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Finding meaning after Dirk

How do you move on when one player has been your whole world?

Dallas Mavericks v San Antonio Spurs Photo by Ronald Cortes/Getty Images

I was seven when I became a basketball fan, a Mavericks fan. My parents were never big into sports. Not that they didn’t like sports, of course, they enjoyed most of them just fine, but they never had any attachments or fandoms to speak of. I had to pick up Mavs fandom on my own. Kind of.

Everything I did at that age was driven by friends. I liked what they liked. And my best friend? He loved the Mavericks. Indeed, his whole family loved the Mavericks. His parents were first generation German immigrants, who came to Dallas by way of Austin. They generally preferred soccer, but the Mavericks had this new young German guy, a real wunderkind, and they adored him.

It was 2000, and Dirk was making himself known, finally. I don’t remember, now, if I caught on to the team early in Dirk’s third year or late in his second, but either way, he was shocking the world. That family taught me everything I needed to know about Dirk.

To this day, my first, and probably fondest, memories of playing basketball were in my friend’s driveway. We yelled “Dirk!” every time we heaved up our seven-year-old arms’ best attempt at a long shot, and I grinned like a goddamn madman after every one of those shots rattled the chain net hanging from the hoop.

These days, I am more or less not recognizable as the kid in the driveway. I’m grown, married and living in a home I own, and I work a fine-if-uneventful desk job. I no longer live in Texas, and haven’t for a while. Dirk, meanwhile, is still recognizably himself. Grown more, of course. He’s slower, now, and less lithe and agile. His ability to even get up over defenders for his signature shot has been hampered, but he can still make them, and does. Did.

But for probably 15 or 16 of the last 19 years, Dirk has been an almost identical player to the German kid from 2000. Every one of those years, he bent every defense to his will in a way no player ever has before or likely will after. For 16 straight years, he was constantly, indefatigably incredible.

Mostly, though, he’s still recognizably Dirk because he was, until just now, simply still playing, and because when he played, I was still seven years old, cheering him on, and I would be as long as he would let me. That would never change, until it had to.

I’m sad it had to, but so it goes.

But in all that time, amidst all my growing and Dirk’s various haircuts, I have never rooted for a Mavs team without Dirk. And probably a majority of Mavericks fans have never rooted for a winning Mavs team without Dirk. it’s been 30 years since there’s even been one.

I’m at a loss. What does it look like to root for the team you invested in because of one player, one player who has defined the team for the entirety of your lifetime, when that player is gone?

In some ways I’ve always felt something like an expat Mavs fan. I didn’t stay in Dallas long after 2000, but my Mavericks fandom stayed. At first, it was probably to spite my parents for moving 10-year-old me, but eventually, my fandom stayed because of Dirk. It’s been 17 years since I’ve lived in Dallas. It’s been 2 since I’ve lived in Texas. I have little else anchoring me to the team.

I also flitted in and out of interest in the Mavs over the years. When the Mavs lost in ‘06, my teenage dismay was so profound I – luckily or not, I’m unsure – skipped out on paying attention in 07 and 08. When I started working my first full-time salaried job as a high school teacher, I could barely find the time to watch. Ditto for my first year of grad school.

But I always came back. I always came back to Dirk.

Now, after all, I realize I can barely differentiate my Mavs fandom from my Dirk fandom. Where does one begin and the other end? Are they even different? Can they be?

It also occurs to me that this is a unique problem for Mavs fans. No other team has had their team identity so strictly tied to one player in their history. No team has had one player contribute to such a massive proportion of their total games played, who has been the almost singular engine of success for their entire history as a franchise. In a way unique to the NBA, Dirk truly has been the Mavericks, for better or worse.

Imagining watching the Mavericks without him, now, feels uncanny valley-ish. Not an impossible task, but wrong, somehow. A bit pointless, perhaps.

The Mavs sans Dirk feels a little like Rip Van Winkle, in a way. Like next year I’ll wake up to a team and a place I barely recognize. Like I ventured away for a bit, but have come home to find that nothing about home is the same, except the people. Friends and family remain, but the buildings and the things — the spirit of the place, even — are gone.

You can make an argument, of course, that the family are worth staying for – that the bright future of the team is its own joy, a new chapter for a team that goes on. And you’d be right. But there’s something unshakably, existentially disappointing in knowing, loving, and understanding a place or a team for something, and finding that something gone.

That is also, of course, the way of life and time. It marches inexorably on, and you find ways to move with it. In a lot of ways, it’s funny that I’ve grown up with Dirk, because that’s a bit of what adulthood is, too. It’s learning to manage conflict, manage time, manage grief, internalize it, and continue.

Perhaps it’s fitting, then, that Dirk’s time with the team is over now. The seven-year-old shooting hoops in his German friend’s driveway doesn’t need heroes anymore. I’m grown, and I learned.

I don’t know, really, what will happen to my fandom now, but I can say for certain it’ll be okay.

But right now, there’s some seven-year-old in Dallas right now learning to step back, crying “Luka,” who’s ready for what’s next.