In recognizing the many coaches, players, staff members, family and friends that helped him in his career, Dirk Nowitzki thanked them all as pillars of his success. But before he stepped away from the podium Wednesday night on the American Airlines Center floor during his jersey retirement ceremony he had one more pillar to thank: the fans and city of Dallas.
It was the one time the soon-to-be hall of famer got noticeably emotional while speaking to the packed crowd. He said as much after the ceremony, “My speech was surprisingly good. I’ve worked on it for weeks now. So, it’s in your head. You’re kind of like, ‘What’s next, what’s next,’ and you’re kind of trying not to mess up. But then the fans got me.”
It reinforced something that has long been clear; that there are few relationships in pro sports like Dirk’s with this city.
There is always an intangible, nearly indescribable energy on nights like Wednesday’s. I myself stumbled into a last minute chance to attend the game — a sort of once in a lifetime blur. But from tip-off the stakes felt high.
The actual game between the Mavericks and the Golden State Warriors was mostly ugly to be sure. In no way a fitting tribute to the Tall Baller from the G and his offensive influence on today’s game. The teams combined to shoot 17-of-68 from three. But still, the atmosphere was not that of a normal midweek rim-clanging bout.
During every timeout there were highlight videos from Dirk’s career, his stats and accomplishments flashing across every arena screen. Each in-game giveaway honored his legacy, and tribute videos (even one from the Warriors organization) infused the entire evening with a festive buzz.
But even with all the tributes and performances — 41 members of the Dallas Symphony Orchestra played on the floor during the ceremony — it wasn’t until Dirk himself took the mic that I came to understand the same emotions felt back in April 2019. I wrote about his loyalty and ties to the community for this site, as Dirk walked off the American Airlines Center floor for the last time as a player:
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...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.
The night was certainly all about Dirk. There was even some poetry in the game being against the Golden State Warriors, with their own career-long superstar who could likely be the last of that kind in Steph Curry. Most of the Mavericks roster, as well as head coach and former teammate Jason Kidd, wore Nowitzki jerseys or t-shirts. The team was present on the floor for the ceremony, many videoing their favorite moments and filming the number 41 raising to the ceiling in the midst of pyrotechnics and falling “41 Forever” confetti.
But you’d be forgiven while watching if you didn’t think some of this was for Luka Doncic as well. Not as a tribute, but a message for what this organization and city does for its legends, and the devoted bond they can create. And while I find nervous moments in myself at the thought of Doncic following the trends of unhappy superstars looking for greener pastures, I also understood while standing among the city Wednesday night how singular a relationship this truly is.
Dirk was flanked by his wife and kids, as well as longtime coach and friend Holger Geschwindner, plus a collection of the 2011 NBA Championship team. He spent time telling funny and stereotypically self-deprecating stories, and had a long thoughtful list of people in and out of the organization to thank. But it all came back, as it seems it always does, to the fans and this city. Maybe this is the one time we MFFLs build a relationship with a player like this. It was perhaps a fleeting nostalgic romantic moment for me, but on Wednesday night at the AAC, one felt like enough.
Here’s our latest episode of Mavs Moneyball After Dark. If you’re unable to see the embed below, click here to be taken to the podcast directly. Or go to your favorite podcast app and search Mavs Moneyball Podcast.