Editor’s note: This article was originally published in April 2019. The Sporting News is revisiting Dirk Nowitzki’s legacy before the Mavericks retire his jersey on Jan. 5.
PART I: An exhibition, a grand plan and a draft mystery
Late in the summer of 1997, a group of NBA stars was traveling through Europe playing exhibition games as part of a tour organized by Nike. Charles Barkley, Jason Kidd, Reggie Miller, Gary Payton and Scottie Pippen were among the participants.
In Berlin, the NBAers faced a team of German pros, one of whom was a thin 19-year-old with a blonde buzzcut who had posters of Pippen on the walls of his room in the basement of his parents’ home. He was wearing the inauspicious No. 78 on his uniform, standing at around 7-feet, and when the tipoff came against Vin Baker, the kid jumped center for Germany.
The kid hit double-figures scoring in that game, a 102-67 drubbing by the NBA stars. In another meeting, though, the kinderhoopster was more aggressive from the start and knocked down a series of jumpers while also showing an ability to attack the basket and put the ball on the floor.
The Americans took notice. It was then that a legend, almost five years in the making under the watchful management of an oddball coach in a small Bavarian city, began to drift west, over the Atlantic.
After the game, Barkley tried to find out who the kid was for the sake of his alma mater, Auburn.
Charles Barkley, Rockets forward (1996-2000)
We were over there, and I’ve got Scottie Pippen and Gary Payton a bunch of NBA players with me, we were over there. Scottie is supposed to be the best defender in the game, right? Dirk’s got like 25 or 30 at halftime, and we go into the locker room. I’m like, ‘What the f— is this?’ And Scottie and the guys were mad, and they’re saying, ‘We’re gonna shut him down in the second half.’
He finished with 52.
I went up to him after the game and I said, ‘Who are you?’
He says, ‘Dirk Nowitzki.’
I said, ‘How old are you?’ He was, like, 18, 19. I say, ‘Where you going to college? I’ve got a good college for you.’ I said, ‘Give me your information. I want you to go to my college.’
He gave me his information, so Nike could look him up and all of that. He told me, ‘I’m going into the army.’
I said, ‘You’re seven feet tall. You’re not going into the f—ing army. What are you going to hide behind? Stop it.’
We called, but the Bucks drafted him [and traded him to Dallas] the next year. When he got 50 on us, a bunch of NBA players, at 18 years old, I knew he was the real deal.
Holger Geschwindner had been a wing who averaged 13.7 points in nine games on the 1972 East German Olympic team and subsequently spent two decades lamenting his country’s lack of interest in the game, which he had learned from the kids of American soldiers stationed in the country.
But around 1994, a dose of kismet brought Geschwindner to a gym where he saw an elbowy teen who stood out from his peers. It was Nowitzki, and he had an instinct for the game that captivated Geschwindner’s imagination.
Nowitzki quickly became a dedicated pupil and began to play for his local club in Wurzburg, the X-Rays. Almost a century earlier, Wurzburg’s Wilhelm Rontgen had been a Nobel Prize-winning scientist who developed modern X-Ray technology.
Nowitzki and Geschwindner — dubbed the “Mad Scientist” for the unusual training regimen — would form a bond that would last the duration of Nowitzki’s career. But in the late 1990s, Geschwindner was focused on simply getting that career started.
Nowitzki was considering college basketball, most seriously looking at California, Kentucky and North Carolina (sorry, Charles). But in the spring of 1998, Nowitzki had the opportunity to get in front of a group of 40 NBA scouts and executives at the Nike Hoop Summit, held during the Final Four weekend in San Antonio.
The game featured a group of international players going against American teens. Geschwindner took his young student to Texas, seizing the chance. The team practiced for a week in Dallas, and Nowitzki was outstanding in the game.
Nowitzki set a Hoop Summit record with 33 points, adding 14 rebounds. His legend grew. Forget college. Nowitzki would be entering the draft.
Dwane Casey, Supersonics assistant coach (1994-2005)
When he got into the draft, he was a mystery, so everyone was curious. In Seattle, we had Detlef Schrempf, who is also German. We were asking Detlef about him when the word started going around about this young kid who could shoot and was 7-feet.
