MIAMI – Long in beard, short on sleep, this is where the NBA Finals had delivered Dirk Nowitzki(notes): Eve of Game 6, one victory from his first championship, slumped into a chair, all elbows and angles jutting out, and, yes, he'd seen the cough-session video of Dwyane Wade and LeBron James making fun of him.
"I just thought it was a little childish, a little ignorant," Nowitzki said. "I've been in this league for 13 years. I've never faked an injury or illness before."
Nowitzki wasn't simmering with anger. He sounded more put-off than anything, the dorm monitor who'd woken up to find two frat boys wheeling in a keg at 9 in the morning. Just another annoyance in a job filled with them.
Nowitzki will dismiss this slight just like he's dismissed all others that came before it. He's heard far worse in his career, and this is the advantage he carries into Sunday's Game 6, the same advantage he has carried all series. No one in these Finals has endured more failure to get to this point, no one has weathered as much criticism and no one can match his hunger.
"Now or Never," James tweeted before Game 5. He meant to inspire himself, but the ultimatum applies better to these Dallas Mavericks than it does James and his Miami Heat. Wade already has one championship. James will have several more years to get his. For Nowitzki, for Jason Kidd(notes), for many of these Mavericks, this could well be their final run at NBA glory.
"We're one win away from my dream, what I've worked on for half my life," Nowitzki said. "This is really all I'm worried about."
This, too, is why so many people from every corner of the NBA are pulling for him now. Nowitzki has chased this championship the hard way, staying with the same team for all 13 seasons, suffering through the Finals collapse in '06 and all those early exits that followed. He hasn't delivered a title yet, but he's won a level of respect from many of his rivals. At All-Star Weekend, Nowitzki and Tim Duncan(notes) looked like longtime friends sitting together, two members of the old guard watching the league transition to its next generation.
Nowitzki was representing the Mavericks alone in the All-Star Game, and that, too, was fitting. Since Steve Nash(notes) left Dallas, Nowitzki hasn't played next to a true star still in the prime of his career. That didn't matter, of course. Whenever the Mavericks lost, when they bowed out in the first round against the Golden State Warriors, when they did the same against the New Orleans Hornets and San Antonio Spurs, it was all on him. He was too soft. He couldn't lead. He couldn't withstand the pressure of the postseason.
"I got hammered the last 13 years, basically," Nowitzki said. "So hopefully this year I can make the hammering go away for one year."
Until recently, James had inspired much of his own criticism through only sheer arrogance. Nowitzki has listened to someone question his manhood nearly every season, including this one. After the Los Angeles Lakers routed the Mavericks in April, Chris Webber said Nowitzki should have been "fined" for not retaliating against the defending champions. Mark Cuban went on radio to blast Webber, and this only added to the perception of Nowitzki as the soft star. If Dirk was really so tough, then why did he need his owner to defend him? Why did he need to be coddled?
The same happened when Wade ripped Nowitzki's leadership months after the '06 Finals. Cuban fired back in his blog, and the Mavericks were once again cast as the whiny losers.
Cuban has kept his mouth shut through most of these playoffs, and the change has benefited Nowitzki as much as anyone. No longer is his greatness obscured by Cuban's noise. Those same Lakers that Webber said Nowitzki couldn't stand tough against? Nowitzki swept them in the second round.
He has continued to show his resilience throughout this postseason, and there's a lesson for LeBron in that. You weather the failure and criticism and move to the next game, next season, next challenge. You don't go to Larry King looking for sympathy. You change the narrative yourself. Work harder, play harder. Win.
"I just think sometimes when you don't win, criticism comes with it," Nowitzki said. "That's just a part of the game if you're the star or the face of the franchise. If you win, it's great for you, and everybody looks at you. And if you lose, you're going to get hammered."
He likely will get hit again if he doesn't finish these Finals, if he doesn't deliver his first championship. Won't it be just one more collapse in a career of collapses? Won't it forever scar his legacy?
Nowitzki hasn't spent much time worrying about his place in history. He stopped counting the insults and slights years ago. Wade and James can mock him, tease him, whatever. He's still chasing his dream, still carrying the same edge he carried into these Finals. Thirteen years is a long time in this league, and Dirk Nowitzki is far more tired of failing than they'll ever be.