Dirk Nowitzki has taught me a lot over the years, and I think the most important thing has been humility. It turns out that it's easy to be humble when everyone knows you're great, even though a lot of the greats aren't. But it takes character when, like Dirk, you spend most of your career being unfairly maligned. In his time in the NBA, I think Dirk Nowitzki has been the best player in the league 2 or 3 times. I think he's been top 3 or 4 most of his career, and I think he's still top 10. But until 2011, the national media didn't appreciate him. That's when character comes through.
One of my clearest memories in this vein was the 2009 playoffs where, after surprisingly squeaking past the third seeded Spurs, the Mavericks lost to the Nuggets in five games. I remember Dirk said something offhandedly about how well Denver guarded him, and the talking heads went nuts. Everybody was going on about how the great ones, the ones with the will to win, NEVER say that kind of thing.
In that series, Dirk averaged 34.4 points, 11.6 rebounds, 4.0 assists and a block. He shot 53.4% from the field and 39% from three, as well as 92% from the line. In the one game they won, he went for 44-13 and 56% shooting and didn't even take a three. He was absolutely insane. If ever there were a time for a guy to say "guys, pay a LITTLE attention to what I do, rather than what I say," that was it. But that's not him. Dirk is a humble guy.
There are a lot of good guys in the NBA, and a lot of their good work goes unreported. That's, I'm sure, the way they want it, and in Dirk's case, it's just part of who he is. But, this one, at least, I'm going to tell you about.
When Justin Galit was 17 years old, he was diagnosed with Leukemia/Lymphoma (he tells me the full name is Biphenotypical Extramedullary Lymphoblastic Lymphoma, in case it comes up on Jeopardy). Justin has been, he says, a Mavs fan since Dirk's rookie year, so much so that when he got sick his mom tried to get in contact with the team through the Make-A-Wish Foundation. But, since Justin turned 18 shortly after he started treatment, there wasn't much that worthy organization could do. But in 2007-2008 Leslie Berry of the Mavs organization stepped in and organized a meet and greet for him with the Mavericks players. That's when he first met Dirk.
It wasn't an easy time for him. Usually, as he says, in those days his white blood cell count was too low to allow him around people. That is, when you have a low white blood cell count, your body's immune response is severely compromised and catching even a garden variety disease can be fatal. But with the help of Ms. Berry, and luck, he was healthy enough just then to leave the hospital and go to the game. He says it was one of the greatest moments of his life. But that wasn't the end of it.
Justin lives about an hour north of Miami, which, in 2009-10, resulted in him becoming a Heat season ticket holder. He hadn't planned on it; he says that basically he'd saved up enough money to buy a courtside seat for the Mavs game that year, but whoever was working the ticket office that day told him he could get the season tickets for more or less the same price as a courtside seat. So he went ahead and did it. You all know where this is going. The next year, Justin got to see Dirk raise the trophy in Miami.
Justin says that he sees Dirk at more or less every Mavs game in the area. There's even video proof of them horsing around. He says he often goes to the Orlando Magic games as well, since they're close enough. It happened last year that the Orlando game was the same night as the "Light the Night Walk," a Leukemia and Lymphoma Society event for which his mom helps raise money. He told me that when he told Dirk, at a Miami game, why he was missing the Orlando game, Dirk told him that if he changed his mind, he'd leave him tickets. His mom told him to go for it, and he did. That night, he took his girlfriend to meet Dirk in the Orlando locker room, which is not a bad date move.
When we talked about his story, Justin made it clear to me how much he appreciates everyone in the Mavs organization: especially Dirk, but everybody else too, from top to bottom. In fact, although Mavs games can sometimes feel like life or death to the rest of us, Justin credits the Mavs with literally saving his life. He says the first time he met Dirk was six months or so after he was first diagnosed -- six months spent in and out of the hospital not knowing how things would go. Obviously, he was at a really low point. But meeting his sports idol, he says, made all that stress go away.
Justin says that right before the 2011 Finals, he had surgery on his neck to see if the cancer had reoccurred. Although the scan would come back clean, at the time of the Finals Justin was still waiting to hear. In Game 1, as the Mavs lost, he says Heat fans started pelting him with those white seat covers they had in those days which, he says, if they're knotted, hurt more than you think. In Game 2, when the game looked out of reach, they started up again, probably because of the sign he was carrying.
When Dirk hit that three to make it 93-90 Mavericks, Justin picked up all the ones sitting at his feet, all 50 or so of them, turned around, and did the "LeBron Powder Toss" to all the fans behind him.
Dirk, for all you do, on and off the court, thank you.