My first memory of Dirk Nowitzki from way back in 2001 is lodged deep in my brain. I was on the cusp of being a teenager, and I hated sports. Hated them.
I was too tall for a seventh grader, so of course I was thrown into basketball. Of course, I hated it, but when you’re taller than everyone else in middle school, there isn’t much discussion — you’re playing basketball and your ass better not get out of the paint.
It sucked, and standing in the paint and getting my ass kicked every practice wasn’t doing much for my view of the sport. Then my dad took me to a Mavericks game.
When I got to my seat I stared out onto the court while the Mavs warmed up. I could not avert my gaze from the seven footer who moved and shot like a guard. I asked my dad something that seems ludicrous almost 20 years later.
“Who’s that tall guy with the long blonde hair?”
His name is Dirk Nowitzki and there will never be one like him again.
* * *
The worst part about our sports heroes is that they’re human. We hold these legends to impossible standards and expect greatness every night, so it’s no wonder we’re usually disappointed along the way. How many times have you opened a magazine, newspaper or web browser and shaken your head? Athletes aren’t always the shining beacon of humanity we like to think of them as.
Legends are supposed to be better than us — not make the same human mistakes us schmoes make on a daily basis. I think that’s why we love Dirk so much. He does seem better than us. Not once in his career have you ever felt bad about going hog-wild in fandom for him.
We asked everything of him, and he did it.
We asked him to be an All-Star after being a top-10 pick. He did it. We asked him to be a franchise player after Steve Nash left. He did. We routinely asked him to carry rosters without All-Stars deep into the playoffs. He did it and then some. We asked Dirk to be perfect in almost every way.
And the most remarkable thing about Dirk’s career isn’t that he did it, but how quietly he did.
So many sports legends are, to put it bluntly, psychos. To be as amazing at anything as these guys are, you have to be ruthless, relentless and a little crazy. I have no doubt Dirk shares those qualities, but he’s always seemed like one of the few sports legends we could relate to if we were suddenly gifted basketball powers and $20 million contracts. You look at Dirk and think “yeah, that’s how I’d be if I were famous.”
* * *
I’ll never forget my first interaction with Dirk. I was writing a feature on him tweaking his shot a couple years ago, and he was taking ages to get out of the shower.
Every other player had left, and most of the reporters too — it was a preseason game, so no one cared. But I knew I wouldn’t be able to attend another home game for a bit, and I needed some quotes for the story. I waited and waited, until those of us still hanging around heard something peculiar coming from the shower.
It was someone singing. Suddenly it stopped and a few moments later, in sauntered Dirk wearing his towel. He got to his locker as the remaining reporters swarmed him before quipping “how’d you guys like that?”
That’s Dirk. On one side he’s the stone-cold, crunch-time killer and an NBA legend. Practically a god in the sporting world.
But on the other side, there’s the goofy dude wearing a giant turkey head and a fox nose.
Can you even imagine Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant or most of the other great doing any of the (many) ridiculous things Dirk has done in his career? Has he ever told the Mavericks video staff no?
It doesn’t make Dirk better than any of those legends, of course, but it’s what makes us love him unconditionally.
* * *
Throughout his career Dirk has never really slipped. It’s been almost 20 years of efficient basketball, night-in and night-out, creating an aura of immortality around Dirk.
But this year, his mortality started to show. He’s been hurt for much of the year, posted some out-of-sorts shooting numbers — he just looks old, which is unnerving. Dirk Nowitzki has never looked truly old before.
But the Mavs are winning again with a young roster, and it all turned around when Dirk was finally healthy in mid-December. No matter what Dirk’s counting stats are, his impact on the floor is as massive as his career.
After he reached 30,000 points last night, Dirk admitted he isn’t a basketball robot sent to obliterate teams with clutch buckets — he admitted he felt feelings. “After I got to 18 and I saw the crowd rise up in the second quarter, I got a little nervous and I threw up an air-ball,” Dirk admitted during his post-game on-court interview.
That’s the genius of Dirk — he’s a legend, he’s perfect, but he’s human.