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Dirk Nowitzki, the end, and the beginning

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On parallel paths and the influence one player has had on a life.

NBA: Playoffs-Oklahoma City Thunder at Dallas Mavericks Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

Soon, Dirk Nowitzki will become a young man, and I will become older.

In 2019, forty is a young father’s age, the age of someone just getting into the swing of their career – provided, of course, that career is not in professional sports. Thirty-four, which I will be when he retires is – well, it’s younger. But the world of sports fandom is divided between those who have their best days ahead, and those who can only speak about them in the past tense. I will graduate from one to the other. I don’t want to. But I will.

Today, I cringe when I see Dirk miss a jump shot, which he does much more often than he did even a year ago. No one else cares. In New York, the mecca, they demanded to see Dirk, cheered when he shot, groaned when he missed. In Boston, he got a standing ovation, at Staples, they stopped the game. Barclays was delirious.

They’re just glad to see him. I care. He cares. Mavericks fans care. For two out of the three of us, it’s not because we’re disappointed him. It’s because the arrow of time never, ever, ever points any direction but forwards, and holding time back is like holding the sea back with a shovel. We would. But we can’t.

There was another time, long ago, now, when I also used to watch the Mavericks with one eye on the game and one on Dirk’s box score. It was a time called “most of the ‘00s” when all of this was unimaginable because nobody outside of Dallas knew how great Dirk was. I just wanted him to get his due, and I thought one more ridiculous year might do it. I don’t think it would have. Not until 2011. They cheer him now like they don’t remember he was thirty-two years old before they started to love him. I’m glad they don’t remember. I really am. I can’t forget. I… don’t think I would.

We never understood Dirk, and what he did, even those of us who loved him. We still don’t. I never liked arguments for greatness based on supporting talent because, guess what, supporting talent is one of the many, many things the all-time greats make look good. People compare Dirk’s rosters to KG’s or, say, Anthony Davis’s, but you can’t, because the gravity of Dirk Nowitzki’s offensive game is a deeper mystery than our math can fathom.

Maybe the Mavericks were a pale imitation of the Spurs all those years, but here’s the thing: they weren’t a pale imitation of anyone else in the history of the game. The C-Webb-and-Peja Kings came and went, and after them, the Six Seconds or Less Suns. The Jail Blazers and the Brandon Roy Blazers. All that time, the Mavericks couldn’t miss the playoffs if they tried. Twelve straight playoff trips, fifteen in sixteen years. From Dirk’s third year to his eighteenth, no matter who was on the team. It wasn’t some coincidence.

But he was disrespected, until 2011. Well, a lot of guys are until they win. For him, one crime is that his game looked like so many other unsuccessful Euro perimeter players. Except it wasn’t. The other thing, much harder, is that before Dirk we didn’t truly understand the jump shot – a strange thing to say since it was invented in the ‘30s. But it’s true. We didn’t know, yet, that a person who could shoot from more or less anywhere, at any time, and probably make it, no matter what you did, was inventing a new kind of game, and one whose vast shape, even now, we are only beginning to glimpse. Dirk was a radio signal from another planet; a schematic for something that hadn’t been built. He should have been greeted by Amy Adams upon Arrival. In this one sense, at least, Stephen Curry, James Harden, and all the rest are his descendants.

When I think of Dirk, one of the games that springs most quickly to mind – with his titanic duel against Tracy McGrady, his sudden discovery of his game against Utah in the middle of the ’01 playoffs, his dunk on Manu Ginobili – is Game One of the third round of the 2011 playoffs against the Oklahoma City Thunder in their absolute prime. That was the night he put up 48 points on 15 shots. Poor Scotty Brooks tried everything, just a vast, rotating assemblage of arms and legs, flailing uselessly at the air. Serge Ibaka, then in his prime as a defender, Kevin Durant, always dramatically underrated in that category. Nick Collison, with his – well I think they usually call it “grit”. It didn’t matter who was standing in front of him, it wouldn’t have mattered if it was Ben Wallace, or the Leaning Tower of Pisa. Dirk would turn around, get the shot he wanted, it would fall, and another impossibly tall impossible athlete would receive one of the worst defensive assignments of all time.

