There was a buzz in American Airlines Center. It had hung in the air for the previous two games but tonight it reached a crescendo. “Will he do it?” “What quarter?” Everyone in the building wanted to know if he or she would witness history tonight.
Coming into the night, Dirk Nowitzki, the face of the Dallas Mavericks for the past 19 seasons, was a mere 20 points away from 30,000 for his career. Only five players have previously crossed a threshold in NBA history. While the excitement in the building was tangible, it was clear that the team was ready to get it over with.
“This has been like a slow moving, gathering weather front,” head coach Rick Carlisle said before the game. “My belief is this: There’s such a high level of respect for him and the milestone that to talk about it is probably not appropriate. It’s more appropriate to stay within the process and keep going.”
Leading up to tonight, Carlisle had all but stopped answering questions about Nowitzki’s pending achievement. “What is there really to say?” he would respond. It seemed as though the topic had become a weight on the team’s shoulders. One that they were eager to cast off.
“Abso-fucking-lutely,” Mark Cuban responded when asked if he wanted to Nowitzki to hit the mark tonight. “And I know one guy who wants it over with even more.”
That one guy didn’t wait long to make history.
After winning the tip, the Los Angeles Lakers got in the board first with a Nick Young floater. Down on the other end, as he has done so many times before, Dirk got the scoring going for the Mavericks, hitting a jumper from the left elbow. Then, 30 seconds later, he nailed a trailing 3-pointer from the top of the arc, a shot that has become almost as famous as his one-legged fade.
Two possessions later, he drained another three and was fouled in the process. At this point, it was clear that Nowitzki was going to make history tonight. He already had eight points two minutes and 15 seconds into the game. 15 seconds after that he had nine points after sinking his free throw. This was a special performance and the crowd knew it.
Each time Nowitzki touched the ball, the crowd swelled. A collective breath filled its lungs, ready to let out a thunderous cheer when leather met nylon. Swish. Roar.
With 7:40 remaining in the first quarter, Nowitzki resumed his onslaught, this time connecting on a free throw line jumper on which he was fouled. As he stepped to the line to take the penalty shot, chants of “MVP” rained down from the crowd. Naturally, he made the free throw.
30 seconds later, he was on the board again, this time draining a fade away from the right block over D’Angelo Russell. Seconds after that, he scored again, this time on a technical foul free throw after the Lakers committed a defensive 3-second violation.
Dirk was up to 14 points now and he hadn’t missed. After his opening salvo, everyone knew he would reach 30,000 tonight. Now, the question became, will he do it in the first quarter? He was playing at another level. A level that Mavs fans grew accustomed to over the years. It’s why even today, when Dirk puts up a shot, the crowd at the AAC assumes he is going to make it. That’s how good he has been throughout his career. Tonight, saw that Dirk once again.
Nowitzki scored 14 points in the first five and a half minutes of the game without missing a shot. This is the point of the game that Carlisle usually subs him out. Would tonight be different? Would he leave him in to get his remaining six points? He wouldn’t. Carlisle is a creature of habit at times. Nerlens Noel replaced Nowitzki on the floor.
Dreams of seeing Dirk hit the 30,000 mark in the first quarter weren’t dashed after he went to the bench. He reentered the game with 3:12 remaining and got back to work. He made a 15-footer from the right side to give him 16 points. He still hadn’t missed at this point but he wouldn’t remain perfect, though. Nowitzki missed his next shot, a turnaround fade away from the left baseline.
He would make another two foul shots before the quarter was over giving him 18 points. On the Mavericks’ final possession of the first, Dirk got the ball at the 3-point line, the crowd’s energy grew, but he was forced to pass it as the Lakers closed out on him. He didn’t get to 30,000 in the first quarter but that didn’t matter. At this point, it was inevitable.
Then it happened.
With 10:58 left in the second quarter, Devin Harris got the ball to Nowitzki on the right baseline. He turned to face his defender, Larry Nance Jr. After squaring him up and making a few foot moves, he rose and shot, as he has done countless times before, his right foot in the air, his left foot planted, pushing him up as he fades back.
“I’ve been sort of scoring a little slow,” Nowitzki said after the game describing the events leading into to tonight. “The other night, in the first half, was really the first time since the All-Star break where I had a really good rhythm. I just kept working the last couple of days, you know Holger is obviously here, and we’ve been shooting every day, just trying to put in that work and find that rhythm. And today it was kind of that mindset: Go for it. Go for it. Let it ride.
“Obviously, a lot of play calls came my way early. Guys kept finding me in good spots and I just said, ‘You got to let it ride. You got to go for it.’ And I was able to get hot really, really early and that helped to get it out of the way. You know you don’t want to drag this on. Guys tried to feed me. It was perfect that way, getting it out of the way and we were able to play a good team game after that.”
Not one to be strictly serious, Nowitzki made light of the fact he was able to accomplish this milestone in front of a home crowd.
“It’s almost like it was planned, you know,” he joked. “With all the eight point games I’ve been having after the break really set it up well. But for this to happen at home, on this home stand, I’m happy it worked that way.”
After being clearly fed up with questions about Dirk reaching 30,000 points, Carlisle was more than happy to talk about the achievement after the game.
“We all witnessed one of the most amazing accomplishments, really in the history of sports,” Carlisle said. “For me, this was a 13:02 microcosm of one of the greatest careers in the history of this game; meticulous preparation, total commitment, unbelievable competitive spirit and a real flair for the moment. Watching Dirk the last couple of days, there was no doubt that this was going to happen tonight...”
“His shot making was absolutely breathtaking,” he continued. “We’re all privileged to be some part of this. I congratulate Dirk. I congratulate Holger Geschwindner, his longtime mentor who has done such an amazing job of bringing him along throughout his career starting when he was a teenager. We’re extremely thrilled for Dirk. It’s going to take a while to sink in; what this really means. The benchmark in baseball is 3,000 hits, and there are 30 guys with 3,000 hits in the history of baseball. There’s only six that have 30,000 points in the history of our game. The magnitude of this moment is something that we’ll all probably need some time to digest.”
It will probably be a while before any of us can truly digest and appreciate Nowitzki’s career. It’s one that so few of us get to see, especially from a personality as welcoming and as approachable as Dirk’s. 30,000 points is something the league doesn’t see often. While there are others who are playing now that will join Nowitzki in this rare club, Dirk took us on this beautiful ride.
We’ll celebrate this moment, and all our other meaningful memories of his career, in our own way for years to come. As for Nowitzki, he allowed himself a small celebratory indulgence tonight to commemorate the moment.
“I just had a Bud Light for the first time in a long time,” Nowitzki said smiling.
After 30,000 points, he deserves it.