Following the Mavericks’ 120-109 win over the Suns on Tuesday, the team held a postgame ceremony to honor the career of Dirk Nowitzki. On the floor were Larry Bird, Charles Barkley, Scottie Pippen, Shawn Kemp, and Detlef Schrempf, who spoke about the legend’s career. When the mic finally reached Nowitzki, he confirmed what most of us had already been expecting—that, or he finally relented to the pressure of receiving a swan song in every arena he’d gone to over the last year. Without saying the word “retirement,” Nowitzki confirmed he’d be hanging it up after this season and told the Dallas crowd that his 30-point performance against Phoenix was going to be the last home game of his career.
(Warning: The following video will definitely make you cry.)
Let’s get the obvious out of the way: Nowitzki is a first-ballot Hall of Famer who retires not just as one of the greatest scorers, foreign-born players and power forwards in league history, but also as the greatest player to ever put on a Dallas Mavericks uniform. His signature fadeaway shot should honestly become the new logo for the league and he was a transcendent player who you probably didn’t appreciate enough in his prime (don’t blame yourself, it happens to most great players not named LeBron, Jordan, Magic or Bird).
For many, Nowitzki’s legacy as one of the all-time greats was cemented after beating the LeBron-Wade-Bosh Miami Heat trio in 2011 for the first and only NBA title of his career. Prior to that moment, his career had been impressive but had a few too many “almost” moments that raised questions about his ability—a matter that’s up for debate. He had been to the finals before and failed (thanks to some questionable refereeing). The season he won an MVP, the “We Believe” Warriors knocked his team out in the first round. He’d been awarded All-NBA honors, and was voted as an All-Star in almost every season of his career while playing next to some incredible teammates. Yet the Larry O’Brien trophy remained elusive as ever. So when his moment of glory finally came, not even he was prepared for how great it would feel for the emotional weight to finally lift off of his shoulders. The scenes of him rushing straight to the locker room tunnel after the final buzzer went off in Game 6, confirming the Mavs’ championship, are unforgettable to say the least. Nowitzki having to emotionally compose himself away from his overjoyed teammates as the weight of what he just accomplished began to settle in is one of the most powerful sports moments of my lifetime.
There are also the understated moments of Nowitzki’s career that should be remembered just as fondly as those other things: the fact he frequently went to games with a plate of food wrapped in tin foil, his karaoke skills, or his game-winner over Carmelo Anthony in New York. Despite Anthony playing the best defense of his career, Nowitzki was still able to sink the buzzer-beater and come away victorious—something that could almost be considered a metaphor for the two players’ careers. Out of the over 23,000 shots Nowitzki’s taken in his career, this one sticks out to me the most, oddly enough. Was it an athletic feat? No. Was it 95 percent luck? Most certainly. Was it anywhere close to his signature fadeaway? Of course not. Does my brain rationalize the shot going in because it came off of Dirk’s hands? You can bet your sweet ass it does.
Even when it was clear that the end was going to be nowhere near as pretty as the beginning or the middle of his career, as is the case with every superstar, he still found moments to look like he was in his mid-20s again. It certainly helped that he had learned to dominate with a playing style that could age just as gracefully as he did. But even with that knowledge, many of us in sports media still went through the same cycle quite often in the twilight of his career. It would begin with marveling at Nowitzki’s ability given his age, follow up with realizing that if there was ever a player who could pull off whatever impressive move he just did, it’d be him, and end with feeling dumb for having ever doubted him.
Perhaps the only knock on his career is how often he took a salary cut for the benefit of the team in the hopes of getting a superstar free agent for a late-career title run (nice work, Cuban). But even in that situation, he’s not entirely at fault. When a franchise ends up getting a player of Nowitzki’s caliber for the entirety of his career, the contracts will always feel like bargains in hindsight. That being said, maybe they should have asked Charles Barkley to get a sense of how talented he was going to be.
Barkley: [The game had] Scottie, MJ, there was a bunch of NBA guys. Dirk was 18. This was when Scottie was quote on quote “the best defender in the world.” So Dirk is kicking our ass. He’s got like 25 at halftime. Me and Michael are like “Scottie you gotta pick it up a little bit.” He’s like “Man, I’m gonna lock him down in the second half.” Dirk finished with 52. I was like “Dude, who the hell are you?!”[...] So I call Nike. I say, “Find out about this kid. Tell him I’ll give him anything he wants to go to Auburn. Anything he wants, we’ll get it done.” So they call, this is in the middle of the summer, [Nike] is in the middle of Germany somewhere. I say, “Just give him anything he wants. He’s got to go to Auburn.” They say “Well, he’s got to go in the army.” I said, “Dude, that dude is seven feet tall, he’s not going in the damn army, what’s he gonna hide behind?” The next year Milwaukee drafted [Nowitzki] so I was like “Dude, you should have gone to Auburn. We’d probably have a few banners up by now.”
The sad truth is that basketball fans are going to have to start getting used to not seeing Nowitzki on a bench next season, let alone in a Mavericks jersey. The feeling will pass eventually, but there will certainly be some sort of void in the league without him. There’s a part of me that’s holding out hope that the side of him that loves to troll will turn around and say that he’ll only be playing away next year. But do you know what’d be even better than that? If he just came back next season ready to play anyway just to make things awkward.