Stay Soft, Dirk Nowitzki

Even before Dirk Nowitzki lifted a championship trophy on Sunday night, he was being held up as a new man. Nowitzki had reinvented himself, we were told. He'd finally "shed" the Euro-soft label plastered to him throughout his career and, to much adulation, morphed into the sort of rugged warrior that wins titles. The tale of an individual transforming himself to wrestle destiny into submission satisfies a special American yearning. In this case, it's obscuring an even more fundamentally American story.

One can only chuckle as the same journalists who once called Nowitzki a wimp now chide us for not respecting him sufficiently. Two years ago, Michael Wilbon, who was of the opinion that Nowitzki had the constitution of a field mouse, said the German was "soft" for sitting out national team duty in the European Championships on Mark Cuban's orders. "This is the problem with the Dallas Mavericks," Wilbon said. "If your player, if your best player is so weak that he lets the owner tell him what to do, you have no great player." Now Wilbon writes that we must "collectively eat a huge plate of crow for judging Dirk wrongly."

Great. For column purposes, Wilbon and others have turned Nowitzki into a symbol of redemption, a newfound tough who once, as Bill Simmons remembers it in his monstrous basketball tome, "refused to limp around with an injured knee in the [2003] Conference Finals." That's only partly true. Yes, Nowitzki was worried about further injuring himself, but Don Nelson (and medical wisdom) refused to let him play. When Cuban insisted, Nelson put his foot down. The disagreement between the two men led to the unraveling of their relationship. Eight years later, we find Nowitzki roaring at Jason Terry and battling through a torn finger ligament and a 101-degree fever on his way to a title, the arc from soft to hard complete, at least in the prefabricated narrative.

A few weeks ago, Basketball Reference compared Nowitzki's career stats to those of Larry Bird, that paragon of clutch play against whom the German has always inevitably been measured (tall, BLOND, long-range shooter). The numbers are close. Nowitzki is the better scorer thanks to his otherworldly offensive efficiency. Bird was a better offensive rebounder and defender. He got more assists, too, but Bird never had Jerry Stackhouse receiving his passes.

Over his 13 seasons, Nowitzki has been about as reliable and lethal a scorer as the league has ever seen. He's put up 20-plus points a game for more than a decade and taken shallow teams into the playoffs, occasionally far, for the last 11 years. This is not a man who's undergone enormous transformation as a player.

If the external data don't support the storyline, something internal must be involved. Thus the explanation that, until three days ago, Nowitzki was too soft to win a title. Bird, by contrast, was coiled steel, an infamous trash talker who once throttled Dr. J. after scoring 42 points and rubbing it in Erving's face. When Bill Laimbeer clubbed Bird on the chin in Game 2 of the 1985 Eastern Conference semifinals, Bird went and rattled off 31 points. In Game 3, he fought Laimbeer. Nowitzki is not cut from a similar cloth.

Instead of everyone casting about for ways to explain Nowitzki's transformation now that he has a ring, we should celebrate the fact that he hasn't transformed at all. In being exactly who he's always been, he defies the silly notion in American sports that an athlete has to don armor, psychic or otherwise, to win a title. Nowitzki has never been the guy who screams into the upper decks like a maniac after each and-one. He's never tried to be. He's one of the best low-post scorers in the NBA, but you'd never know it because he doesn't play with his back to the basket like other seven-footers. Instead of dunking opponents through the rim, he's mastered a step-back shimmy to get off a soft jumper that nobody can defend and that often leads to a free throw that almost always goes in. Softly. Nowitzki doesn't charge into battle. He fades away. And he wins because of it, not despite it.

This style of competition is what got Nowitzki plastered with all those labels in the first place. That and his failures in the fourth quarter of key playoff games. In Game 6 of the finals on Sunday, however, he struggled from the opening tip, missing enough open looks that it kicked up a breeze in AmericanAirlines Arena. In the third quarter, Nowitzki was 4-19. This was where the tough guy starts forcing his way to the rim, bangs bodies, makes something happen. Miami cut the Dallas lead to three with Nowitzki on the bench. "I'm Dirk Nowitzki, I'm checking myself in right now," Jeff Van Gundy said on the broadcast. "I'm not waitin'. This is my chance. I could play the rest of the way."

Jeff Van Gundy is not Dirk Nowitzki. Nowitzki stayed on the bench. He'd come off when Rick Carlisle called him in. If Dallas had lost the game and the series, the same critics who dogged Nowitzki for years would have again laced into him for listening to his coach and being unassertive. When Nowitzki did check back in—his teammates having extended the lead without him—he took and missed a pair of three-pointers: 4 for 21. Then he made a 16-footer. He made five of his last six shots. He won. Then he ran quickly out of the spotlight and into the locker room.

