Wednesday night, the Dallas Mavericks bestowed one of the greatest honors an organization can give to a player. In an emotional ceremony, the team retired the jersey of the greatest player in the franchise’s history, Dirk Nowitzki.
It was a special moment for Nowtizki, the Mavericks, and fans. Yet, through all the lights and production, the man of the moment did everything he could to deflect the attention on him and instead praise the countless people who surrounded him through his NBA journey.
He thanked NBA Commissioner Adam Silver for being in attendance; Mavericks Governor Mark Cuban for believing in him; both Donny and Don Nelson; former head coach Avery Johnson; Rick Carlisle; all the assistant coaches he worked with; Rolando Blackmon, Derek Harper, Brad Davis–who all have their jerseys retired; Steve Nash and Michael Finley; all his former teammates; the 2011 NBA Championship team; the Mavericks staff–physical therapists, doctors, equipment team, public relations, security, American Airlines Center staff; FIBA officials; the German national team; Nike and ING; the media; Holger Gerschwinder; his family; and the fans.
He named others as well during his 20-minute speech. The point is, though, that he rarely spoke about himself. In typical Nowtizki style, he did tell some comical anecdotes and interspersed his many thanks with cutting self-deprecating humor.
“I’ll never forget,” Nowtizki said, recalling a memory of Johnson. “We played in Phoenix–a big game. I missed a few jumpers, of course, in a row. He calls a timeout, and he takes his chair and puts his chair directly in front of me. We spent the whole timeout nose-to-nose for 90 seconds and just letting me have it.”
This is who Nowitzki is. He’s not one to heap praise on himself or dwell too long on his accomplishments. In the locker room after big games, it was never about his individual feats that night, it was always about the team and how well others performed.
Even toward the end of his career, as retirement loomed, he would deflect questions about his career milestones, preferring to remain in the moment. He would often say he would think about all that he did in the league after he retired. He would sprinkle in some of his dry wit too, naturally.
So, it’s no wonder that Dirk didn’t talk about himself during Wednesday night’s ceremony–at least not directly. He tied his career and many successes to the people around him, who helped him become the player and person that he is.
It was an emotional evening for everyone who watched or interacted with Dirk throughout his career. For the most part, Nowtizki was able to get through his speech without showing too much feeling–self-deprecation is a great defense mechanism–but toward the end, the chants of “M-V-P” opened the doors.
“My speech was surprisingly good,” Nowitzki said after the ceremony, noting that he was able to keep his emotions in check. “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.”
Nowitzki’s humility and loyalty to Dallas and the Mavericks’ organization is how fans have come to define him. Their reactions throughout the evening served a palpable reminder of the love and devotion they have for him.
For 21 years, they built a symbiotic sports relationship with Nowitzki. They poured they energy out for him and for what is likely one of the last times they’ll get to publicly celebrate their basketball hero, they poured out their hearts once again.
It’s something that’s not lost on Nowitzki. He recognizes the fans’ impact on his career as much as anyone. Of all the people he thanked, he saved them for last. It’s the fans who welcomed him to Dallas and made him feel like he was home, and he made the ceremony more about them than he did about himself.
“Thank you, guys, from the bottom of my heart for making this journey incredible,” Nowitzki said. “Thank you for taking in a long, lanky kid over 20 years ago and making him one of your own. I’ll be always grateful.”
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