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Accepting that Dirk is gone

It was hard to process the thought of Mavericks basketball without Dirk Nowitzki, but it’s finally here.

New Orleans Pelicans v Dallas Mavericks Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images

It didn’t really hit me until Wednesday evening. My family had just finished dinner and my three year old son asked if we could go outside and play. He wanted to throw a football around but after a few minutes of seeing some teenagers shooting around, he asked that we go get the basketball.

As we were walking back out to the neighborhood hoop he proudly told me, “I’m going to be Luka.” I’ve spent a good portion of the last year slowly introducing him to basketball, and the Mavericks in particular. Luka’s his favorite because why wouldn’t he be? After letting me know who he’d be playing, he said simply, “and you will be Dirk.”

And that’s when it finally hit me hard, that this was the end. I could imagine with my son that we were professional basketball players and I knew he’d tell me that I’m Dirk once again. But it really sank in that I’d only get to see Nowitzki suit up in a Maverick uniform one last time. Before we went to try to shoot and dribble, I stopped and explained to him that Dirk wouldn’t be playing anymore. Of course he didn’t understand what I meant and kept asking why. I told him Dirk had been playing for a long time and he’d earned a chance to rest.

He told me we weren’t going to rest and marched off to the basket.

Better writers than I have already tackled some of what it means to see a sports hero walk away from the game. Yet reconciling what we know with how we feel is large reason people turn to writing. I’d never really considered that Dirk Nowitzki would retire this year. I understood it was a possibility of course, but I truly thought he’d give it another go after finally turning a corner with more playing time later in the year. Few understood the pain Nowitzki played with this season, taking pills, getting shots, and working with trainers to get to the point where basketball was possible. I certainly had no idea. I’d ignored the possibility that this was Dirk’s final year and instead threw myself into developing Doncic fandom.

I’ve spent the better part of the last two years preaching the basketball gospel of Luka Doncic. When he actually ended up on the Mavericks, it was a feeling of joy that approached few other sporting moments in my Dallas fandom. Yet even with Doncic and now Kristaps Porzingis as members of the Mavericks, it’s nearly impossible to envision a future where one or both stay with Dallas their entire careers. The league has changed too much for that to seem likely, even if it’s something to aspire towards.

Dirk Nowitzki not suiting up in a Dallas Maverick uniform simply doesn’t process. He’s been in Dallas for four presidencies and three different decades. The internet wasn’t much of a thing when he was drafted. It’s not so much that he’s been taken for granted but that he’s been around so long it’s easy to assume he comes with the product of NBA basketball. It’s hard to imagine a basketball season without Dirk Nowitzki.

If anything, this year and part of last year have been an attempt to jump start with Doncic the kind of fan relationship I have with Dirk Nowitzki. I didn’t write about Dirk much or really give him a ton of thought in the face of the Doncic phenomenon. And now that he’s finally walking away, part of me feels guilty for not appreciating Nowitzki more during this swan song. But another part recognizes just how ingrained Dirk is to my own sense of self. Like many others, I often consider personal milestones with what was happening on the court with Nowitzki. This year with Doncic has been amazing, yet hoping for anything like this relationship we’ve had with Dirk seems like asking too much.

“I’m going to be Luka and you will be Dirk,” my son told me Wednesday. Perhaps it’s really that simple, Luka is his first basketball love while Dirk is mine. And there’s no replicating that first love, the player who teaches you what it really means to be a fan. After a day of being numb in the face of Nowitzki’s departure, I’m at peace with his retirement.

I’ll miss you, Dirk. Thanks for all the memories and for those yet to come.