clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Dirk Nowitzki, competition, and living a satisfied Life

A reflection on and appreciation of Dirk Nowitzki’s long career


I was eleven years old when Dirk Nowitzki was drafted. On the Sunday after the Dallas Mavericks selected him, I asked my dad on the drive home from church who they’d taken. “I don’t know,” he answered. “Some German guy. I don’t know what they were doing.” Twenty-one years later, it turns out the Mavericks knew exactly what they were doing. My dad and I would go on to share some of our best memories as father and son watching Dirk Nowitzki play basketball.

I’m not sure where things began to turn in NBA fandom, but it feels like no one really hates on anyone anymore. Perhaps it’s podcasts and social media making it easier to follow the entire league and attach to players. Maybe it’s having greater accessibility to players and thus them seeming generally more human and vulnerable to the pain that the scorn of others. It might be increased player movement. When a guy’s played for a third of the league in his career, that’s a lot of fan bases that at one point have loved a guy because he’s one of yours. Whatever it is, Dirk received little of it, and for the bulk of the first half of his career, was maligned by NBA media and fandom at large.

However, I’m less interested in what happened to NBA fandom over the years than I am what kept Dirk going in spite of all the criticism.

Nowitzki’s career was neither magnificent in the way of Kobe Bryant’s nor as awe-inspiring as Tim Duncan’s. Dirks’ career was beautiful, and it’s only since he retired that I have come to fully appreciate why.

In the years since his retirement, I’ve listened to just about every interview Dirk has done. He’s routinely asked if he ever wanted out of Dallas or thought about demanding a trade. He’s also asked about his rivalries with other players he routinely squared off against in his prime. When reflecting on his career, Dirk always says it was love that kept him going, but it wasn’t necessarily an insatiable love of winning that drove him. He always says he just wanted to compete—compete at the highest level, in fact. He loved competition.

Dirk loved to battle. Teams win and lose games because of a myriad of dumb, unforeseen circumstances. A few bad breaks here and there. An injury to a key role player. Hell, just a few shots falling or rimming out can change an entire game and a player’s historical legacy.

Competition is, at first glance, an interesting thing to find pleasure in. Sports lore tends to traffic in a fascination with winners, with stone-cold killers that base their entire driving force on dominating and crushing the opponent. But to love competing at the highest level, to just want to be in the game, the big game, that’s what drove Dirk. In hindsight, it seems the final destination for him was always the gates of the Promised Land, a chance to stand at the doorway of a championship and fight like hell to get in.

Imagine stepping onto the basketball court for a pickup game with friends. You toss up an unlikely 3-pointer that surprisingly swishes through the net, followed by a series of even more improbable shots. Each basket feels like a blessing, making you think you’ve found a magic touch. But as the shots keep going in, the initial exhilaration fades. You realize that this supposed gift has turned into a burden. If every shot you take is guaranteed to go in, if winning becomes a certainty, the thrill of competition disappears. It’s true that we miss 100% of the shots we don’t take. But it’s also true that if we made 100% of the shots we did take, after a very brief time, they’d no longer be worth taking. Losing, missing shots, facing criticism—these are inherent to the essence of competition.

French psychoanalyst and theorist Jacques Lacan postulated that human beings find enjoyment in something he calls jouissance. Put very simply, not an easy thing to do with Lacan, jouissance is a tension, the exhilarating moment when winning and losing feeling in the balance.

The goal, in basketball and in life, is to enjoy the competition and however briefly, the release, the pleasure at the end of the tension, and that can come from both winning or losing. Losing a job or a crush or a big game can be a kind of relief of its own. Even if the rejection stings, at least it’s over. Winning feels good, but the feeling, the rush is fleeting if only because the next season starts in a few months, the next game, the next job. The relief of pleasure comes at the end of enjoying the process. It can’t be bottled or held onto or captured. It can only be experienced and, if you’re lucky, shared with friends, family, teammates, and fans.

Dirk seemed to understand that fate, the basketball gods, team management, and a few good or bad breaks could result in losing. All Nowitzki could control was his preparation for the moment. There was a point, a point he prepared for with relentless, meticulous craft inside a small gym in Wurzberg, Germany with his mentor Holger, at which fate can be wrestled from the basketball gods. But one had to arrive at that moment, one had to want that moment more than anything in the world, more than winning individual games or accolades itself. One has to enjoy the competition, with all its possibilities for winning and losing.

