When a city falls in love with a player who then becomes a legend, the fanbase yearns for a fairy tale ending to the story. More than simply being free from scandal and tragedy, we want our heroes to ride into the sunset and never go away all at once. We smile when that player finds the right challenges past his playing days, finds ways to impact the local community and the world generally, and most of all we wish one thing for someone like Dirk Nowitzki - happiness.
Dallas loves Dirk and he loves us back. That bond is stronger than any other city/athlete relationship in the history of Dallas sports. Nowitzki is the adopted German son of Dallas. We could have turned on him in those early days but - in the aggregate - we never did. He could have left us in the wilderness many times - and never did. Then, finally, we reached the mountaintop together. More than Nolan Ryan, Emmitt Smith, Mike Modano, or any other name you could muster - Nowitzki embodies the purest form of reciprocity in the history of Dallas sports. If there is a tier above legend, called icon, Dirk stands alone at the top of that tier list.
It is no surprise then that Nowitzki is flourishing in retirement the same way he did on the court. He has struck the perfect balance between enjoying his privacy and still showing up in just the right way venues at the perfect frequency. Courtside at the playoffs, consultant to the front office during the offseason, and hosting charity events.
Nowitzki sat down with veteran interviewer Graham Bensinger to talk about his life, his basketball career, and how he views the future. The interview is candid, insightful, and at times downright hilarious.
Gratitude to the mentor
Holger Geschwindner met Dirk Nowitzki when he was 16 years old. By now you likely know Holger taught Dirk everything he could about basketball - how to move, how to shoot - but did you know he had his pupil learn how to play the saxophone? Nowitzki tells Bensinger, “He had me play music. He wanted me to play the saxophone. So I played the saxophone for a couple of years.”
“One of his friends was a jazz musician...so the guy would sometimes come to practice with his sax...and we had to dribble to the rhythm...and make the bouncing sound as the drums and Holger would call it...dance the game.” Rather than approach the game robotically, Holger had the goal of instilling the improvisation of a jazz musician into the way Dirk Nowitzki approached the game - and based on what we saw over 21 seasons, he clearly succeeded.
Much to Dirk’s chagrin at the time, every birthday and Christmas gift from Holger was a book. “Oh great, another book, Holger...” Dirk recalled lamenting. Urging Nowitzki to broaden his horizons from those novels and books on culture and science speaks to the emphasis Holger placed on building up the man Dirk was becoming.
Dirk benefited from Nellie, Avery, and Rick - all in different ways. Yet it was Holger who built the foundation for Nowitzki to play basketball as the consummate artist.
Perseverance through the fire
We know the moments well. For the Cowboys, it was a dropped pass in the endzone. For the Rangers, it was double off the wall in right. For the Mavericks, to be up 2-0 in the 2006 NBA Finals and leading going into the fourth quarter of game 3, only to lose the next four games was devastating. The combined differential in three of those four losses was 6 points.
You might think that easily qualifies as the low point of Nowitzki’s career. Instead, Dirk tells Bensinger about the season that followed, “and then next year came, and we were rollin’, we won 67 games, that was my MVP season - and we were the heavy favorites to win it all. I’m feeling good, playing my best basketball and we run into a hot team with Golden State and we lose in the first round..and in a way I was more disappointed, frustrated with that loss than after the finals loss.”
Feeling like he had let the team and city down, Nowitzki had every intention to get out of proverbial Dodge after the 2007 playoffs ended with a thud. Then irony came calling with a message from the NBA asking him to stay put because he might win the MVP. “You’ve gotta be kidding me, of all years...this year?” Dirk lamented. Looking back at that moment, you can see the mixture of pride and pain on the then freshly minted MVP’s face.
The story did not end there despite so many pundits espousing that the 06 Finals proved Dirk would never win a ring as the best player in Dallas. Unlike the Cowboys of Super Bowl XIII who wouldn’t see another championship until the early 90s and unlike the Rangers who were one strike away (twice) and are still searching for a way back to the World Series, the Mavericks had their redemption moment in 2011 - quickly enough for Nowitzki to personally prove the doubters wrong.
In Game 2 of the 2011 NBA Finals, Nowitzki led the greatest comeback in Dallas pro sports history and swung the storyline of that series in a way Miami never recovered from. The Heat announced themselves as preordained and didn’t realize they were directly in the buzzsaw path of Dirk’s shining moment. I’ll never get tired of the look on Wade’s face when his half-court heave (that was on target and just a little strong) fell harmlessly aside nor will I ever forget the big German’s thousand-yard stare as his teammates showered him with praise. The stuff of legend.
The young German who thought he might only last a year in the NBA, that perhaps he had made a mistake coming here, had walked through the fire and come out a champion. He didn’t do it by hitching his wagon elsewhere. Dirk won it all here, in Dallas, for us.
Saying farewell but not goodbye
When the final buzzer sounded in the 2011 Finals, Nowitzki walked away from the cameras when most other players would be walking towards them. Before jubilation could set in, he needed a private moment for exhalation. All the critical voices - opposing players, fanbases, pundits, even his own self-doubt - had been forever vanquished. Instead of being branded as one of the greatest to never win a title, people now argue where he should be placed on the list of the top 20 to ever play in the NBA.
That moment speaks to a larger dynamic that informed how Nowitzki chose to approach his final season. Since Dirk desired respect yet never craved the spotlight, it was easy to forego any sort of “this will be my last” announcement. He was simply there one last time to give us everything he had, playing alongside his Slovenian successor, and seeing an outpouring of gratitude he did not fully anticipate.
“It started with, actually, Doc Rivers at the Clippers game,” Nowitzki recalled, “the game was over, its fourth quarter, we had lost, I’m kinda just standing there, the time’s running out and he calls a timeout. We’re like what is he doing?” What transpired next still gives me chills. The ovation led by Rivers was followed by tributes in one arena after another during the final season.
The best moment of this interview came when Besinger asked about hearing that those around him notice that Dirk is happier than he has ever been. Dirk answered, “I can see that. I think what always kept me on the edge was...a little bit of the pressure. Even in the summers, when I’m off, I’m still thinking basketball. I’m still thinking I need to stay in shape. What can I do better? I just think that pressure...is off now. I can let go. I can do what I want. I can travel without looking for a workout room and a gym every time. I think that’s helped me be more at ease...I’m in the world learning now...I’m loving family life and the kids, so I’m in a good spot.”
That’s what the intersection of fulfillment and contentment sounds like. That’s happiness and Dirk ever deserves every single moment of it.
In just a few weeks, on Christmas Day, Dirk’s statue will be unveiled. It will capture the patented one-legged fade and serve as a herald on the AAC’s south plaza for generations. It is easy to imagine Dirk, humble as ever, smiling during that ceremony with gratitude for his incredible journey while marveling at being immortalized in stone.
He is already immortalized in the heart of Dallas area fans - for his work ethic, his artistry, his loyalty, and his humanity. It is rare, but just this once, the fairy tale ending came true.