What I will tell my children is that his whole career was like that. In any given year, you could hear announcers talking about how someone Dirk was habitually compared to was actually better than him, if you looked past the names. Pau Gasol, because they were both European players, Steve Nash because they had been on the Mavericks together, Tony Parker, even occasionally Andrea Bargnani. Certainly Kevin Love. Dirk proved them wrong just by chugging along, making another shot, having another great season. In the end, it was the inevitability of Dirk that wore them all down. Any one game, any one season, someone might shine brighter, some of the time. But one day you’d wake up – with two minutes left in the fourth or a decade down the road – and realize Dirk was still there, quietly putting up more points than almost anyone who ever lived.

So much for Dirk the basketball player, who meant more to me than anybody who ever played any sport in any country in the compass of man. But what really makes our favorite players what they are, of course, is that they are part of our lives – in this case, that at any given point since I was 13 years old, I could turn on the TV and see Dirk doing his thing. Basketball players retire all the time, even the great ones. What they mean to us, what it feels like is going away, are the years we spent with them, however far away. In other words, my life of Dirk Nowitzki, the thing that, one way or another, is drawing to a close, is also, of course, my own.

In 1998, when Dirk entered the league as a twenty-year old player, I was in junior high. I had glasses the size of small moons, and braces, and I looked away when people tried to make eye contact with me.

In 2001, when Dirk’s Mavericks made the playoffs, I was two years from graduating high school. I was 6’ 1” and weighed about 150 pounds. My friends and I would shoot hoops at the University of Texas at Dallas four or five times a week, and late into the night. They had a light that you had to turn a crank to keep going. We’d play ‘til 1, 2, 3 in the morning, then go grab Gatorade from a 7-11.

In 2003, when they almost made the Finals for the first time, when they would have, I think, had Dirk not hurt his knee, I was graduating high school, and I got a jittery feeling when I saw Steve Kerr standing on the sidelines about to come in, wearing shorts that were teleported in from the 1950s. I still regret it, but Don Nelson held him out to protect his future career. Well, hello, it’s sixteen years later. I’ll take it.

In 2006, when Dirk should have won his first ring – would have won his first ring – I flew home from Providence, Rhode Island where I was attending college, the very day of Game 7 against the Spurs. I just had enough time to drop my stuff off and rush over to a friend’s place to watch. That feeling we all had when the Spurs went up three, on a Manu three pointer, with 30 seconds left – if you were a Mavericks fan, you knew that feeling. That we were so good, so much better than people knew, but they were just the Spurs, and that was that. And that there’s consolation prize for falling only one bucket short. That feeling. Except all of a sudden, it went away.

In 2011, I was 26 years old. I had just moved to Providence, Rhode Island and started my Ph.D. I had just started dating the woman I would later marry – not quite just, but not so very long before. I watched Game One against the Heat in my living room with about fifteen other people – NBA fans are rare enough in humanities Ph.D. programs and we all know each other. Fourteen of those people wanted the Mavericks to win, that was the beautiful thing about that year. The fifteenth left at halftime and I never saw him again.

Then we left to spend the summer in D.C., totally coincidentally, a research trip, which is where my brother lives. All of those nights all my best friends in high school and I watched Dirk and the Mavericks and hoped, and it never came to anything, and as a total fluke, I got to watch it finally happen with one of the only people who had been there all along. I got to watch it happen against the team it should have happened against once before, but a mutant superhero version of the team, an unbelievable version, that would go on to four straight Finals and win two. I still can’t believe it, though it is one of the things in my life that I remember best.

I remember… I watched Game 2 with my sister and my future wife, my brother being out of town for a short trip, and I told them, with my vastly greater experience watching basketball, that once the Heat had a fifteen point lead or so, that late in the fourth, that was pretty much it. I tried to be optimistic about what could still happen in the series, but I didn’t make it. Four and a half minutes later, Dirk made a three-pointer to go up three, but Mario Chalmers got free and hit one of his own. Twenty seconds later, Dirk made a layup off his broken left hand to become an immortal. A little bit later, Game 6 happened.

You all know how it went. Dirk wasn’t great, Jason Terry was – too bad, though it doesn’t change anything. But then, Dirk was great, too. I know it feels like it was already over when he started scoring, which was with about 7 minutes left, when the Mavericks already had a 10-point lead. It wasn’t. Against LeBron, Wade, and Bosh? Are you kidding me? It wasn’t. The Mavericks had come back from 15 points down, with 6 and a half left, in Game Two, with only one superstar. It wasn’t. But we never had to know that, because of Dirk.

