When Dirk cried, we all cried with him.
He was standing at mid-court, ready for play to resume after a timeout in the second quarter. A video had just finished highlighting Dirk’s community work, most notably his visits every holiday season at Dallas Children’s Hospital. The video ended and the arena erupted, like it had all night.
As everyone stood and cheered, Dirk’s eyes welled up. He rubbed them with his jersey, much like he did as he hurried off the court after winning his NBA title in 2011. After that didn’t work, he hunched over with his hands on his knees, standing alone at mid-court, as the crowd just got louder and louder. He looked up one more time, tears in eyes, his face flushed and red.
That could describe just about everyone watching, whether in the arena or on TV. Even in the press box, my eyes watered. I’ve watched Dirk Nowitzki play basketball for 21 years. I am 30 years old. While thoughts of Mavericks basketball without Dirk realistically crossed my mind, they were mainly for logistical reasons -- we have to plan coverage, we have to write stories, I need to tell my friends. I never really considered it.
When I saw Dirk’s tears and I felt my own, I knew. This was it.
“As you guys might expect, this was my last home game,” Dirk told the crowd during his post-game celebration, confirming the pit in the bottom of my stomach that was forming since that moment in the second quarter.
“Since I’ve made the decision I’ve had a few emotional breakdowns,” Dirk would later say after the game. “Mostly at home. Even today, putting on this suit when I came back I broke down a little bit.”
He wasn’t the only one.
I remember when I stepped off the train in front of the American Airlines Center 17 years ago, I wasn’t really sure what I wanted. I was 13 years old and had played basketball for three years, and only felt like I was doing it because I was a foot taller than all my classmates.
Basketball wasn’t fun, it was an obligation. I didn’t like sports initially, but I did once I reached my first year of middle school because it was what all the cool kids were doing. Peer pressure at the age feels like gravity tugging at your shoulders.
I had been to Mavericks games before, a handful at Reunion Arena. I don’t remember much, except that I was out past my bedtime and eating popcorn. As I got a little older and that building went away, I knew of Dirk but I didn’t know Dirk.
That game in 2002 was really my first introduction. What I saw was a very tall man do things like all the short men. As a fresh teen who was bigger than everyone else and felt like he had to hang around the paint, it was pretty remarkable. It was enlightening.
Watching Dirk made me realize there were other ways to enjoy the game I was kind of drifting through. When my Dad got me a hoop to put in our driveway, I would go into the driveway every night after dinner, shooting jumpers and practicing free throws.
I did that because of Dirk.
Everything about the night — literally everything — was perfect.
The scene outside the arena before the game was a cross between a college tailgate and a museum. Amid the festival atmosphere were stand-up posters, each displaying a different Dirk milestone from a different era. There was shaved head Dirk in the old road navy blues, flowing locks Dirk in the home whites and goatee Dirk that first made the Finals.
Each had a major Dirk accomplishment — his 2007 MVP, the 2011 title and Finals MVP, the 15 All-Star games and even a mention of his 50-40-90 feat. It felt like a party and a reunion — all the Dirks were here!
Inside the arena, the party continued. It was absolutely remarkable how much energy was in the building as Dirk went through warm-ups all the way to canning his first shots. I’ve been in the AAC for some very frenetic moments. I was there when the Mavericks dropped 83 points in a half against the Sacramento Kings in the 2003 West Semi-Finals. I’ve been to multiple Game 7s.
Dirk’s farewell? It might have been louder.
It was just constant. Dirk touches the ball? Cheers. Dirk gets a rebound? Loud hollering. Dirk gets doubled teamed? Righteous boos. Dirk on the bench? Deafening “WE WANT DIRK” chants. Dirk makes a bucket? Complete jubilation.
“It was a playoff, finals atmosphere,” Dirk said after the game in the packed Mavericks press room. “You know, the fans usually show up a little later and nobody’s really there at the jump ball. You know, they’re slowly trickling in.
“But man they were there by the time we played that little video with the light show. From the beginning on it was a great atmosphere. Every time I came in and touched the ball I heard them and they kept pushing me. I was already tired after two minutes. I haven’t shot the ball, done that many moves all season really. I told coach to sub me after two and a half minutes but I actually felt pretty good going through the game.”
Dirk finished with 30 points, eight rebounds and three assists and the best part was that he played all the hits.
He started things early with a quick jumper from the elbow off a pindown from Dwight Powell, a classic Mavs play for Dirk whether it was Erick Dampier or Tyson Chandler setting the screen. He followed that up with a spot-up three that really got the crowd amped.
Throughout the night he kept it up. He hit turnarounds in the post against smaller guards who switched onto him. He pumped-faked and dribbled to the free throw line to rip the chords for two more points. The timeless Dirk transition three made multiple appearances. Dirk even forced a turnover with his Karl Malone-inspired swipe as a Suns player attempted to drive down the lane. We saw another Dirk dunk!
Hell, he even bitched at a referee for not giving him an and-1 after knocking in a faceup jumper. It was the complete Dirk experience.
After the game ended, the Mavericks outdid themselves with a special celebration. They played video packages of Dirk’s career and showed an interview where he listed five of his favorite players growing up — Charles Barkley, Scottie Pippen, Larry Bird, Shawn Kemp and Detlef Schrempf.
