Friendly Fire

Steve Nash and Dirk Nowitzki are best buddies off the court, but these two leading MVP candidates will not stop battling on the hardwood until one of them takes his team to its first championship
April 22, 2007

 

Sooner or later italways happens: The Phoenix Suns run a pick-and-roll against the DallasMavericks, leaving Steve Nash and Dirk Nowitzki to face off at the top of thekey. They have been there countless times before, Nowitzki in his awkwarddefensive crouch, his right arm extended as if a lion tamer's chair, his mouthguard protruding. Nash is in front of him, waiting for the help defense toclear out, for his teammates to space themselves, until it is just the two ofthem near the three-point line: the two-time MVP and this season's favorite,the two best players on the two best teams in the NBA, two men whose livesdiverged but remain intertwined. This time they are playing in front of 18,422at US Airways Center in Phoenix, but the setting could be anywhere. A YMCA inDallas. The Western Conference finals. Nash's backyard.

Nash feints to theright. Nowitzki stutters backward, hoping to contain. He knows all of Nash'stricks--the runner, the floater, the step back, the one-hand-extended layup,even the seldom-used hook--but that doesn't make him any better at stoppingthem. The Mavs usually switch on the pick-and-roll, which means that the 7-footNowitzki must try to contain the 6'3" Nash many times in any given game. Itis an uncomfortable situation for Nowitzki, who is neither quick norexceptionally agile; he's like a defensive tackle trying to stop a widereceiver in the open field. Regardless, the fans relish the matchup, lettingout a murmur of appreciation.

They are anunlikely pair of stars, these two. Who would have thought 10 years ago that apair of skinny foreign finesse players, one a pass-first point guard and theother a three-point-shooting giant, would evolve into perennial MVPfront-runners? "Might have made for a good movie," says Dallasassistant coach Del Harris, "but no one would think it was realistic."Despite their success, however, neither man is a global celebrity on a par withKobe Bryant, Dwyane Wade, LeBron James or even Carmelo Anthony, and neither haseven been voted an All-Star starter. There are many reasons why, from theirnationalities to their styles of play ("As you might have noticed,"Nash says, "we're not big dunkers"), but the most relevant one is thatneither man wants to be a worldwide celebrity, in contrast to James, who sayshe aspires to be "a global brand" and "the richest man in theworld." Says Harris, who has known Nash and Nowitzki since they entered theleague, "They're just regular guys who happen to be very good at what theydo."

Perhaps, then, thisis the year of the Regular Guy. In a season that was supposed to be defined byDwyane, LeBron and Carmelo, the NBA playoffs instead begin with the focus on apair of old friends who refer to each other as "the grumpy German" and"the little runt." To understand how this came to be, one must know howthe duo evolved, not only as players, but as leaders and as friends.

Few people knowNash and Nowitzki better than Al Whitley, the equipment manager for theMavericks. Whitley grew up five minutes away from Nash in Victoria, B.C., andthe two played on the same high school basketball team. When Nash was aMaverick, Whitley frequently visited Dallas, where he hit it off with ownerMark Cuban. He was offered a job with the franchise in 2001 and now travelswith the team and is close to Nowitzki.

In trying toproperly render the personality of his childhood friend, Whitley tells thestory of a Nash-led bar crawl in 2003. With training camp only a couple ofweeks away, Nash went out to lunch in Dallas with Whitley and another buddy. Itwas still the off-season, so the guys began badgering Nash to have a beer. Nashwas reluctant to alter his preseason training routine but agreed on twoconditions: that they drink only one beer per bar and that they run betweenbars. "So we finish our beer and then take off jogging," Whitleyrecalls. "Only Steve immediately sprints way ahead of us. By the time wegot to the next bar, he was finished with his beer and telling us the name ofthe next bar." And so it continued, through the McKinney area of Dallas,from Taco Diner to TABC to The Quarter, Nash leading and his friends stragglingbehind. All the while, startled passersby wondered if their team's star had anunconventional new workout regimen. After running close to six miles, Whitleyand his buddy were gassed. They stumbled up to the final bar, which happened tohave an outdoor pool, and walked in. Unable to spot their friend, they lookedout back, where they found Nash doing the backstroke. "If Dirk had beenthere," says Whitley, "he would have thought it was the greatest thingin the world."

