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Letting go of Dirk Nowitzki and remembering greatness

As they say, Father Time is undefeated. That includes Dirk and all of us.

Dallas Mavericks v Atlanta Hawks Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

The most important shot of Dirk Nowitzki’s life before 2011 was, of all things, a driving, baseline layup, Manu Ginobili’s hand on his wrist like someone trying to hold back history.

At the time it meant everything, and it should have meant more. It didn’t because of what happened in the Finals, and history swung away. After 2011, though, there were so many shots, and I almost feel like I remember them all. That game against OKC where a visibly frustrated Scott Brooks spread out a cornucopia of bigs for Dirk to roast, on his way to 48 points on only fifteen attempts. That three-pointer that arced so high it talked to god before coming down to barely bother the net on its way through. In the Finals, it happened almost every game. When it was all over, when the dust had settled, Dirk had secured his place in the basketball cosmos at the tender age of 32.

It should have happened earlier, a statement that has nothing whatsoever to do with Bennett Salvatore and whether Dwyane Wade deserved what he got. Had the rest of the NBA simply been watching Dirk between 2006 and 2011, which they would have had things gone better, they would have seen him average roughly 25 points a game while shooting .489/.391/.897, despite being so much the focus of other team’s defensive schemes, I’d be surprised if their coaches spent five minutes on anyone else.

And he did it with less: himself. A modern marvel of German engineering, Dirk is now sixth all-time in scoring despite shooting, on average, less than sixteen times a game (15.9). Jordan shot 22.9, LeBron is at 19.6, Kobe was at 19.5, and even Kareem, who also played forever, is at 18. He is one of the three or four deadliest offensive weapons in the game’s history, while taking about as many shots per season as Khris Middleton had last year.

He did so much with less, but the less counted against him, for so long, because he didn’t have the ring. He didn’t have a Kobe for his Shaq or vice versa, he didn’t have a David Robinson, or a Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker. If the guys he did have look comparable, today, for most of that time, it is almost exclusively because they were on his team, which gave them shots they hadn’t had since high school. You can’t find a guy who was important on the Mavs of the 2000s who is known for what he did after Dallas, and there’s a reason for that. Only nobody believed us.

The reality of Dirk

There’s nothing I believe in more than the fact that some day, some one will develop a stat that shows the reality of Dirk, how much more he did than the eye could see. It will explain how one great player took a team that, for example, started the first game of the 2006 Finals alongside Josh Howard, Jason Terry, Adrian Griffin, and DeSagana Diop to 145 playoff games and eleven straight seasons with 50+ wins.

I sometimes think he’d have been appreciated more if his teams were worse, like Kevin Garnett’s were, and like KG was. As if by making his teams better than Garnett’s wolf pups, he made it look too much like it couldn’t be mostly him. As if it’s somehow inexplicable how a titanic offensive force like Dirk would seem to be playing with better offensive players than a merely (sorry) really good offensive player like Garnett, by virtue of the shots that came their way. But then, in 2011, for no reason other than that his luck finally shifted, all that changed, and it has stayed changed. Nobody in the NBA is more universally beloved and appreciated than Dirk Nowitzki, now that his career is almost done. But 32 is too old for a basketball player to become famous and – unlike the rest of us, of course – he has since become older still.

Still, it might not have happened at all. It certainly didn’t look like it could when the series started – this was Mavs-Heat II, of course, but this was the mutant, Monstars version of what they had once been. It certainly didn’t look like it as the waning minutes of Game 2 ticked down, under the tense gaze of a scoreboard that showed a 15-point deficit, with a Game 1 loss already in the books. It certainly hadn’t looked possible before Game 2, when the Mavericks announced that, in addition to the loss of the game, Dirk would thereafter be suffering through a torn ligament in his left hand and a hundred degree fever. But it happened, starting with Game 2. The lead vanished. And with four seconds left, Dirk bounced right, rolled left, ducked between Chris Bosh and LeBron James, and hit a layup over Udonis Haslem with his broken left hand.

That night I said to myself the first time something I’ve told myself a hundred times since: sometimes, you have to hope even though there’s no reason to hope. And even when it isn’t safe to hope. And even though it hurts to hope. For the last three years I was caught in the waves of a brutal job market, never knowing where shore was. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t think of giving up many times during that period, or that I think it ultimately worked out simply because I didn’t. But I wouldn’t have been able to make it through the worst times if I hadn’t been able to say to myself sometimes you have to be able to hope even when there is no reason to hope.

Reflecting on twenty plus years

I wanted to say something about a career that’s almost over. I don’t really know how. I want to say that if you just tuned in, in 2011, you were already too late. It’s not that Dirk in his early thirties wasn’t in some ways the best version of himself. The absolute best offensive players – and in my memory, only Dirk and LeBron have really gotten here – don’t beat you just by hitting impossible shots, they beat you with their complete mastery of the game. It’s a very hard thing to do, putting an entire team’s defense just where you want it, but that’s what they do, and did – they are planetary masses, shaping the gravity of the court, a higher basketball power. Nothing they do looks hard because they are where they want to be and you are where they want you to be.

That was certainly the Dirk who won the championship. Other than three-point percentage, nothing stands out about his 2011 numbers. Over his 145 playoff games, he averaged 25.3 and 10 while shooting .479/.892/.365, and in 2011 for the season it was 27.7 and 8.1 while shooting .488/.941/.460. But 32-year-old Dirk put the game in a cauldron and boiled all the fat off of it. Before you knew it, he’d have his back on you. If you jumped when he turned, he’d brush past you for a layup, and if you didn’t — and even most of the time when he did — he’d hit a jumpshot over you. And if you fouled him, he’d still make it, and hit the free throw. Simple as that.

