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Doing Fine Without You

Dec. 13, 2004
Dec. 13, 2004

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Dec. 13, 2004

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Doing Fine Without You

Though saddened by their breakup, the former Mavs running mates are, surprisingly, playing even better apart

They had met for hundreds of lunches in Dallas, but this one was different. The conversation had an edge that neither wished to acknowledge. It was as if they were meeting after a friendly divorce. ¶ "So I'll see you at the game," Steve Nash said, smiling, as he was about to leave. ¶ "Absolutely," answered Dirk Nowitzki, with a grin just as big. "Get ready." ¶ That evening at American Airlines Center, Nash dribbled toward his best friend. "I knew what was coming," says Nowitzki. Though Nash now came wrapped in an odd, purple uniform, the point guard's every move was familiar from the countless hours they'd played together: the rhythm of the ball bouncing between his legs, the tantalizing head and shoulder fakes, the gray eyes scanning the periphery for cutters. Then, in a blink, Nash's flurry ended. The 7foot Nowitzki turned to watch the jump shot drop through the rim like a door slamming shut.

This is an article from the Dec. 13, 2004 issue Original Layout

During their six years together on the Dallas Mavericks, Nash and Nowitzki grew to appreciate each other as much as any teammates in any sport. They spent thousands of hours in the gym developing their skills and their camaraderie, both of which helped transform the Mavs from charmless losers into NBA title contenders. "That's why it's so sad," says Nowitzki. "I thought we were going to finish together like Stockton and Malone. I never thought we'd break up."

Nash walked away last summer, signing a five-year, $53 million free-agent contract (which includes a partially guaranteed sixth year at $13.1 million) with the Phoenix Suns, the team that drafted him in 1996. The early returns on that investment couldn't be better. With Nash averaging an NBA-high 10.9 assists, many times dishing to 22-year-old power forward Amare Stoudemire (25.6 points per game), the streaking Suns were 14--3 at week's end and led the league in scoring (107.8 points). The 30-year-old Nash has emerged as an early-season MVP candidate for elevating a team that went 29--53 last year--even though he's not entirely comfortable in his new surroundings. "I told [the Suns] that I really wanted to stay [in Dallas] and finish what we started," says Nash. "Starting from scratch, unfamiliar with everything, trying to get a whole new career going again--it's been difficult."

Nowitzki has flourished too, averaging a league-leading 27.4 points through Sunday to propel the Mavs to a 12--6 start despite injuries to forward Michael Finley, center Erick Dampier and guard Jason Terry (who was acquired from the Atlanta Hawks in a four-player trade to serve as Nash's replacement, along with rookie Devin Harris). Last Thursday, in a 113--106 overtime defeat of the Houston Rockets, he erupted for a franchise record 53 points, the highest total in the NBA this season. While he's saddened that he can no longer dream of winning a championship with Nash, the 26-year-old Nowitzki burns with a desire to get the best of him. When Nash scored 17 points and handed out 18 assists in the Suns' 107--101 victory in Dallas on Nov. 16, Nowitzki walked off the floor without speaking to him. "I was so pissed, I went home right away--I didn't want to see anyone," Nowitzki says. "Then he calls me up from the airport. I saw the caller I.D., and I was, like, I don't want to talk to you right now."

What he fails to mention is that he had left a congratulatory message on Nash's phone a few minutes earlier. Eventually Nowitzki returned Nash's call, and they had a pleasant conversation. "The good thing," says Nowitzki, "is we're going to remain friends the rest of our lives."

they met at a press conference in June 1998, shortly after the Mavericks traded first-round draft choice Robert (Tractor) Traylor, the sixth pick, to the Milwaukee Bucks for Nowitzki (the No. 9 choice) and Pat Garrity (No. 18). Dallas shipped Garrity, two other players and a first-round pick in '99 (which would be used on Shawn Marion) to Phoenix for Nash, who was then a second-year backup to Jason Kidd. "He had bleach-blond hair at the time," Nowitzki says. "But he hadn't bleached it in a while so the top inch or two were blond, and you could see underneath it was brown. It was awful."

Nash was a 6'3" Canadian whose only U.S. college scholarship offer had come from Santa Clara, where he'd starred for four years. Nowitzki was a skinny 20-year-old from Würzburg, Germany, with a bowl haircut and a fondness for three-pointers. "Those were the days before he had his rabbit [buck] teeth knocked out and had them cosmetically replaced," says Nash. "I felt for the guy. He was really shy."