Nowitzki was thereplenty. During Nash and Nowitzki's first couple of years together in Dallas(both players arrived in 1998, Nash in a trade with the Suns and first-roundpick Nowitzki in a prearranged draft deal with the Milwaukee Bucks), their defacto home base was Nash's condo, which was conveniently located only 100 yardsor so from a bar named The Loon. Back then it was the kind of joint that servedbeer only in cans ("How awesome is that?" says Nash), and the duo couldsettle in for a burger and some Miller Lites in anonymity. "It was almostlike we were in college," says Nash.

But Nash never satstill for long. "To him," says Whitley, "everything is acompetition." So there were pool games at night and epic tennis matchesduring the day. (Nowitzki is very good at both tennis and Ping-Pong.) Thenthere were times when Nash organized an impromptu "footie match"--athis place. So there they were, a couple of professional athletes and theirfriends, romping around an unfurnished Dallas flat, gleefully booting a soccerball off walls and windows.

For Nowitzki,Nash's friendship was a safe haven of sorts. When he first came to theMavericks, Nowitzki was painfully shy, a 20-year-old rookie with a bad bowl cutwho spoke barely any English and knew little about American culture. He andNash bonded instantly--over their outsider status, their lukewarm receptions(both were booed during that first season) and their shared love of practice.At first Nowitzki was, as Whitley says, "like Steve's shadow, the guysitting in the back of the bar watching all the wild Canadians." But themore time Nowitzki spent with the wild Canadians, the more their easygoingnature rubbed off on him. He handed out nicknames (Little S--- was a popularone), played his guitar and boasted of his athletic prowess. "He alwayssays that if he stepped up against a major league pitcher, if he had 10 swingshe could hit one out," says Whitley. He waits a beat and adds, "He'snever picked up a bat." The rub with Nowitzki is that he's usually joking."He's Mister Fake Negative," says Nash. "He complains abouteverything, but he's always putting you on." Adds Harris, "He is, inthe best sense of the word, a total clown."

It's a side thatthe world rarely sees. Nash compares Nowitzki with the San Antonio Spurs' TimDuncan, another star player who plays it straight with reporters and prefersnot to make his private life public. "When the media's around, I try to becareful," Nowitzki says. "I don't want to make a mistake or use badlanguage, and I have to really concentrate because of the language barrier.Once the interview's over, I can have fun and just say whatever comes into mymind."

By the 2001--02season Nowitzki was out of his shell, and he and Nash were prospering on thecourt. Each man made his first All-Star team that year, and the next springthey took Dallas to the brink of the Finals. When they headed out, they were nolonger incognito. One night in particular was immortalized in photos thatbounced around the Web. "I laughed; I thought it was funny," says Nashof the pictures, shot at a cowboy bar in Fort Worth and featuring a wild-eyed,stringy-haired Nash and a rubbery-legged Nowitzki making faces at the camera."Yeah, it got ugly a couple times," says Nowitzki. "Did you see theone where Nashie is drunk and playing with his nipples?"

To some fans thephotos were inappropriate, but to others--that cross section of American maleswho saw in these two NBA stars something of themselves, a reassuringregular-ness--they were proof that sometimes big-time athletes don't act likebig-time athletes. "Just because we're on TV every night," says Nash,"that doesn't make us feel like we have extra rights."

A year later theparty was over. Phoenix offered Nash, a free agent, a five-year, $53 millioncontract, and Dallas declined to match it. The separation was rough on bothplayers but ultimately made each of them better. "It allowed Dirk to growup a little bit and find out some stuff about himself sooner than he would haveotherwise," says Whitley. Adds Houston Rockets G.M. Carroll Dawson,"It's staggering to think that those two were on the same team at one time.But I don't think they'd have become the players they are today if they hadn'tseparated."

Now each goes onwithout the other. For Nowitzki, 28, it happens on the same court, in the samelocker room. Only he must find others to needle.

