Dirk Nowitzki had on a champagne-soaked white T-shirt and a championship cap he wore as if he were a 12-year-old in a fireman's hat. He walked down the hallway of the enemy arena with a bottle in his right hand and the Finals MVP trophy upside down in his left. He was the one who had arrived.
LeBron James was on his way, with no smell of liquor about him. He wore a blue suit and a gray tie and an unhappy expression of business. It was altogether a look that Nowitzki understood and was glad to have left behind.
"If I would have won one early in my career, maybe I would have never put all the work and the time in that I have over the last 13 years," Nowitzki said as he celebrated the championship that came with his Mavericks' 105-95 win in Game 6 of the Finals on Sunday. "So this feels amazing."
What was the difference between the world's most talented player and the champion? There is nothing James cannot do on a basketball court. And yet, there was nothing he could do to prevent Nowitzki's Mavericks from coming back to win Games 2 and 4 on their way to winning the final three games of the season.
The lesson for James is that there is no easy lesson to draw from Nowitzki's triumph. Five years ago he was in LeBron's shoes, wearing his glum expression, feeling the emptiness of his pain. The next year Nowitzki came back and won MVP while earning the league's best record, and instead of winning a championship his top-seeded Mavs were upset in the first round by the Warriors. Over the four years after their '06 Finals collapse, the Mavs would win a single playoff series. Just last year they were upset in the opening round by the Spurs, who forced the ball out of Nowitzki's hands just as the Mavs were now able to do to James.
"It's a team that when you view it from afar, it doesn't look like a physically bruising type team," coach Rick Carlisle said of his Mavericks. "So a lot of people don't think we have the grit and the guts and the mental toughness. This is as mentally tough team I've been around."
In the year after Dallas surrendered a 2-0 lead to lose the next four Finals games to Dwyane Wade's Heat, Wade had heard enough of the Mavs' complaints about the officiating and the phantom calls he had exploited. He said bluntly that the Mavs had lost because Nowitzki hadn't been a strong leader.
Comments like that turned Nowitzki into a champion. Questions like this will eventually have the same impact on James.
LeBron, given your performances late in games in these Finals, what's your assessment of your ability to play well under pressure?
Does it bother you that so many people are happy to see you fail?
Do you take this as a personal failing?
Do you feel you choked in this series?
Those questions were aimed one after another at James, part of the same cruel process that made a champion out of Nowitzki. He arrived in the NBA as the "soft" European who could never win because he relied on jump shots and his team didn't defend. The years hardened and inspired him. He became one of the few big men in history to convert himself into a terrific low-post player toward the end of his career. He learned to hold his teammates accountable. He valued the arrival last summer of center Tyson Chandler, whose defensive leadership provided the final championship ingredient.
"This is one of the unique teams in NBA history," Carlisle said. "Because it wasn't about high-flying star power. Come on, how often do we have to hear about the LeBron James reality show and what he is or isn't doing? When are people going to talk about the purity of our game and what these guys accomplished? That's what's special. I played with Larry Bird, I played with Bill Walton, I played with Robert Parish, I played with Dennis Johnson, I played with the all-time greats. And Dirk is up there with that upper, upper echelon of great players.
"I kept having people come up to me the last three or four days [saying], 'Hey, there's billions of people rooting for you guys,' " Carlisle said. "And we could feel it, we could feel it. We knew it was very important that we won this series for those reasons -- because of what the game is about, and what the game should stand for. And I'm so, so proud to be a small part of that."
Billions? Probably not. But were millions of fans supporting Dallas against Miami? Definitely.
"They have made a statement that's a colossal statement," Carlisle said of his Mavs. "Not just about our team, but the game in general. Playing it a certain way. Trusting the pass. Playing collectively. Believing in each other. Our team is not about individual ability, it's about collective will, collective grit, collective guts. We're skilled and talented, too, but our game is on the ground. And the guys we were playing, their game was in the air. Fortunately, as the series went on, we stayed on the ground enough to be able to win it."
Jason Kidd, at 38, won the championship while transforming himself from the purest of point guards into a spot-up three-point shooter. Shawn Marion won the championship while leading the team defensive effort against James. J.J. Barea won the championship while piercing the Heat defense and eventually breaking into the paint to finish around the basket as bigger and more famous players had been unable to do throughout the playoffs against Miami. DeShawn Stevenson won the championship while making his first three three-pointers amid his defense against Wade (6-of-16 for 17 points). Jason Terry won the championship while going 11-for-16 for 27 points off the bench on a night when Nowitzki was going 1-for-12 in the first half.
They came into this series with so much in common. Neither James nor Nowitzki had won a championship, and each wanted desperately to win now at the expense of the other. How does a great player learn to channel that talent into desire, to turn frustration into success? James would finish Game 6 with 21 points on 9-of-15 shooting (including nine on 4-of-4 in the first 4:12 of the game) and as many turnovers (six) as assists. By the third quarter his own fans were openly begging him to attack the basket, but the Mavs' mixture of man and zone defenses was not only preventing him from finishing in the lane, but dissuading him from even trying to go there.
Nowitzki's fans had felt the same frustration while watching him over the last several years. He had learned something powerful from that, and he had drawn strength from playing with the same teammates year after year. Altogether he and they built a championship team that James and his newly assembled Heat could not beat. As far as they had come in one season together, they hadn't had enough time to resolve issues that had taken the Mavericks' several years to overcome.
"I've been in this league eight years," James said at the end of his news conference. "There's no distractions that can stop me from trying to chase an NBA championship. Not you guys, not anything that goes on that's not focused on my team and my teammates and what we're out there to do what we set out to do."
He was talking faster. He was scowling, seething.
"I work hard to try to put myself in position to play at a high level," James went on, managing his emotions yet letting them be seen. "When you go out on the court, does the ball always go in? Absolutely not. But the one thing I know, I never hold my head low in saying I didn't do it the right way or I wish I would have did this. It's not about that.
"I put a lot of hard work into this season individually. We all did. So we have nothing to hang our heads low [about]. Just use this as extra motivation to help myself become a better player for next year."
That was the last word from him, and the first step of following in the path of champions. Nowitzki was dressed to celebrate, with his bottle in one hand, his trophy in the other. For James, the work was just beginning.