As the video played with Dirk listing those names, those five basketball legends stepped onto the court. Dirk embraced them once the video was over and each of the legends spoke before Dirk got some mic time. It was another reminder of Dirk’s significance to the game, despite our feelings that Dirk feels like he’s our indie rock band that no one has ever heard of. Dirk matters, more than we can possibly realize.
To cap off the throwback night, he started his post-game presser with the classic move he pulled during the 2011 playoffs which became part of the culture of NBA Twitter at the time.
“Hold on, I gotta lean back,” Dirk said as he grabbed the microphone and sat back in his chair after he started to answer a question.
“I wanted us to win the game and for Dirk to have an impactful game and those things happened,” Rick Carlisle said. “You saw the respect that his teammates gave him just by looking for him every single time down the court. It was amazing to watch that level of respect.”
If there was one thing that I learned after the game, it was how much pain Dirk has been in.
He’s been battling lower leg and foot issues for a good time now since he’s entered his twilight. Last season it was the Achilles, this season it was the ankle after an off-season surgery. As Carlisle talked in detail about the type of treatment and almost torturous rehab Dirk put himself through just to play in a game this season, it became clear that Dirk was always going to retire.
“When you’re around someone for over a decade and you see them day-to-day, there comes a point when you know that Dirk has given every last ounce that he can possibly give to this game,” Carlisle said. “The whole notion of coming back next year is just...if people knew what he went through simply to get on the floor this year, you wouldn’t believe it.
“There’s a guy named Cody that’s bald with weird hair that goes halfway down his back and comes in three times a week with needles... and sticks them all through Dirk’s body — bones and everything else. I heard more groaning from screaming and then he would leave and Dirk would say ‘I feel really good now.’ The stuff that he went through to get on the floor should be unbelievable motivation for all of us to get out of bed earlier every day and make more of our lives.
“That’s what I get for watching him for 11 years.”
That pain is what really made Dirk realize this was it. Like the energy in the building on Tuesday night, it was constant and never went away.
“I played in Golden State, which was probably my best game of the year, I shot a fadeway there in the second half and I felt a shooting pain in my ankle and I kind of limped back,” Dirk would later explain after the game. “Even though we did all this stuff it was not enough for me to really enjoy this year. I think the decision for me was kind of made.”
The first time I met Dirk was during the preseason in 2014. I had been with Mavs Moneyball for three years then and hadn’t had a chance to cover a game with Dirk for the site due to real life.
I covered my first game during the 2012-2013 season, but Dirk was recovering from his knee surgery at the time. I moved away for my first full-time newspaper job by the time he returned. So when I moved back, I was excited at the chance to ask Dirk some questions about his jumper.
Since I had covered covered countless high school, college and smaller professional sporting events before, I was used to the waiting. When you’re a sports writer, you do an unimaginable amount of standing and waiting.
But this was taking an exceptionally long time as I learned Dirk usually takes a long time after games to make his way to the locker room. I stood in the locker room as the post game media huddle dwindled as other media members had deadlines to meet and things to do that didn’t require a Dirk soundbite. It was only a preaseason game, so it didn’t really matter.
As I waited for what felt like an eternity, I heard something through the walls of the locker room — it was singing. Specifically, it was Dirk singing. Holy shit, I thought, Dirk is singing in the shower.
The old Mavericks locker room was very close to the team showers, so it apparently wasn’t that crazy, but it was to me. One of the greatest players of all time was just happily singing in the shower like any one of us loafs might do on a Saturday morning.
When Dirk finally appeared, he noticed the small count in the locker room and the relative quietness. Before anyone asked a question, he smiled and quipped “Y’all enjoy the show?”
While waiting for Dirk on Tuesday night, it was another exceptionally long wait. This time, it was justified and Dirk could take all the time in the universe. As I sat in my chair in the Mavs press room, I overheard a Mavs staffer talking to another media member. It was about Dirk and when he might come out.
“It’s gonna be a bit, he just got in the shower.”
I smiled again.
As the realization that Dirk was leaving sunk in throughout the night, the actual ramifications never really materialized until Carlisle summed it up from his prior coaching stops.
“It will never be the same, it just won’t,” Carlisle said. “I know that from experience. When Reggie Miller left Indiana, we had two down years immediately afterward and we had some talented guys. When you remove a guy like this and it’s going to change the landscape.”
He’s right — it never will be the same. Not just for the organization but for all of us. Rushing home from school to catch an early tip on the East Coast, staying up late after the rest of the house is asleep to watch a West Coast showdown with the Lakers. Dirk has been around so long that everyone can pinpoint gigantic life moments to where Dirk was in his career. I graduated high school and college with Dirk. I moved from home, got my first adult job. Dirk kept me sane while I was homesick during college. He was the comfort food I needed after a bad day at work. Dirk was always there.
And now, he won’t be. We have to accept that. Not tonight and maybe not this week, but eventually, we have to. Dirk hobbled himself to play for longer than he needed to, so the least I can do is respect when Dirk says he’s ready to go.
That doesn’t make it any easier though.
“It’s something I’ll miss. The camaraderie, the competition is something I’ll always miss,” Dirk said. “I’ll miss the heck out of it, but it’s time.”
It is time. Thanks for giving us all of it.