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MIAMI – He held the trophy into the air, Dirk Nowitzki(notes) marching across the court pushing midnight now, pushing past his wildest dreams as a skinny, scared teenager arriving in the NBA all those years ago. There were a couple hundred Dallas Mavericks fans still waiting for him in Section 105, and they all looked like proud parents, like they had witnessed a young man grow into a legend, a champion now.
Nowitzki held that Larry O'Brien Trophy higher now, like an offering to the basketball gods. In those big, meaty hands, it looked like a lost friend found.
"WOOOHOOOO!!!" Nowitzki screamed, and now he stopped in the tunnel for a moment, lifting the big, shiny trophy higher and higher so that they could touch it too. When everyone else doubted that a European could be the cornerstone for an NBA champion, when the chance to trade him for Kobe Bryant(notes) once crossed the owner's desk, they always believed that they would witness this night with Nowitzki. They always believed he could be a champion, could hold that trophy in the air, hold it high.
The prospect of ever trading Nowitzki always left team owner Mark Cuban asking himself this: What would a title for the Mavericks be worth without Nowitzki? He was the ultimate Maverick, a trailblazing European that redefined and reshaped the way a 7-footer could dominate a basketball game.
In the year of the trophy chase, here was the most improbable scene on the shores of Biscayne Bay: Dirk Nowitzki had marched out of Miami with an NBA championship, a Finals MVP and a victory for perseverance, staying the course.
This is rare now, a fading phenomenon in the NBA. Nowitzki has forever been the sun the Mavericks' planets surrounded, an orbiting galaxy of coaches and teammates that have come and gone. He was the constant, the conscience of a franchise that invoked his ethic, his character, his relentless pursuit of victory. No one worked harder. No one worked longer.
No one took what should've been imperfections as a slow, un-athletic 7-footer, and turned them into unconquerable strengths, an ability to shoot with his body twisted, contorted and falling the wrong way. When his shot wasn't falling in Game 6 – missing 11 of 12 shots to start the game – his longtime teammate, Jason Terry(notes), barked into his ear: "Keep pushing. Remember '06."
Five years ago, the Mavericks had a 2-0 Finals lead on the Heat, an immense Game 3 edge late, and lost four straight, lost the title. Remember '06 was Terry's way of reminding Nowitzki about the most important thing of all: Remember the failure, remember the ache – and make it all go away now.
"If I would have won one early in my career, maybe I would have never put all the work and time that I have over the last 13 years," Nowitzki said.
He's been the most awkwardly graceful star the sport's ever seen, a testament to a game played far below the rim, and deep within the mind. The Mavericks were a remarkable story, and Nowitzki a remarkable star. Dallas swept the two-time defending NBA champion Los Angeles Lakers, beat the burgeoning Oklahoma City Thunder, and finally beat the defending July champion, Miami Heat.
"It wasn't about our high-flying star power," Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle said. "Come on, how often do we have to hear about the LeBron James(notes) Reality Show? When are people going to talk about the purity of the game and what these guys accomplished?"
Forever now. Once again, James was an uncertain, uneven star with a championship on the line. He didn't play well in these Finals, and worst in the moments that the Heat needed him most. He didn't want the ball in the fourth quarter, passing it away as fast as it had come to him.
James will win championships, but he'll never enjoy a moment so singularly pure as Nowitzki did. He'll never have this connection to a franchise and a fandom, a communion of shared struggle and pursuit and angst. This is still Dwyane Wade's(notes) town, and probably Wade's team. One Eastern Conference star said, "Right now all he's doing is helping D-Wade get his second ring."
To hear James suggest that the world will have to return to its sad, little ordinary lives and he'll still get to be LeBron James late Sunday night was a window into his warped, fragile psyche. It was sad, and portends to how disconnected to the world he truly is.
"They have to wake up and have the same life that they had before they woke up today … the same personal problems," James said. "I'm going to continue to live the way that I want to live. … But they have to get back to the real world at some point."
There's nothing real about James' world, and never has been. He's a prisoner of a life that his sycophants and enablers and our sporting culture has created for him. He's rich and talented and something of a tortured soul. He's the flawed superstar for these flawed times. He's a creation of a basketball breeding ground full of such twisted priorities and warped principles. Almost every person who's ever had to work closely with him, who has spent significant time, who's watched him belittle and bully people, told me they were rooting hard against him. That's sad, and that's something he doesn't understand and probably never will.
When the game was over, his attitude was downright defiant. They had done enough to win, he insisted, and of course he was wrong.
Strange, but Chris Bosh(notes) knew the truth. When he talked about Nowitzki, you had to wonder to whom he was directing his words. "There's nothing extra. There's nothing super. [Nowitzki] was just himself. And in these situations, I think when you're yourself and you play your basketball, the best thing always happen.
"He's worked very hard, for a very long time and he deserves it. I think we can take a page out of their book and really just pay attention to people's work ethic and how much time they put into the game. Obviously, what we did wasn't enough."
As the buzzer sounded on a 105-95 victory, Nowitzki didn't run to the middle of the floor, into the throbbing mob of teammates and coaches, cameras and flickering lights. He wanted to get out of there, wanted to be alone in the visiting locker room. The tears had started to come, and he just thought that he ought to be alone with them.
Eventually, the Mavericks had to drag him back out to take his Finals MVP trophy, and take his bow on the podium for national television. In the culminating moment of his career, Nowitzki was sheepish, deferring and humbled. He seemed so at peace, so contented. He had taken everything the basketball world could throw his way, and there was no Bleep You moment on Sunday night. There was no I Told You So.
Dirk doesn't do endorsements and doesn't do self-promotion. He doesn't care. He never wanted to be a brand. He wanted to be an NBA champion.
Finally, the clock had pushed back to 1:20 a.m., early Monday and Nowitzki clutched his MVP trophy on the walk out of the arena, out onto the loading dock. There were still Mavericks fans waiting outside the barricades, cheering him, chanting "MVP … MVP … " Yes, he clutched the trophy, but mostly the memories of making the Mavericks a relevant franchise out of a joke, carving a legacy and a legend as a forever hero. LeBron James will win a title, but he'll never own it the way that Dirk Nowitzki did this one.
The Mavericks bus was packed with players and coaches and family, and the door opened up wide for Nowitzki. The noise and laughter and love came tumbling out for him. He climbed on, the bus peeled out of the parking lot and toward the Venetian Causeway across the green waters of Biscayne Bay, toward a long night of partying, and a longer life as a champion. And here's how the Year of LeBron James finally ended in a balmy night in June: Dirk Nowitzki was taking his team, his trophy, his talents to South Beach.
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