Nobody quite figured out what Nowitzki sprinting off for. Did he shed a tear in private? Take a quick trip to the toilet? Had he assumed it was time to drink some champagne and forgotten about the obligatory on-court TV ceremony? The inscrutable foreigner failed to read the cue cards.

Or did he refuse to read them? Nowitzki has always been more renegade than people give him credit for. He doesn't have an agent or a business manager. He doesn't care about endorsements or personal branding, our latest tawdry generational birthright. He mocked the Gatorade bottles product-placed in front of the players on press-conference tables and forcibly swept them out of his way at the Finals. The only noticeable thing Nowitzki has cared about on his long journey to a championship is rejecting the idiotic demand that he be someone he's not.

One of the seminal points in his career was one of his most vulnerable. After the 2006-07 season, at a time when he was considered a choke artist and a failure, when John Hollinger had put him on his all-decline team, Nowitzki went walkabout. He roamed Australia for over a month reflecting on his basketball career, on himself, on life. He "slept in youth hostels ... dozed on the beach reading German novels ... let his hair and beard grow long ... drifted out at sea for days ... slept in a car for a week." He engaged, in other words, in the type of numinous self-reflection that Americans might deem "soft," unless they are therapists or have read some Buddhist literature. And he emerged the better for it.

From "Crocodile Nowitzki," a 2007 story by Jesse Hyde in the Dallas Observer:

Dirk Nowitzki was lost. And he was starting to stink.

He had come this far, deep into the Australian Outback, and now that it was dark, he didn't know where he was. Not exactly, anyway. He'd ended up on a patch of wind-swept dirt, surrounded by sagebrush and stiff yellow grass, a place to park the Jeep and build a campfire.

The closest town of any significance was Alice Springs, or the Alice, as the locals called it. It was once a telegraph station so remote it had to be stocked by camel train. Aborigines could still be seen at times on its outskirts, wading shirtless in the muddy Todd River. But that was 250 miles away. Other than the wind, which blew softly through camp, the night was silent.

Nowitzki sat in front of the fire, strumming his guitar and sipping his whiskey straight from the bottle. He had stopped shaving days ago and didn't know when he would bathe next. He had been in Australia for a week and a half, even though it was May, and by all accounts he should have been somewhere else. He should've been on a basketball court, leading the Dallas Mavericks deep into the NBA Playoffs. He should've been winning a championship. But for the second year in a row, the season had ended in disappointment. Once again people were questioning his mental toughness.

He had but one traveling companion on this trip, his mentor Holger Geschwinder, a mostly bald 62-year-old German with puffy bags under his eyes and a big Roman nose that looked like it had been broken in a fistfight, or several fistfights over the years. In the light of the fire, his features looked sharp, as if his head had been cut from granite.

Nowitzki had come to Australia because he didn't want to be recognized. He didn't want to be reminded of his failures, of the places he should have been.

In his haste to leave Dallas, he had failed to consider one thing-it was winter in Australia, meaning darkness would fall early each night of his trip. At the present moment, sitting in front of the fire, there was nothing to do but sit and think, or talk to Geschwinder.

"Why me?" Nowitzki wondered, gazing into the glowing embers. "Why is this happening to me?"

He had just a few weeks to find the answer.

Nowitzki did find his answer. When he got back to Dallas, he was zen. He'd reached a place where he no longer feared failure. Life would come to him. He could be soft and he could win. He'd realized that, regardless of what he did, he wouldn't be in control in the end. His mentality was the opposite of the American superstar. The ability to tame fate is the most adamantine and American of fallacies, especially in sports, where it is held that the sheer will of an individual can prevail over anything at the last, even in a team game. (Try persuading Dwyane Wade of this now.) We demand our stars work harder, be more valiant, tougher, more cutthroat, less sensitive, more solipsistic, less socialistic, develop a killer instinct, dominate, crush, destroy, show no weakness, dispense with humor unless using it to mock, have unwavering confidence in personal greatness, ignore doubt, reject fear, embrace hero status. But this is not courageous. This is stupid. Courageous is what Nowitzki did. He stayed true to himself, the soft seven-footer who uses his height to get away from defenders, not get over them.

No other player of Nowitzki's size has made such a successful career as a finesse shooter. That nobody ordered the giant German to get into the paint and stay there is one of the greatest individual success stories in the history of player development. Kevin Garnett, a 6-foot-5-inch shooting guard trapped in a seven-foot body, had to lie about his height so he could get away with playing on the perimeter. But there's nothing tender about Garnett. He's always been a ferocious, howling presence, especially on defense, earning the right to take jumpers by leading the league in rebounds.

No, when it comes to that necessary yielding quality, Nowitzki has them all beat. Without question, his is the greatest triumph of softness in NBA history. And in the end, isn't that the really successful American story? You know, the one about how the immigrant assimilates and changes us for the better, not the other way around.