DALLAS – Here was Dirk Nowitzki, eyes tired, voice soft, sitting at a table in the Dallas Mavericks' offices with his mind running through the way that Steve Nash had again broken his heart. Hours earlier, a sleepless night had been born out of the disgust of a double-overtime loss to the Suns, one of those games that rustled the spirits of playoffs past, that fed into the fury of Dwyane Wade's resounding rip on his NBA finals failure.
For a moment here, though, the Mavericks star allowed himself to rewind three years to when Nash, his best friend, left Dallas for the desert. Nash's fleeing for free agency has been played out so many times, with all the reasons and regrets, but Nowitzki is forever left with, "What if?"
"We both love the teams we play with, but sometimes you think of what could've been if we stayed together," he said. "Would we have won a championship or not? Sometimes, I go through it in my mind …"
It wouldn't be long the other day until he snapped back that faraway gaze, because even without Nash running these Mavs, Nowitzki is still lording over the deepest, most versatile roster in the league. He's still in the midst of an MVP season, a greatness that has sculpted a prototype for the European basketball player in the NBA.
Here in the quiet of American Airlines Center, Nowitzki reflected on growing from a lost teen, fresh out of Germany who in much of the league's eyes had arrived in the 1998 NBA draft as something of a science project in Don Nelson's laboratory.
Across his nine seasons, he has done everything a player must do for to reach a superstar's standing in this league – everything short of winning a championship. That's the threshold for him now, and he has himself and the Mavs on the cusp. Maybe most of all, Nowitzki has made America see that a European could be a franchise player, the cornerstone of a championship contender.
As much as anyone in the NBA today, in his own way, Nowitzki changed the game.
"You have to give Nellie a lot of credit: I don't think there were a lot of coaches then who would've let a 7-footer just dribble up the ball and jack up a three," he said. "He helped me find my game and develop it into something that really hasn't been done before.
"If I would've gone somewhere else, they would've made me a back-to-the-basket power forward and tried to punch it into the paint with me. Nellie didn't think that was my game and gave me all the freedom. I owe him a lot."
Without Nowitzki, there's no Andrea Bargnani of Italy getting drafted No. 1 in Toronto and getting to play beyond the three-point line at 7-foot without a disparaging word. Nowitzki gave Bargnani, gave the next wave, legitimacy.
Now, he makes his bid for the final frontier for the European star. At 28 years old, he has averaged 25.2 points and 9.7 rebounds a game this season. As long as the Mavericks, 54-11 now, hold off the Suns and Nash for the No. 1 seed in the West, Nowitzki deserves to finally earn his first Most Valuable Player award.
"What has changed is that they do believe that guy can come over and be franchise players," he said. "That wasn't the case before, but now, they know we're good enough to carry teams over here."
After hearing Nowitzki lament letting those 2006 finals to the Heat slip away, Wade left everyone stunned with such a pointed, personal response to Nowitzki this season. The Mavs star raised his hand, took the blame, but somehow Wade decided this was a slight of the Heat. Of course, Dallas had Miami down two games to nothing, had them down double figures late in Game 3, before everything collapsed.
"… Dirk says they gave us the championship last year, but he's the reason they lost the championship," Wade said, "because he wasn't the leader that he's supposed to be in the closing moments."
Even now, Nowitzki sounds confused on how the mild-mannered Wade turned something so benign into something nastily personal.
"I thought he reacted really, really sensitive to what I said," Nowitzki said. "Everybody knows we had the series in control. … I thought I said something that we all felt.
"I wasn't going to go back at him again. That's not me."
Of course, Nowitzki rolled his eyes and laughed when it was suggested that his boss, Mark Cuban, couldn't so easily let Wade's words go. The owner of the Mavericks hustled to Dirk's defense, blasting Wade in his blog. It was classic, combative Cuban – over the top and endlessly entertaining.
"(Cuban) probably shouldn't have said what he said," Nowitzki said. "Even by responding to that, it looks like (Wade) really got to us."
Beneath it all, you wonder if Wade himself still clings to those lingering stereotypes that a Euro is too soft, that he isn't cut out to burden an NBA championship. Wade wouldn't be alone in that thinking, and Nowitzki understands that none of that goes away until he's holding that trophy over his head this June, until Dirk Nowitzki goes the complete distance.