There was Dirk Nowitzki on Wednesday night, just sitting on the bench in casual clothes. It was one of the more terrifying things I've seen as a Mavericks fan.
Dirk is healthy, or about as healthy as a 35-year-old NBA player can be at this point of the season. Yet, on Wednesday, Dirk took a day off. A rest that Rick Carlisle said was needed and was more about the long term future of Dirk and the team.
Normally when Dirk sits out, it's because of injury or perhaps the Mavericks already have their playoff fate sealed at the end of the season. Up until this point, I can't remember Dirk sitting out a meaningful regular season game and being more than able to play.
It brought a rush of reality to my mind -- this is the end. Sure, Dirk has more than a few years left. He's still in the top-10 in PER, he's averaging over 20 points per game and could finish the year with his second 50-40-90 shooting season. Dirk's about as good as he ever was.
That's one of the main reasons it's been easy to block out the eventual Dirk retirement. Up until that Wednesday night, Dirk has been a basketball-killing machine that kept reminding us that there's still more to come. Save for one season where he had his first-ever knee surgery, Dirk hasn't shown any signs of tailing off. He's been brutally efficient and led the team to the playoffs and more. Dirk was always our safety net, no matter how dark of times had fallen on the Mavs.
For a lot of Mavericks fans, I'd imagine, watching Dirk on the Mavs is the only thing they've ever known. Hell, I'm one of them. I didn't start paying attention to Mavericks basketball seriously until around 2003. And it's not like I'm a total youngster, I just wasn't interested in the NBA until then. I can only imagine the people who just weren't old enough to appreciate sports until Dirk arrived.
Dirk and the Mavs is the only thing I've watched from my hometown team. Seeing him play increased my love for the game, inspired my own basketball play and kept me invested throughout the years. Dirk is a transcendent player.
And yet, it's coming to an end. It's hard to keep the visions of a Dirk-less Mavs out of your head when we all got to watch first-hand what the Dirk-less Mavs would be like in the ugly loss to the Raptors -- disorganized, floundering and helpless. The fact that the Mavericks took a 21-point lead in the first quarter was a modern miracle. Even the 2011 Mavs finished 2-7 when Dirk was out with an injury. Dirk is the Mavericks in every sense of the phrase.
The harsh reality set in, watching Dirk sit on the sidelines, perfectly able to hop into the game if the Mavericks had wanted to. Oh my god, Dirk is old was what I thought. We all joke about Dirk being old, but that bitter truth was tough to digest for myself on Wednesday. Dirk is now old enough to where he needs random rest when he's healthy.
It's what's happening to Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili. To be fair, that treatment has also probably extended their careers for a few more seasons. That should be the same for Dirk. But you look at the generation of stars Dirk played with -- Duncan, Garnett, Kobe, Webber, Pierce, Iverson, McGrady, Nash, Allen.
Look at those names. The only guys still playing right now are Pierce and Duncan. Pierce isn't nearly as effective anymore and Duncan can only play so many minutes a night. Garnett looks hobbled, Kobe might never return from two damaging injuries, who knows about Nash and Ray Allen is just a bench player at this point.
That hasn't happened to Dirk...yet. And for that, we've kept his eventual retirement from the Mavs in the most distant parts of our brain. Again, on Wednesday night, those visions were front and center.
Of course, realistically, Dirk is still probably another three to four years away from hanging it up for good. There's no reason why Dirk can't do what he's doing right now for another few years. His shooting touch is impeccable and he'll always have that fade, no matter how much athleticism he loses.
It has been disheartening to see parts of Dirk's game disappear, however. The drives into the paint and the numerous trips to the free throw line seem to be behind Dirk, unless he's saving himself for another playoff run. I hope he is.
But I can't help but fret. I don't know if I want to watch a Dirk-less Mavs. I've been able to push it away for the past few years. Wednesday night was a harsh truth. Dirk Nowitzki won't be a Maverick forever.
Ignorance was bliss.