Dirk. Pt. 2
You Never Forget Your First Love
When I first chose the Mavericks as my favorite team, I didn’t even know who Dirk Nowitzki was. But I soon fell in love. This series won’t be just about what makes Dirk great, but what makes him great to love. Here’s to you Dirk, I hope I meet you one day.
Dirk the Hero
Dirk arrived in Dallas as part of what might be the most lopsided trades of all time. A pair of draft day swaps brought two future MVP’s (Dirk and Nash) to Dallas in exchange for Pat Garrity and Robert “Tractor” Traylor (no problem if you’ve never heard of them). And despite struggling in his rookie season, he quickly rose to accept the mantle of franchise player.
He made his first All-Star game in 2002 (around the time I fell in love) and would rattle off ten straight from there, missing out in 2013 and then back to back appearances in ’14 and ’15. Dirk wasn’t only the Mavs best player, he became to represent the internationalization of basketball. He was the figurehead for everything I wanted.
Which is why it hurt so much every time he lost. You see, for much of Dirk’s career, he wasn’t near-universally adored, as he is now. He was a gimmick, a one-trick-pony, a DH. Even though many would anoint him great, it would be qualified. Greatest European player, greatest shooting big man, or great regular season player. He never reached the pinnacle of the basketball world. But that was about to change.
In 2006, I was just finishing 7th grade, and Dirk was headed for the Finals. The Mavs had fired Don Nelson and promoted assistant Avery Johnson to the head coach position. Johnson’s defensive mindset seemed to perfectly balance the offensive machine the Mavs had become under Nelson. And Dirk, well he was the man. He torched Memphis in a round one sweep. Dueled Duncan and bested him in an epic game seven in round two. And dropped a cool 50 in game 5, on his buddy Nash, to help win the Western Conference Finals.
If you’re in 7th grade and you see your favorite player do those things on the way to the Finals, you think there is no way he’s going to lose. I imagine there were many other Nowitzki fans around the world thinking the same thing.
But Dirk couldn’t do it. He built a 2–0 lead but thanks to Pat Riley’s amazing luck, the old 2–3–2 playoff schedule and Dwyane Wade ghost calls (look it up for yourself) he couldn’t seal the deal. It hurt, not just the loss but the fact that maybe everyone was right about Dirk. Maybe championships weren’t won by offense and jump shots and maybe all Europeans were too soft for the Playoffs (this was being said at the time). I might have stopped believing for a while but Dirk quickly brought my belief back to life.
Avery Johnson had his first full season at the helm and led Dallas to a league-best 67 wins. I got to witness live, in-person my first Mavs game. I still remember walking from my seat down to the team shop and buying the green alternate Mavs jersey with 41 on it. My first NBA jersey for my first NBA love. Dirk was more than just my guy, he was the favorite for the MVP award.
The playoffs rolled around and I don’t even want to dissect what happened. One team believed in Don Nelson’s plan to destroy the Mavs and my teenaged heart, and it worked. Leading to one of the most awkward MVP acceptance speeches ever. Occurring after Dallas had been knocked out of the Playoffs.
Part of me died that day, staring at a computer screen watching the live stream of the speech. Looking at Dirk, so disappointed after winning an award. But not just an award, what I thought was THE award. To Dirk, it was just another reminder that he wasn’t the last man standing, and I started believing again that he wouldn’t ever be. It was improbable, the Mavs run to the Finals the year before. Consistently traversing the Western Conference is nearly impossible as many more teams would find out in the years to come. And sitting there staring at a computer screen I felt as though mine and Dirk’s child had died, a child called fandom. It was only healthy that we spend some time apart.
Dirk was my role model, my idol and my entertainer. He was my greatest source of joy and sorrow. He was to some extent my addiction, and I had to let him go. Join me tomorrow as my Dirk love comes back to life — John Snow style — with a burning purpose. Here’s to you Dirk, see you tomorrow.