When I was 13 years old, basketball saved my life.
It was December 26th, 2001, and we were moving to a third state in four months. And when you’re an eighth grader traversing the emotions of adolescence, quite literally everything is about you. So while your parents use every ounce of their being to create some normalcy for you and your brothers, the absurdity and depression and fear and isolation feel like the only thing staring back at your greasy teenage face.
As I got settled in to a new home and a new life in DFW the day after Christmas, the Dallas Mavericks were in San Antonio beating the Spurs in overtime. In a game I surely didn’t watch, the trio of Dirk Nowitzki, Steve Nash and Michael Finley put up 26, 27 and 28 points respectively (Tim Duncan had 53).
Though neither of us knew it, like each and every one of us at some time or other, so began my relationship with the Mavs and more specifically, Dirk.
I was a kid in the 90s growing up in a basketball loving family. Much of my perspective, tastes and opinions were largely informed by that decade of basketball. With no understanding of how a draft worked, and whether it was true or not, it always felt like the titans of the game found a team and planted. There was an allegiance and a duty to one place, and the legends of basketball stitched themselves to the fabric of an organization and a city. It built history, boosted rivalry, and connected a team to its fans.
Jordan and Pippen, Stockton and Malone, Payton and Kemp, and Reggie and Hakeem and Ewing and Robinson and Clyde and so on and so on. Mostly, that’s just the way it was.
As a kid being told I was an extrovert, I was suddenly learning how much of an introvert I could be when we moved to Texas. There is often little to say or do when you’re the new kid, but there was basketball. It was a way to meet new people, make friends, or most importantly, get on the court and not have to say a word at all — just play.
If I’m being honest my entry point to the Mavericks was Nash. I had seen him play in person during the 1996 NCAA Tournament, a game which he torched the Maryland Terrapins. He was an utter genius, and how lucky was I to move to the place he played. So for most DFW teenage boys that remotely liked basketball, we all wanted to be Nash and Dirk. The passing, the shooting, the hair (really mostly the hair). Perhaps it started as survival: a way to find friends, make connections. But suddenly it rooted me to a time and place when I desperately needed it.
Just a few years earlier, the young German was in a similar, if not grander circumstance. We’ve read time and again Dirk’s recollection of that stage in his life. The anxiety and fear and pressure and nerves of coming to a new place (on the other side of the world), taking on a new life. And a fanbase dying for a new era to begin provided those roots for him.
Sometimes it’s hard to pinpoint who chose whom first, the player or the city. For years it felt like MFFLs everywhere needed to protect and defend the living legacy of Dirk, when often those outside Dallas doubted and disparaged the 7-footers unique game. And after 2011 when he gave Dallas their first title he repaid the city with eight more seasons of basketball, even though the franchise couldn’t provide him a competitive team. It’s a lesson in loyalty rarely seen in sports, and something that won’t be matched again.
There are two parts to Dirk Nowitzki’s legacy that can’t be touched: longevity and loyalty. To play 21 seasons in a league that breaks down the bodies of some of the planet’s best athletes is a milestone rarely reached. Only five players have ever done it. (Vince Carter, if he returns, would set the record next season with his 22nd year in the league).
And while longevity is in itself impressive, the loyalty from Dirk to Dallas, Dallas to Dirk, is what sets his legacy apart. Today’s game is not built this way, with teams shipping off players in their prime, and superstars demanding trades before a contract is complete. You see, Dirk’s career is a bridge, transporting us from the ever changing landscape of today back to those 90’s hoops I grew up on. Really, it’s just like his game. He took everything we knew about what a 7-foot Euro player could do, put it on a one-legged fade, and revolutionized everything. His loyalty reminds us of another time, while his game catapulted us into the future.
Now over 20 years later, and just like many of you, I can mark the milestones of Dirk’s career with the meaningful and mundane moments of my own life. I place myself alongside those ups and downs of his career. Probably because I still need that connection. To feel rooted to something. And Dirk became that; he was the anchor for so many of us. I don’t know when or how he came to understand that, but he did. He took that on for the city.
Last week I sat with my two dogs in a mostly quiet Chicago apartment and watched Dirk’s final minutes at the AAC. My breath caught just like yours while we watched the city’s hero breakdown at half court as a video played above, highlighting just a fraction of what he’s given to the community. We understood in that moment just like Dirk seemed to understand all along: it’s always been more than a game.
Since 2001 I’ve moved six more times, living in five different states. And Dirk was still there, plugging away, my thread to a community of people. Months from now the Mavs will lace them up again, and Dirk won’t be out there, and it’ll be sad and weird and new and different, but his connection to us will remain.
Thanks 41. Shut it down. Let’s go home.