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What Dirk Nowitzki means to Dallas: a Q&A with Zac Crain, author of “I See You, Big German”

A new book offers a trip down memory lane.

NBA: Phoenix Suns at Dallas Mavericks Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

This year is the 10th anniversary of the Dallas Mavericks winning their first and only championship in franchise history. It’s a good time to let the nostalgia flow, and luckily for Mavericks fans, there’s a new book out that will let you relive the career of Dirk Nowitzki.

Zac Crain’s recently released I See You, Big German, from Deep Vellum Publishing, tracks the career of Nowitzki as he grew into a Dallas sports legend. It’s an ode to basketball, fatherhood, and the city of Dallas. Crain, a senior editor at D Magazine, was kind enough to answer some of my questions about his book, Dirk, and even some alternate sports history.

In your book, you interweave some of your personal history into the story of Dirk’s time here in Dallas, matching certain milestones in your life with those in his career. I think all Mavericks fans of a certain age do the same thing, almost as if we grew up together with Dirk. What is it about him that seems so relatable, especially in Dallas?

Well, for one thing, there is the fact that he was around for so many of those milestones, you know? You can’t do that with a lot of other players because there just isn’t anyone else who spent 21 seasons with the same team, in the same city. But, of course, the other part is Dirk. He never really held himself above anyone. And he was remarkably open in talking about his fears and frustrations, just like you or I might do about our jobs or our lives. It’s easy to see yourself in someone who has that kind of vulnerability. I don’t really know what it’s like to hit a game-winning shot, but I do know what it’s like to screw up and be bummed about it.

You write about watching basketball with your son in the book. Why do you think playing and watching sports fosters such a deep bond between parents and their children?

You’re immediately part of something bigger than you — there’s a past and a future. My dad wasn’t a big sports fan, but I can see Isaac (Crain’s son) watching games with his kid someday, and that kid will ask Isaac the questions Isaac asked me: what were the Mavs like when you were growing up? What was the best game you’ve ever seen? What did this or that feel like? All those things. I mean, I think it’s just really accessible common ground, where nothing matters except your team or the game that night. You don’t have to think about what happened outside of that, or what’s happening. It’s like a little bubble. There have been plenty of times where, you know, he was grouchy at me for something, or maybe I was irritated with him, and then it’s 7:30, and the game is on, and we start talking again, and everything is good.

Kobe Bryant and Dirk couldn’t be more different, yet there seemed to be a connection between them, a respect and admiration that flowed both ways. The title of your book has its origins in a story about an interaction between the two. What do you think Kobe saw in Dirk that led him to appreciate a player who was pretty much his polar opposite?

Dedication to the craft. They were basketball players, first and foremost — not a ton of outside interests, endorsements, you know, leveraging their brands. They both worked every summer at expanding their respective games. They did whatever it took to be the best on the court, whether that was adding a move, fixing their diets, whatever. I always think about the story of Kobe staying up all night after turning an ankle, just flexing it and working on it so it wouldn’t stiffen up and he could keep playing. I don’t think they were all that different, not when it comes to how they approached the game.

You talk about superstitiously locking your friend Joe out of the house during the end of Game 7 of the 2006 Western Conference semifinals against the Spurs. In fact, superstitions are something you return to a few times in the book. Do you still have any superstitions or rituals while watching the Mavericks play?

Not as much now. We do still change the channel and back again if the game is going poorly. I do still believe in that one. And, if the Mavs happened to go to the Western Conference finals next season and a big run coincided with someone going out to smoke, I absolutely would lock that person out.

Do you think Dirk will take a role in the Mavericks organization sometime in the future?

Yeah, I think so. I don’t think as a coach or maybe even anything really that formal. But working with some guys at practice, being at most games as some sort of special assistant to Donnie or Cuban or a consultant of some sort, for sure. They will obviously do whatever he wants, as they should.

If you could go to any concert with Dirk, which would you choose?

Hardest question. I don’t know. Can I get the Stone Roses to reunite? If so, I choose that, because I’ve never seen them and if I went with Dirk I would have amazing seats.

Let’s do some alternate history. Imagine the Mavericks win back-to-back championships in 2006 and 2007, but that means they don’t win the 2011 NBA Finals. It’s probably better for Dirk’s legacy individually, but the 2011 championship means so much to Dallas, Mavericks fans, and NBA fans at large. Would you give up that 2011 ring for two earlier in Dirk’s career?

For me, personally, no — it’s not like I think Isaac will love me any less or that we wouldn’t have connected through basketball without a championship that season. But the way that worked out for us was perfect, and I wouldn’t change it. And, anyway, winning those two instead is a little better for Dirk’s legacy, but not as much as it might seem. The 2011 title makes the failures in 2006 and 2007 just part of the journey. What he did in 2011 was more impressive than winning in either one of those years. I think I’ll leave history alone.