Do you remember it? I needed to look at the play-by-play to get it right. Mario Chalmers hit two free throws to cut it to 9. Dirk made a shot. LeBron hit two layups to bring it within 8. Dirk hit a shot. Chris Bosh made an and-one to bring it to seven. Dirk hit a shot. Dwyane Wade made a jumper to bring it within 8. Dirk hit a shot. And, now, finally, there were two and a half minutes left, now the Mavericks, thanks to Dirk, still had a ten point lead. Now, finally, I relaxed. Dirk was there when it mattered – he was always there when it mattered. He left the court with seconds left, to deal with his emotions, and so did I.

That was it, the rest of the story doesn’t really matter. It’s having a long encore, that’s all. It’s giving people time to realize what was always there. But on that day I knew that no other sports event would ever matter as much to me, and something changed in my heart. I’ve been able to enjoy it, too. And I’ve been able to spend eight years getting ready to miss it. The day is coming, very soon now, when I will turn on the Mavericks and he won’t be there, not on the bench, not on the court, and not coming back. I have been as ready as I’ll ever be for years, and I will never be ready.

Today, I am married, I am a college professor, I live in Virginia, and I hope I will for a long time. Every important thing in my life has happened while Dirk Nowitzki played basketball for the Dallas Mavericks. Some day soon, that won’t be true, and then, after that, it will never be true again.

You only get one life, or at least, that seems to be the case from here. It’s trite, it’s true, many things are both. In that life, we never know what will happen, and we certainly never know what might happen. The only thing we get to keep is what did happen, as long as we’re around to remember it. This story had a happy ending, and it will always have a happy ending, and when it started, we could never have known. Now that it’s over, it will always be with me. Some of the people I watched Dirk Nowitzki with, I haven’t spoken to in fifteen years. Some of the people I watched Dirk Nowitzki with are gone. They are all with me too, and they always will be. We are all part memory, and part tomorrow, that’s what being human is. And all of this is a thread in our lives.

It’s a very funny thing, really. In all these years, all the time I spent thinking about him, worrying about him, hoping for him, on him, and for me, I have never met Dirk Nowitzki. Even if I had, I would never have gotten to know him, of course. I have watched him shoot a basketball more than I have done just about anything else in my life, beyond the essentials, and I know less about him than I do an average acquaintance, which is the lot of a fan. At the end of it all, the startling truth: he will disappear into a larger, more anonymous life, because he has one and has always had one, and I will move on because I do, too. We were fellow travelers, that’s all. And only one of us ever knew the other was even there.

Yet, it is worth taking a moment to say one more thing, which is, this is it. This is the moment where Dirk Nowitzki’s career passes from life into memory, or the moment is coming soon. And that is a perilous passage, a narrow walkway from the worlds we can touch, to those we can never touch again. On the other side, everything eventually gets lost, not always quickly, and certainly more slowly for people like Dirk than for people like me. We remember Bob Cousy, we will remember Dirk — for what he did when his life was part of ours, when we owned that little bit, as long as we are around to remember. And there will be things, too, still, and for a very long time — box scores, statistics, video tapes. The detritus of history’s wind passing through, scattering us all like leaves.

What there will not be after tonight is even one more chance to watch Dirk Nowitzki play professional basketball. There will never be another game, another shot, another memory. So it goes, and most of it already gone. We will never again visit February 7th, 1999, to see a young kid from Germany make his first field goals, and wonder what might be. We will never again wake up on the morning on June 12th, 2011, and wonder what would come. We can’t, even in memory, return to a time before we knew what would happen, when we could only wonder, hope, fear, pray. That is the difference between memory and life. Between being part of the story, and picking the book back up off the shelf, however well-loved, however treasured.

Yet in the face of time, in all its vastness, its hidden depths and eternal questions, losing each other is not miraculous. Miraculous is that we shared a space at all, when we could have been anywhere else, anywhen else. That we have been fellow travelers is the secret to it all, not just for the athletes we love but never knew, but for all those others that we do. Those we love, those who love us, those who make our little corner of the vast body of time itself a place worth living. We have lost much, and we will lose more, but there is nothing whatsoever to do about it but be glad and raise a glass.

Here our paths diverge, at last, but that is not the important thing. It is not, in fact, important at all. This will always have been part of what I was, and it will always be part of what I am.