Dirk Nowitzki: 'In my soul, I’m still young'

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Dirk Nowitzki is one of the greatest players in NBA history. (AP)
Dirk Nowitzki is one of the greatest players in NBA history. (AP)

The morning after he was swarmed by teammates, Mark Cuban nearly squeezed the oxygen out of him with an embrace, his longtime shooting coach, Holger Geschwindner, shed a tear, and fans, friends and peers showered him with praise on social media, Dirk Nowitzki woke up on March 8 and spent several hours scrolling through congratulatory messages on his cellphone. Nowitzki read each text, losing himself in one of those rare, in-season, introspective periods when he could acknowledge and cherish all of the people, failures and conquests that contributed to him becoming just the sixth player in NBA history to score 30,000 points.

Before Nowitzki played his next game, the Dallas Mavericks held an informal gathering to honor the greatest player in franchise history. He was overwhelmed by the affection, embarrassed by the attention and appreciative of “an emotional week” that “I’ll never forget for the rest of my life.”

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Two weeks removed from the latest milestone of a bona fide Hall of Fame career, Nowitzki has been forced to look back on what he’s accomplished and overcome during the past 19 years. But Nowitzki doesn’t want the recent wave of admiration to be confused with some kind of farewell tour, because he doesn’t want to lose sight of the next game or the next practice. He’s not done yet.

“I reflect at times, but I don’t want to reflect too much. I want to stay in the moment,” Nowitzki told The Vertical. “You reflect a little bit. All the hard work you put in, paid off. Go through everything. All the people that helped you around, your family, now wife and kids. The support system that’s been with you for so long. Doubters and critics early on. All that goes through your mind. It’s a feeling of a little bit of fulfillment. But just for a little bit. It lasts for a bit. And then you’ve got to keep plugging and keep getting better.”

As the fourth international player to win league MVP (along with Hakeem Olajuwon, Tim Duncan and his good friend, Steve Nash), the second European player to win Finals MVP (along with Tony Parker) and the creator of the most unguardable shot this side of the skyhook (the one-legged fadeaway), Nowitzki has nothing left to prove. With a basketball bucket list that has long been scratched off, Nowitzki now finds satisfaction in the competition, in providing mentorship for an unusually young squad, and in the joy that comes from those moments that make the grind worthwhile.

“You’ve still got to enjoy the grind,” Nowitzki told The Vertical. “Sometimes it’s tough. If you don’t like the lifting and all the practicing, or the extra shots, I might as well retire. I still love the game. The practices. The weightlifting sessions in the summer, when you’re on vacation, all of that gets a little old. Once the game starts and the fans, that’ll always be fun. So I’m going to do it as long as my health holds up. And we’ll see how long it goes.”

Nowitzki follows through on the shot that gave him 30,000 career points on March 7. (AP)
Nowitzki follows through on the shot that gave him 30,000 career points on March 7. (AP)

Nowitzki didn’t know that the twilight of his career would go this way. He would prefer to still be chasing championships. But he no longer demands what might never come. The Mavericks haven’t won a playoff series since the greatest European player in NBA history crashed the Miami Heat’s “not three, not four …” dynasty before it even began in 2011. Though the organization failed in subsequent years to put another contending mix around him, and he willingly subsidized those efforts by taking bargain deals, Nowitzi isn’t bitter or regretful.

“Of course, when you have that sniff of a ring, you always want to compete at the highest level. But we’ve been through that now,” Nowitzki told The Vertical. “We’ve made a business decision after we won it. The lockout came at a bad time for us. Cubes probably projected things a little different than it ended up happening. So we let some of our guys go, but that’s over with now. We can’t live in the past.

“I don’t try to complain too much. I don’t want to sit there and say we need this and this. I want to go with whoever is in a Mavs uniform. I want to make it work. I want to compete with whoever we’ve got. Coach [Rick Carlisle] is going to make the best out of whoever the personnel is that we’ve got. He’s an old fox, he always puts us in the right positions. He coaches us hard. Whatever guys we’ve got, we’re going to give it our best shot.”

Duncan, Kobe Bryant and Kevin Garnett retired after last season, leaving Nowitizki as one of just six remaining players drafted in the 1990s. He continues to climb the all-time scoring list (he could pass Wilt Chamberlain for fifth by the end of next season) and his longevity has made Nowitzki more revered than at any point in his career. That might explain why joining the 30K Club drew much more attention than passing Shaquille O’Neal for the sixth-most points in NBA history.

Nowitzki has the longest active tenure with the same team – a run that even he wondered would be possible. “I doubted myself a little, the first year. It was hard times,” Nowitzki told The Vertical. “I was fortunate coming to a situation where Dallas supported me from Day One. The fans, even my first year struggling, I got standing ovations subbing in. Almost like they wanted me to succeed. I never forgot that. End of my second year, Cuban bought the team and he’s been my No. 1 supporter on and off the floor. Every time there was something, he came and helped me out. He’s been loyal to me. Made me his franchise player when I was 24 and everybody said, ‘Are you crazy? You can’t give this foreigner a max deal?’ And he did. And stuck with me after all of the disappointments and it paid off. He’s been loyal to me, the city has been loyal to me and it’s easy for me to pay that back.”

Nowitzki won’t ever forget how Michael Finley and Nash helped him adjust to an unforgiving league. He learned from his disappointments, was motivated by the misery that came from losing in the 2006 NBA Finals, exiting in the first round a year later and receiving his MVP trophy while on vacation. That’s why Nowitzki has no problem paying it forward to his younger teammates. He earned the greatness he always wanted.

When he noticed Harrison Barnes languishing through the preseason last October, Nowitzki invited him to work out. Nowitzki put Barnes through his usual shooting routine and was amazed to see the range, touch and skill of a player who had recently been rewarded a max contract. Nowitzki saw that Barnes could mimic his offensive arsenal, including that patented “one-legger.”

“He had all that,” Nowitzki told The Vertical. “I was like, ‘We got to see that in the game.’ ”

Barnes has since slid comfortably into his role as go-to scorer for the Mavericks, posting career-high numbers in his first season after leaving Golden State. After practice, Nowitzki and Barnes are always staging shooting competitions and trash-talk sessions that Nowitzki said, “Keeps me in shape – and young.”

“In my soul, I’m still young,” Nowitzki told The Vertical. “I probably joke around more than any of [my teammates].”

Dallas is headed toward its first losing season since 1999-00, Nowitzki’s second in the league. But the Mavericks still have a remote chance of claiming the eighth playoff spot in the Western Conference despite a miserable 3-15 start. Just getting into the postseason was once unacceptable for Nowitzki – but not when he’s missed 26 games mostly because of a nagging Achilles’ injury and definitely not when he’s on a team that has nine players 26 or younger. “It’s going to be tough, but just to be in position to fight for something means a lot,” Nowitzki told The Vertical. “Chasing the playoffs, I like to focus on that. That helps, fighting for something. No team has ever made the playoffs after starting 3-15, so it would be sweet, obviously, to make history.

“I want to win. I’d love to be on a great team again. And to play for a championship again, but I’m a big believer in whatever happens, happens. I’ll keep plugging for as long as it goes and then it’s time to go away,” Nowitzki told The Vertical. He’d rather not lose sight of what’s ahead by looking over his shoulder. “You can reflect plenty in the summer, or after your career is over. Show my kids, show my grandkids one day, and I’ll be super proud of what I’ve done.”

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