It is a Fridaynight in March, two hours before the Mavericks play the New York Knicks athome. As always Nowitzki stops by the office of assistant coach Joe Prunty.

"Where's thehairy little man?" bellows Nowitzki, sticking his giant blond head into theoffice and twisting it to and fro.

Prunty looks upfrom his desk on the far side of the room, and Nowitzki breaks into a grin."Oh, there he is! Joe P-P, you ready?"

The two head off tothe court, where Prunty feeds Nowitzki the ball at various spots on the floor.Taken out of the context of a game, Nowitzki's shooting motion is almostherky-jerky. While shooting threes, he pigeon-toes his right foot to the lineand leaves his left staggered behind him, like a man learning to surf. Next, heraises the ball from below his hip in a long, swooping motion and, finally,releases the shot, his right hand following through while his off hand splaysto the left and his legs kick outward. Of course, most people watch only theball, with its perfect rotation, snapping through the net. "Purest shotyou'll see," says Suns center Amaré Stoudemire.

Nowitzki has alwaysbeen able to shoot. "The one thing that was missing was his passing,"says Golden State Warriors coach Don Nelson, the former Dallas coach, whostarts chanting "M-V-P! M-V-P!" when asked about Nowitzki. It's notthat Nowitzki lacked floor vision, his teammates and coaches say, but that hedidn't always make the right decision. "His passes are crisp now," sayspoint guard Jason Terry. "Last year they might have got deflected, or hemight have spun and thrown up a shot over two people. Now he trusts histeammates more." The result: Now the Mavericks actually want teams todouble Nowitzki. "This is the first year," says Harris, "where youcould really say he's made his teammates better."

Opponents usevarious tactics to defend Nowitzki. Golden State has had success by attackinghim on the spin--Nelson believes Nowitzki is vulnerable on the dribble--andmaking him go to his right. (Though right-handed, Nowitzki is more dangerousgoing left.) Other clubs put smaller guys on him, or switch on thepick-and-roll. But Nowitzki has developed a vast and at times strangerepertoire to counter those moves. His post game has improved immensely, and hecan now shoot hooks with either hand, drive both sides of the lane and, onoccasion, throw up invented shots. "He's got this one-legged, like, runnerfadeaway," says first-year Maverick Devean George, who guarded Nowitzkiwhen George was a Laker. "He's dribbling away from the basket, so yourhands are down, and then he just throws it up there as he's running, off thewrong foot. It's a shot when you don't even think there could be a shot."Says Stoudemire, "You can't anticipate his shots because he does so muchawkwardly."

That's part of thereason that Nowitzki is not more popular in the U.S.: Everything he does isungainly. Against the Knicks on this night, whenever he rebounds or goes toblock a shot or even outlets the ball, he is graceless, flailing. Even on hisjumper the only thing that looks beautiful is the release.

As effective asNowitzki's fadeaway is, it poses a bit of a Catch-22 for the Mavs. If yourtallest player is jumping away from the basket, he's not much use on theboards. As Harris puts it, "The fadeaway is pretty much unstoppable, butit's also pretty much unreboundable by him." Against New York, Nowitzkirelies on the jumper early, but the inferior Knicks keep making runs andeventually take the lead in the second half. During a fourth-quarter timeoutDallas coach Avery Johnson is so mad he can't even speak to his team. Soveteran Jerry Stackhouse pulls Nowitzki aside and barks, "Dirk, just get tothe basket! You can't shoot fadeaway jumpers on Channing Frye. He can't guardyou!"

Nowitzki takes theadvice, bulling to the hoop to lead the Mavs to a 105--103 win. "That's thething about the fadeaway," Stackhouse says later. "It looks pretty whenit goes in, but in playoff basketball, you get to the end of a five- orsix-game series, that shot is not going to go down. The only guy who had thelegs to do that was MJ, and we still don't know how he did it. I think Dirk islearning that."

As awkward asNowitzki can look, he appears even more so next to Nash, one of the mostgraceful players in the league. The Suns guard, 33, is always moving fluidly,his soccer and hockey training evident. (Indeed, when Nash dribbles under thebasket and passes back to a cutter, he resembles a skater circling the net todish the puck.)

