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Dirk Nowitzki’s unofficial farewell tour brought unexpected joy to a losing season

The Mavericks legend gave the team and fans a reason to rise above the losses in many ways.

Sacramento Kings v Dallas Mavericks Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images

This isn’t how the Dallas Mavericks envisioned sending the face of the franchise into possible retirement. Instead of one last playoff run, the mounting losses take their toll, weighing heavy on the players. It’s especially true for Dirk Nowitzki. Yet as his career winds down, his pending farewell sparks joy regardless of a game’s final score.

Friday night’s game against the Memphis Grizzlies was a perfect example. Nowitzki elated the crowd early, getting the game started with his first dunk of the season. He rolled to the rim unchecked and lifted his 40-year-old frame up off his one good leg and flushed it with two hands. The Dallas bench reacted as if he shattered the glass a la NBA Jam.

Unfortunately, the levity the moment brought was all but gone by the end of the first quarter. Memphis cruised to a 122-112 win.

Despite the loss, Nowitzki again moved up the NBA’s all-time leader boards — this time in rebounding. He finished the night with 12 points and seven rebounds, passing Elgin Baylor and moving into 26th place in in total rebounding in the process. Further, he sits just one defensive rebound shy of 10,000, a mark only four other players achieved during their careers.

“These are just staggering numbers to me,” Mavericks head coach Rick Carlisle says. “I played five years and I had about 20 rebounds in five years. We play a lousy game and there is still just a lot of amazing things about Dirk and what he has done and what he continues to do.”

The procession of bad games and Nowitzki’s enduring presence but uncertain future create an odd dichotomy that’s existed for several seasons now. Nowitzki wants to help his team win, and the losses visibly weigh on him after games. Yet, the games themselves seemingly no longer matter. They’ve just become a vessel for Nowitzki at this point. While fans would like to see a win, Dirk is the main attraction.

On the road, fans greet Nowitzki with an outpouring of support and respect, knowing that this may be the last time they witness a legend. At American Airlines Center, though, it’s amplified. There’s a rabid fervor to the crowd — they hang on his every movement, living and dying with each shot.

“When he gets introduced at home and introduced on the road, when he gets passed the ball and scores, the place just goes bananas,” Carlisle says. “It’s great to see.”

That’s why fans buy tickets and tune it at home: to see Nowitzki possibly one last time. He never wanted a farewell tour. He never asked to be the center of attention. However, his reticence to indulge the finality of his career spawned it, the cheers, chants, and standing ovations. It’s why reporters from all walks wait idly for him in the locker room long after the games end.

Whether or not it’s good for the team, the uncertainty of Nowitzki’s future has done at least one good thing this season: it has shifted the focus away from losing. Through it all, Dirk has remained affable and engaging—and often self-deprecating—as he’s retold the same stories time and again.

So if this is really it, and Nowitzki decides to retire, he’ll have done it his way. For now, though, he’s simply enjoying the moment.

“It’s been a fun ride these last couple of months and emotional at times,” Nowitzki says. “Obviously, I’m very appreciative of the fans, really here and on the road to respect me and show me love. It’s been amazing and I’m obviously, at times, a little overwhelmed with it, but trying to make the best out of it. Enjoy it, soak it all up, and eventually they’ll forget about me, so this feels good.”