrip from Philadelphia to Miami, and he packed one. Me, him and Nash…Oh my God…the shit we did. Can’t believe it’s been, what, 16 years.”
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Other Mavs staffers on... whether Dirk would indeed secretly want a farewell tour
Dirk on... what he'll do when he retires
“I’m not the kind of guy that plans too far ahead. After a few years of enjoying family, something else has got to come. You can’t just sit at home or play golf every day. We were goal-driven our entire lives and careers so far, you can’t just sit on your butt for the next 40 years. Got to have something in your life to challenge you a little bit.
“Originally the plan was to take a few years off, get away from hoops. Don’t want to necessarily jump right into stuff. Some time off, some family time, some traveling...
“I don’t think I’ll ever be a coach. Don’t think I have the patience for it. I can’t stand up there and do the motivational speech. That’ll never be me…”
Dirk says he is interested in mentoring young players, however, as Holger did with him. “I can see me doing something with kids,” he says. “I’ve been doing it for over 20 years. I know a lot about shooting. The teaching part will be interesting, I think. There have been a lot of great players in this league, but as coaches, they can’t teach. Maybe in their heads, they don’t realize what they were doing.
“We had this great player in Dallas once, I won’t name names, and we shot after practice one time and this other guy missed a shot and he said, “Up and over, in the rim.” And I was like, that’s the advice? Up over, in the rim? My daughter can stand there and say that. That’s not really great advice. Not sure if you need to reflect and stand back and know exactly what you’re doing to teach it to somebody else. Maybe some of these great players were instinctively doing all these things right without knowing what they were doing? It’s going to be a challenge to see if I can do that.”
Cuban on... what he thinks Dirk will do in retirement
“He’ll travel, he’ll grow a beard. He’ll miss basketball, he’ll come back and do community stuff and have kids and do whatever it is we need him to do.”
Dirk on… what he'd say if he wrote a letter to basketball
(Laughs, then thinks for a minute) “I don’t know. The sport gave me so much. Played on a junior national team when I was 13, 14 years old and traveling around Europe and seeing countries when my classmates didn’t even get out of Wurzburg, whether it was Czech Republic or Slovenia or France. I was fortunate to see a lot of great things because of basketball. Basketball has been my life for a long, long time. I kind of grew up in the NBA... I don’t know….it’s been an incredible, wonderful journey.”
Cuban on… what he learned from Dirk
“We’ve grown up in this. We had no idea what we were getting into. I was literally his age when I took over the team. To me, it was just all dive in and excitement and it was new for him and he was adjusting and we learned from Nash and (Michael) Finley, and saw how they treated people, and learned from each other in how we treat people.
“I just… I don’t know. I learned to respect his game and respect his effort. I think more than anything else, he taught me about discipline and effort. No matter what’s going on around you and whatever the hype and flavor of the moment is, he just kept working on his game and working to get better and better... I learned the discipline that it takes to be great.”