In fact Nash'sdefining skill may be his exceptional body control, not his shooting orpassing. Consider a move he makes in the first quarter of the game againstDallas. Nash drives by Josh Howard to the left and, upon gaining a step, doessomething counterintuitive: He slows down. This throws Howard off-balance andcreates contact. Nash can now extend his left hand away from his body, ratherthan up, to release an uncontested shot. "If I just run and put it straightoff the glass, he can beat me in pretty easily," Nash explains. "But ifI dictate when the race starts and stops, I have a chance to beat him."Furthermore, because Nash has slowed the play he does not commit to it--hekeeps his passing angles open, and it is harder for his defender to take acharge.

Nash's otherunusual skill is his ability to pass with one hand. In the game against theMavericks, by one unofficial count, 47 of his 68 passes are one-handed (orprimarily so). One in particular has a ridiculous degree of difficulty: acrosscourt lefthanded scoop pass from outside the three-point line, whichassistant coach Alvin Gentry calls the "southpaw slinger." Later onNash dribbles along the right wing and, without breaking stride, throws aone-handed backdoor bounce pass to Leandro Barbosa for a layup. What'sremarkable about the play is that Nash doesn't change anything--the height ofthe dribble, his speed, the position of his body--to ready the pass. He merelymoves his hand from over the ball to behind it. "If I could make every passwith two hands I would," Nash says. "But if I gather with two handsevery time, that cuts down exponentially the amount of avenues and openings onthe court."

Which brings up thebiggest misconception about Nash: that he is an overachieving nonathlete whohas made good mostly on smarts and hustle. But to suggest that Nash isn't agood athlete is to define athlete in the narrowest fashion. In many ways Nashis one of the best athletes in the NBA. He probably could have playedprofessional soccer (his brother, Martin, does), and he was an excellent youthhockey player. "He wins at pretty much everything he does," saysWhitley, who lists arm wrestling and beer chugging as the only two events inwhich he can take Nash. "He won't pick up a golf club for nine months, andthen he'll shoot in the low 80s. His hand-eye coordination is amazing."

To Nash, the rap onhim is a matter of semantics. "In our business people always equateathleticism with explosiveness, not with coordination, agility, footwork orcreativity," he says. "I know I could learn to do anything, basically.I've always been able to pick things up athletically, even though I might notbe dunking the ball." Even that last statement is not entirely true. At apractice two months ago Nash surprised teammates by dunking twice, once withhis left hand off his right foot and once off two feet on an alley-oop fromRaja Bell. Neither dunk, Nash takes pains to point out, was what one would callthunderous. "But," he says, "just barely still counts."

Clearly, Nash andNowitzki do not fit the mold of the traditional NBA star. Yet it is stillperplexing that neither player is more popular in the U.S. (Neither of theirjerseys was a top 10 seller last season.)

It's easier tounderstand why Nowitzki has not caught the nation's fancy. Traditionally bigmen aren't as popular as guards, especially if they shoot fadeaways and do notplay to the crowds or the media. But Nash would seem to be a perfect fit: He issmart, funny and easy for the typical fan to relate to--that is, he's arelatively short white man. He's also the best passer of his generation and oneof the best shooters. So why isn't he a bigger hit with fans?

Certainly,nationality plays a part--even if Nash dismisses this as "a fleeting pointbecause I think a lot of people don't even realize I'm Canadian." Hisdefensive shortcomings are another factor; though Nash has become a good teamdefender, he remains below average overall and can appear awkward. (Nowitzkihas great hands but falls into the same category.)

Exposure also playsa role: Fewer dunks means fewer highlights, and if one doesn't shoot soda orshoe ads then one can't appear during the commercial breaks of Monday NightFootball. In this area both Nash and Nowitzki have made a conscious choice."I'm not trying to make a brand out of myself," says Nowitzki. "Ilove to play, and I love the sport, but I don't play it to gainpopularity." Many of Nash's endorsements are with obscure Canadiancompanies that share his concern for the environment. (A company must include acharitable component in any deal with Nash; for example, the beverage firmClearly Canadian helps maintain sustainable water sources in Third Worldvillages.)