On the morning after the draft Nowitzki woke up shocked to hear that he had been a lottery pick. He had warned NBA teams that he planned to remain in Europe for at least one more season to develop his game. Though the Mavs persuaded him to change his mind, Nowitzki was almost grateful when the owners locked players out to start the 1998--99 season, which enabled him to continue suiting up for the Würzburg XRays. "Then it was the end of January, and one morning I looked on the news, and it said, 'Season Saved,'" says Nowitzki. "I said, 'Ohhhh, no.' I started sweating. I wasn't sure if I really wanted to go."

After an abbreviated 15-day training camp, Nowitzki made his debut as the Mavs' starting small forward. Too green to exploit his height advantage on offense and too slow to keep pace defensively, he was benched just a week after coach Don Nelson had touted him as Rookie of the Year. Nash provided his most important assists to Nowitzki off the court that year. "He was so down on himself," says Nash. "He thinks he's a realist, but I think he's a pessimist in so many ways. I'm sure that's part of the psychology that makes him great--that insecurity that drives you. But there were a lot of times when I would have to pump him up."

Even now Nowitzki admits that he sees himself less as a three-time All-Star than as an immigrant still struggling to succeed. "After a bad game I'm telling myself the next day, You've got to come in, you've got to shoot, you've got to lift at night, do cardio, you've got to get your game on track," he says. Imagine, then, the anxiety he felt as a rookie when he averaged only 8.2 points in 20.4 minutes--and imagine too how grateful he was to have a new friend and teammate who lived in the same apartment complex and was just as eager to work on his game. Back then the Mavs practiced in a gym that was open to the public at night. College students and paunchy businessmen would routinely occupy the one full court, leaving Nash and Nowitzki to practice in cramped quarters on a side basket. "We would play running HORSE, a lot of shooting games, tons of one-on-one," says Nowitzki. "Sometimes we would play in the post where I had a mismatch; then we would take it outside where he had it easier."

The odd thing is that they rarely worked on what would become their signature play: the pick-and-roll. Its choreography evolved during games. "Steve was just so smart at using the picks," says Nowitzki. "My guy would have to hug me, and Steve was able to get into the lane. I watch him now, and he's doing the same things in Phoenix."

Nash's selflessness that first year in Dallas also kept him from dwelling on his own difficulties. He was suffering from a stress fracture in his back, a painful injury that diminished his quickness and often rendered him ineffective. Disappointed Mavs fans spent one game booing Nash whenever he touched the ball. That only motivated him. "It shows how ballsy Steve is," says Nowitzki. "He gets the ball while they're booing him, and he makes a three. I probably would have thrown it away."

Over the next five years Nash and Nowitzki would share rides to games and practices and dine together on the road. Their cars grew progressively nicer, as did their quarters. In 2000, Nash bought a town house; two years later Nowitzki bought a place eight minutes up the road. An injury to Gary Trent in 1999--2000 led to Nowitzki's being shifted to power forward full time, where he discovered his ability to create mismatches by raining threes over brutes who preferred bodying up in the paint. Nash recovered from his injury and along with Nowitzki led Dallas to four consecutive playoff appearances. Though they came within two games of reaching the Finals in 2003, losing in six to the eventual champion San Antonio Spurs, the Mavericks were stricken with a terminal affliction of porous defense, which always left Nash and Nowitzki imagining how much further they could have gone with an intimidating, shot-blocking center. Then last summer one became available: Shaquille O'Neal.

Nash and Nowitzki were on vacation attending Wimbledon when they heard rumors that Nowitzki would be traded to the Los Angeles Lakers for Shaq. Nowitzki was jarred by the possibility of leaving Dallas. "To get the most dominant player in the world?" he says. "I probably would have done it if I were the Mavericks." Hearing the news made Nowitzki realize how much he treasured his relationships not just with Nash but also with Finley and Nelson, and how badly he wanted to keep things just as they were. Then team owner Mark Cuban sent word that there would be no trade. Nowitzki wished Nash good luck as his friend flew to Dallas to negotiate a new deal.

There had been reports all season that Nash would be recruited by the Suns, among others. But Cuban was known to spend big for talent, and Nash was a top point guard whose last contract (five years, $35 million) had been a relative bargain. Says Finley, "I thought the Mavericks would do whatever it took to keep him around."

Cuban made an initial proposal of $36 million over four years. Though he was willing to go higher, he believed he would jeopardize the Mavs' future by getting into a bidding war with Phoenix, which was willing to pay Nash $12.3 million in the final year of the contract, when he'd be 35. After Nash accepted the Suns' offer, his first call was to Nowitzki.

"'I don't know what happened," Nash said, "but I had to do it."

"Absolutely," Nowitzki replied, "if you felt they didn't want you here anymore, then you made the right decision."