In three playoff runs after the disastrous first-round loss to the Warriors in 2007, the Mavericks never advanced past the second round. In those short-lived playoff runs Dirk averaged 26.8 points, 10.1 rebounds, and 3.1 assists on 51/40/90 shooting. Those of us fans at the time knew that Dirk had transformed himself into an unstoppable force. He could score from anywhere on anyone. And yet, the team around Dirk was not good enough to compete, not at the highest level. Dirk lived and played not necessarily for the victory, just for the moment at which winning and losing hung in the balance, and it seemed he and the Mavericks would never have another chance. Until they did.

In a recent interview, Tyson Chandler said that during the Mavericks 2011 playoff run, he and Deshawn Stevenson sat on medical tables next to each other getting treatment between games. Dirk was in the practice gym putting shots up. Tyson said to Stevenson, “Man, all we gotta do is get this guy there.” And, of course, they did. Kirk recently asked his twitter followers for their favorite iconic Dirk moments. For me, it’s Dirk’s drive in game 4 of the Finals against the Miami Heat. With Jeff Van Gundy repeatedly bemoaning Dirk starting his move too early, Dirk drove past Chris Bosh, who had bodied Dirk to keep him from getting up a jumper. Dirk laid in the game-winner off a busted finger. The move and the moment were not particularly pretty nor smooth. Dirk’s game rarely was. It was effective, smart, and above all else, it was Dirk’s. The ball doesn’t go in, and the Mavericks lose in overtime, that’s on Dirk. But the Mavericks won and they closed out the series in six games. Get him to the moment, put him in the battle, and after years of disappointment, Dirk competed at the highest level. He battled. He took control of destiny.

This is why I believe Dirk seems so satisfied with his career especially compared to some former athletes whose drive to win above all else pushed them to absolute greatness at the cost of personal dissatisfaction when it all ended. I do believe Dirk would harbor regrets had he never won a championship, and he’d admit that something was missing from his career. But in interviews when he looks back on his career, I’ve noticed the championship validates the drive to compete, not the other way around.

He battled and competed with the best. That’s what drove him. He knew he was never guaranteed another trip to the Finals after 2006, and yet he worked and worked on his game in the intervening years. He showed up ready for that moment when he could take the reins of basketball history and direct them where he wanted them to go. The final release, the rush of victory, famously drove Dirk to the locker room for a few brief moments alone before joining the team on the podium. It drove me to call my dad with tears in my eyes. There is just something moving and beautiful about someone that wants to compete, that wants to get there and then see what happens, that wants more than anything to find out what they are made of in that moment.

This is the lesson I take from Dirk’s career, from the satisfaction with his playing days he seems to possess in retirement. If you live life only with an abhorrence of losing, unable to accept anything but winning, you’ll live a life of unhappiness. Because while winning is never guaranteed, losing most certainly is.

The writer Mary Gaitskill writes, “To be human is finally to be a loser, for we are all fated to lose our carefully constructed sense of self, our physical strength, our health, our precious dignity, and finally our lives. A refusal to tolerate this reality is a refusal to tolerate life.”

Dirk is retired now. He’s said he has some ankle and knee issues from the years of carrying the Dallas Mavericks to the playoffs year in and year out. People already question his legacy compared to some of his (in my opinion) inferior contemporaries, and Youtube videos will never do justice to just how dominant he was. Dirk’s memory and his victories, like the memory of all of us and all our winnings on much smaller scales, will one day fade. But for years, Dirk showed us how to love the battle, how to strive and prepare for competition at the highest level, even without a guarantee of entering the ring. He showed us that what comes from preparing for that moment can provide its own form of pleasure, its own form of drive, its own satisfaction.

Sports offer us exaggerated forms of greatness to aspire to with our friends and family, the downtrodden, our children, our jobs, our lives. To live a satisfied life of any kind, we have to love the tension of competition as much or more than we enjoy the fleeting pleasures of winning. We have to take on the risk of losing, of being scorned and misunderstood by fellow people, pundits, and rivals. We have to trust our friends, family, and teammates on the journey. We have to put in the work day in and day out, to become the kind of person that is prepared for the few moments we get when fate has run its course and brought us to the precipice of taking responsibility for wresting our own life from the morass of struggles and challenges that we did not choose for ourselves. If we love the battle itself and the journey it takes to get there, if we love the ones that brought us there, we can recognize that victory is never guaranteed, but a beautiful journey might be.

John Thorton is a lifelong Mavericks fan and Executive Director of Held, an organization changing lives through guaranteed income