The duo'srespective worldviews are likely a product of their upbringings. Both men wereraised in sports cultures in which no player was bigger than the team. To beheld above others, as Nash and Nowitzki are by fans and the media, feels wrong."I get really embarrassed," says Nash. "It's like, 'I'm watchingthem talk about me.' How self-indulgent is that? It makes me feelfunny."

Perhaps, it issuggested to him, in a country where athletes pound their chests and speak ofthemselves in the third person, this sentiment is in itself un-American.

"There yougo," Nash says, smiling. "Now you might be onto something."

The old crew rarelygets together as it used to. Nash and Whitley have children now, and Nowitzkireturns to Germany once the season ends. So when the opportunity arises to hangout, as it does the day before their game in Phoenix, the former teammatesembrace it.

Nowitzki is thefirst to arrive at the Ritz-Carlton for a photo shoot; then Nash wanders in andhugs his friend. It's startling how different they look from only a couple ofyears ago. The shaggy '70s hairstyles are gone, replaced with a short, flat 'dofor Nash and a buzz cut for Nowitzki, which, coupled with his stubbly goateeand crooked nose, makes him look like an oversized boxer. The two catch up,talking about mutual friends, and then josh each other during the shoot."Can you spread 'em any wider?" says Nash as Nowitzki poses with hislegs apart.

"Look, thelittle runt no more!" Nowitzki says when Nash stands on a box.

Afterward they walkout of the hotel, Nash in shorts and a T-shirt and Nowitzki in a baggy blueMavs sweat suit, and drive off in Nash's silver Range Rover. Once upon a timethe duo might have stopped at a bar to grab a cold one, but things aredifferent now. Nash's wife is out of town, so they head to his house inScottsdale to watch the Final Four and let his 2 1/2-year-old twins, Lola andBella, climb all over Nowitzki. The girls don't see Nowitzki often enough toremember him, but they warm up quickly. His nickname is tío loco--crazyuncle--and the next morning they will ask about him incessantly. Says Nash ofNowitzki's godfather duties, "I don't know if he gives a s---, but it'scool for me."

They part ways forthe night. In less than 24 hours they will take the court for a showdown thatmany think could determine who wins the MVP (though Nash says, "I thinkit's a done deal. Dirk will get it"). As always, at some point Nash andNowitzki will square off at the top of the key. Nowitzki will refrain fromtalking trash, and Nash will hold off on making fun of his friend's stiffdefensive stance. Then Nash will feint, Nowitzki will back up, and it willstart again, two lives looping around each other, taking the league withthem.

EXTRA
The Bonus
Alexander Wolff on how advances in digital video technology are changing theway the game is coached and played. ONLY AT SI.COM

For the 20-year-old rookie Nowitzki, Nash's friendshipwas A SAFE HAVEN. The two bonded over their outsider status, their lukewarmreceptions and their shared love of practice.

"It's staggering to think those two were on thesame team," says a rival G.M. "But I don't think they'd have become theplayers they are today IF THEY HADN'T SEPARATED."

Both Nash and Nowitzki were raised in sports culturesin which no one was bigger than the team. To be held up above others, as theyare by fans and the media, FEELS WRONG.

 

PHOTOMATT YORK/AP PHOTOPhotograph by Robert Beck PHOTOSAM FORENCICH/NBAE/GETTY IMAGES PHOTOTOM FOX/THE DALLAS MORNING NEWS/AP THEUPPER HAND
Nash's Suns are 12--11 (including playoffs) against Nowitzki's Mavericks overthe last three seasons.
PHOTOJEFFREY LOWEWILDRIDE
In 2003 the duo led Cuban to the Western finals.
PHOTOGLENN JAMES/NBAE/GETTY IMAGES (INSET) PHOTOGREG NELSON RISINGSUN
Nash won MVP awards in his first two seasons after leavingDallas.
PHOTOLINDA KAYE/AP (INSET)

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)