For the remainder of the summer Nowitzki refused to answer or return calls from the Mavericks' front office. "I was really mad," he says. "I was saying, 'What are we trying to do? Not make the playoffs anymore?' We just gave up our point guard, who was one of the best in the league, and we just let him walk away like he was nobody."

nash is growing more comfortable in Phoenix. He has a home in Scottsdale, where he lives with his girlfriend, Alejandra, who gave birth to twin girls, Lourdes and Isabella, in October. His parents, who live in Victoria, B.C., also have a house a few blocks away. The Suns believe that Nash will help the 6'10", 245-pound Stoudemire become a dominant player by spreading the floor, drawing the defense and delivering him the ball where he can do the most with it. "We needed leadership and basketball IQ and a point guard who can shoot--and Steve is exactly that," says Phoenix coach Mike D'Antoni. "Now Amare makes Steve a better player too. Did Stockton make Malone, or did Malone make Stockton? I don't know which came first, and it really doesn't matter."

It's as if Nash is overseeing a younger version of his former team, with Stoudemire serving as a less versatile but more imposing version of Nowitzki, Marion (19.5 points per game at week's end) in the role of Finley, and Joe Johnson (14.9) and Quentin Richardson (13.8) taking turns providing Nick Van Exel's old firepower. The Suns are amazed that Nash can distribute the ball better at full speed than most point guards can while walking it up. Nash credits his friend in Dallas for that. "I owe a lot to Dirk and all that time we spent working together," he says. "He was a better player than me, more talented, and I had to keep finding ways to keep up with him."

While Phoenix runs its offense at warp speed, Nowitzki finds himself coming off screens and having to call for the ball. Dallas tries to push tempo and in spite of its injuries, is ranked seventh in the NBA in scoring through Sunday (99.3 points per game). But without Nash's flair, vision and timing, the half-court offense is rather pedestrian--and much sloppier. After having the league's fewest turnovers for three seasons running, the Mavs ranked 13th at week's end. "There really is no rhythm," Nowitzki says.

"You can load up and scheme them in ways that Steve wouldn't allow," says Suns assistant Alvin Gentry. "He would run things you never saw before, like a screen-and-roll with Dirk handling the ball and Steve as the screener."

With Nash gone, Dallas has asked Nowitzki to embrace a leadership role. To a man the Mavs believe that he has raised his level of play, and last month he showed heart by missing only one game with a sprained left ankle that was expected to sideline him for a week. The combination of veterans Finley, Terry and swingman Jerry Stackhouse with promising youngsters Harris, forward Josh Howard and guard Marquis Daniels gives Dallas a core group that can contend for some time. Most of all, the long-awaited arrival of a true center--the 29year-old Dampier--has freed Nowitzki from having to defend the middle and lifted his spirits.

"It's time for Dirk to grow up, so to speak," says Finley. "I've always told him that great players in this league have to have a little selfishness, and this year he has to have that. Sometimes you have to care less what teammates think and just be that dominant player."

There are times when Nowitzki feels like a rookie again, uncertain where to turn, especially on the road. "I still go out to dinner once in a while," he says. "I read, I listen to my I-Pod." But might the departure of his best friend have a bright side? Could it turn Nowitzki into the sort of ruthless leader the Mavericks need to win the NBA title? "I'm trying to see it [that way]," he says. "But I don't really want to look at it."

"We needed leadership and a basketball IQ and a point guard who CAN SHOOT," says D'Antoni."Steve is exactly that."

"[Nowitzki] thinks he's a realist, but I think he's A PESSIMIST," says Nash. "A lot of times I had to pump him up."

"It's time for Dirk to GROW UP," says Finley. "Great players in this league have to have a little selfishness."

COLOR PHOTOPhotographs by John W. McDonoughDIRK NOWITZKI League leader in points per game (27.4). COLOR PHOTOPhotographs by John W. McDonoughSTEVE NASH League leader in assists per game (10.9).Has 16.7 points per game, shoots 56.0% from the field for 14--3 Suns. THREE COLOR PHOTOSPhotographs by John W. McDonoughSUNS SHINING Phoenix's young, acrobatic Stoudemire (32) has proved to be an inviting new target for the NBA's premier passer, who still has a wealth of boosters back in Big D. TWO COLOR PHOTOSPhotographs by John W. McDonoughMOVING ON Nowitzki has had to raise his floor game without Nash, whose replacement, the rookie Harris (34), is helping to make at least a few Mavericks fans forget their former star.COLOR PHOTOBOB ROSATO (NOWITZKI) [See caption above] COLOR PHOTOD. CLARKE EVANS/NBAE/GETTY IMAGES (IN UNIFORM)PARTNERS The two hung tight for six seasons with the Mavs. COLOR PHOTOLINDA KAYE/AP [See caption above]