But you can’t even imagine what Dirk used to be able to do. Even people who followed his entire career, as I did, can’t, anymore. I have this theory that we literally can’t help understanding a player’s entire career in terms of their current level of play. Kobe, who was at his worst an inefficient chucker hid how unbelievably deadly he had been by becoming more so over time — but resembling himself so much in the process that it was too hard to tell the difference. Dirk, too, is hiding behind himself. For one thing, people remember him, as they do all European players, as an outside shooting, light rebounding kind of big, but it’s just not true.

From 2003 until 2013, he took fewer than 23 percent of his shots from three every single year and all but three of those years, under 20 percent. He never averaged double-digit rebounds, but he grabbed 9.9 two years in a row, and believe me when I say that when it mattered, he was getting that board. In his one and only playoff matchup with Kevin Garnett, in 2002, he averaged over fifteen boards a game. When the Mavs beat Sacramento to make their first Western Conference Finals the next year, he grabbed 11, 12, 20, 11, 15, 12, and 19, then 15 in the first game against the Spurs — to go with 38 points on 10-of-19 shooting. Over his career, in playoff elimination games, he averaged 27.6 and 10.9.

Go watch a YouTube video some time — even those of us who remember, forget.

But I also want to say — as strongly as I can — that it doesn’t really matter. One half of a player’s career faces outwards, to the world. Do what you want with that part, I can’t stop you. But the other half faces in, towards those of us who were part of it. When a player matters to you, you own a little part of their career, and it becomes a part of your own story. For Dirk and Dallas, for those of us of a certain age, that’s more true than it’s been for almost anybody in the history of sports.

Every other character in the Dallas sports scene over the last 20 years has a bit part, compared to Dirk, and certainly nobody has 20 years. Tony Romo was the main QB of the Cowboys for about eight seasons, which is how long Adrian Beltre has manned third base for the Rangers. And it’s how long the JET was our shooting guard, before moving on. Twenty years. I was 13 when he showed up, all legs and elbows, and I am 33 now. Forgetting Dirk Nowitzki, after this season, after ten more seasons, after as many as I breathe air on this earth, would be like forgetting my own life. Do what you want, with the part you have. For me, I can see it all at once, like that long, dim corridor the players come out of, stretching backwards into shadows we cannot see. I see him coming out of that tunnel, at 20, 25, 30, 35, with different haircuts, a slowly dissolving gait. Maybe he will come out of it 80 more times.

Knowing how to live

It’s not enough, and it is. What I want you to know is that there will come a time, believe me, when you will wish everything had lasted longer. There will even come a time, not long now, when you begin to feel it while it’s happening. You will lose your youth, and some of those you love, and many more of those you love will be very far away. You will never have enough conversations with your parents, or your spouse, or your siblings. Some days, every minute I spend with my wife I think that I could never get enough of this, but time won’t stop passing. My heart could burst with it. It won’t stop being true. If “growing up” means anything at all it means finding the courage to go on, knowing how much will end, how soon. It’s a skill no one gains gladly.

But when that time comes you will know how to live, most days, with what has happened, as if it were enough. I could wish that I were in the middle of Dirk’s career, with ten productive years to go, and I also can’t live with the thought that they’d go any other way. I wish he had more rings, which easily could have happened, and he could easily have gone without having any at all.

I wish more people knew him, faster, but they know him now. He meant things to me no other player ever will — if I am less involved in basketball than I was seven years ago, and I am, it is at least 90 percent because I know that no sporting event could ever again make me as happy as Dirk Nowitzki getting the ring he deserved, in the most improbable fashion, against the most improbable team.

All I can wish, then, is that you will have, from sports, at least the bright days I have already had. Life is cruel, some stories will not end well, or will be too short — perhaps even yours, and certainly many around you. Some people are born at the end of an age, expecting the stability their parents enjoyed. I have already lost many friends, and relatives, and loved ones. I will lose many more. And all of us, if we live, outlive our strength. But maybe you don’t need a second chance when the first one was so beautiful.

This is the long goodbye. So is every day of your entire life, and this matters a lot less. But it mattered to me, and it’s a part of me, and that’s enough. I am lucky I grew up with Dirk Nowitzki, and it won’t ever have been any other way. It never won’t feel cruel, in some ways at least, to wake up where you are, and not where you were, whole landscapes of time suddenly stretching out beyond you. Because we want to hold on to some things forever. Because what we lose in time is truly lost, but we always feel like we just had it in our hands. Because we always think it will stay where we put it, that we will find it again if we just look where we remember it was.

In the end, the two things we can’t change are the past and what the past has done to us. What we have, we have paid for, one way or another. In this case, for Dirk, it was the hours and days in the gyms, for me the days and decades of hoping against hope and mostly losing. We are all sadder than we used to be, but maybe tougher, too. We are hopefully wiser, and everything leaves its marks on our skin. We are heavy with time, or we are growing heavier, and there is no other way it could be. What we own that no one can see — that’s what no one can take.

I am ready to watch Dirk play what is likely the last season of his career, as I never thought I would be. He is safe, his story already has a happy ending, and that part of my life, therefore, does too. We have held on to each other as long as we can, and it has been enough. Other things, I will never let go, until time pries the fingers from my hand. Some things you should never lose gracefully. And sometimes you have to hope, when there is no reason to hope. Either way, there is nothing we can do but keep jogging out of the tunnel until our time is up. We can live with that, and I can live with this. Ready or not, here it comes.