This season has provided plenty of opportunities to watch our Mavericks play without NBA icon Dirk Nowitzki. Though reckoning with Dirk’s eventual retirement has been the subject of hushed conversations in Dallas since 2011, it’s finally hitting home for me. The pain of seeing this team struggle through its worst season in 16 years has built steadily, deepened by the knowledge that number 41’s chances to suit up are dwindling. Recently, after seeing Dirk once again pacing the sidelines in street clothes, I was hit with a heartbreaking revelation: my kids, should I blessed to have children one day, will never know an NBA with Dirk Nowitzki in it.
I had to step away from the TV and collect myself for a minute.
When I returned to the couch composed, I wondered why this realization had such a profound effect on me. Of course I’ll miss seeing Dirk play, but thanks to YouTube, showing my kids his prowess on the court won’t be difficult. We’ll be able to turn on the Apple TV— or whatever mind reading, direct-to-eyeball content-streaming service will be on offer in the future — and watch every top-of-the-key trailer three, every post-up-spin-and-dunk, every face-up, clutch-time, one-legged game winner. And it will be magnificent.
But try as they might, my kids won’t be able to grasp just how revolutionary it all was and just how much we were in awe of the way he played the game.
Dirk broke a lot of new ground in this league. Now that every team has a small ball lineup and stretch 4’s (and even stretch 5’s) are commonplace, it’s easy to forget that when Dirk came to the NBA, shooting big men were not, as the teens say, a thing. Sports commentators, coaches and other players were quick to declare that Dirk was too soft, too Euro, not strong enough, couldn’t rebound well enough and that his style of play would never fit in the NBA.
I don’t think that will ever come across to those who weren’t there to see it happen. Kids who grow up watching Kristaps Porzingis being adored by some of the harshest basketball fans in the country will never be able to grasp how much courage it took for Dirk to continue to play his way, despite every expert telling him he would never succeed. It’s not just that Dirk was great, he was great in a way no one had ever been before.
And as if reimagining the power forward position wasn’t enough, the persona of Dirk Nowitzki, the superstar athlete, was also completely unique. Before Dirk, when you thought of an NBA Superstar you thought of people like Jordan and Kobe — cold-blooded killers who never showed any sign of weakness and played not just to win but to destroy. They embodied the alpha-male ego so perfectly that stories of their boundless competitive spirit became legends.
Tyson Chandler recalls that during one Olympics, Kobe became visibly angry at the mere sight of another team in the cafeteria, and he could not handle losing even in a ping pong game with reporters. Jordan got so hot in one practice that he punched teammate Steve Kerr in face. And he hasn’t mellowed with age, recently sinking several shots to deny hundreds of kids free sneakers at Chris Paul’s summer camp.
Dirk, however, has never fit that alpha-male mold. He admitted to struggling with his confidence long after he was an established superstar, took a hometown discount instead demanding a farewell mega contract, and while he can definitely talk some trash (“Do you speak Chinese?”), he has a reputation for being gracious as a teammate and opponent.
In the summers when other players were banana boating in the Bahamas or hitting up New York Fashion Week, Dirk went home to Germany to play on the national team and visit his parents. He even hushed the press about his annual Christmas visits to a children’s hospital for years, not wanting to attract attention to his generosity. He is a different kind of superstar, through and through.
Most of us will never play sports professionally, and so playing them and watching them, while enjoyable, is only truly valuable in as much as it teaches us lessons we can use throughout our lives. Watching Dirk on the court back when I was an awkward, nerdy kid showed me that working hard and staying true to myself could be a path to greatness. Watching Dirk off the court showed me that no one is too famous, too important or too accomplished to be humble and remember where they came from.
I learned a lot from watching him play, and I just wish my kids could have the same chance.