‘Detlef, Detlef, who is this skinny guy who is coming into Dallas?’
And I’ll never forget what Detlef said: ‘Aw, he can’t play. He’s overrated.’
You know, one of those things. But lo and behold, he kept getting better and kept getting better and kept getting better. And so, I had first heard about him through Detlef, but fortunately, Detlef was wrong about him.
Almost no one knew that one league executive — 35-year-old Donnie Nelson of the Mavericks, son of Dallas’ then-GM and coach Don Nelson — already had a good sense of how wrong Schrempf would be. Nelson had watched Nowitzki in practice in Dallas ahead of the Summit and persuaded his father to draft Nowitzki. He would need time, but he would be worth the wait.
On draft day, Nelson arranged a trade with Milwaukee, picking ninth, to draft and trade Nowitzki and forward Pat Garrity to the Mavs for Michigan forward Robert Traylor. The move saved the Mavs about $1 million, and Nelson came away with his target.
The Bucks, with a nucleus of Ray Allen, Glenn Robinson and Sam Cassell, got within one game of the NBA Finals in 2001.
Ray Allen, Bucks All-Star guard (1996-2003)
That’s a coulda-woulda-shoulda scenario. I would like to know what would happen if he’d gone to Milwaukee. Him going to Dallas, though, you have to remember, it did give him the freedom to find his own way. What if he had gone to Milwaukee, and it didn’t work out for him?
It’s like Darko Milicic going to Detroit. He had too much pressure on him going to a good team. Maybe that happens with Dirk if he winds up with us in Milwaukee. So, maybe he would be great and we would win a championship, but maybe things would turn out a lot different.
I would have liked to have found out how we would have done with him. I know that.
For Geschwindner and the Nowitzki clan back in Germany, there was rejoicing. But for Dirk, the joy quickly gave way to apprehension. Nowitzki was young in years and young in life experience. He had never really been away from home, had only been in the U.S. for a short stint and was still an awkward teen with a limited grasp on English.
The league went into a lockout shortly after the draft, and Nowitzki later confessed he’d been wishing it would remain in a lockout for his entire first year.
But the lockout was settled in January 1999, and Nowitzki had no choice. He’d have to go play with the 400 or so best professionals on the planet. It hadn’t helped that, before he played a minute of pro basketball, Don Nelson had already declared that Nowitzki was ready for a run at the league’s Rookie of the Year award.
Throughout the lockout, Nowitzki bonded with another new Maverick who had an apartment in the same Dallas complex, point guard Steve Nash. Nash had been traded from Phoenix on draft night, and the shy young German latched onto the quiet Canadian.
“Dirk wasn’t ready for that, and Nellie put extra pressure on him there,” Nash said. “There was so much he was not ready for without adding Rookie of the Year.”
Indeed, after a handful of promising games to start the lockout-shortened season, Nowitzki flagged quickly. The game was too fast, the opponents too strong. He averaged 8.2 points and 3.4 rebounds. Touted as a 7-foot perimeter marksman, he made only 14 3-pointers on 68 tries in 47 games (20.6 percent).
Over one 17-game stretch, Nowitzki was 1 of 20 from the 3-point line. Maybe Schrempf would be proven right.
PART II: An early impact
Several factors converged to make Nowitzki’s second season, in 1999-2000, much smoother. First, with no lockout, he was able to have a normal sophomore offseason that featured a stint with the Mavericks’ Summer League entry.
He also would have five months to spend with Geschwindner and his offbeat drills. The poor rookie season gave Nowitzki plenty of areas in which to improve. Because Dallas wanted Nowitzki to add weight, Geschwindner had Nowitzki go through his shooting drills wearing a 22-pound black vest. The idea was to prepare his body before the weight was gained.
Nowitzki returned to Dallas in better physical condition, an improved defender and ball handler.
It helped, too, that the Mavs’ starting power forward, Gary Trent, missed the start of the regular season with a leg injury. Nowitzki could keep pace with other big men on the defensive end at power forward and was a matchup problem because of his improved shooting.
Nowitzki’s numbers swelled in 1999-2000: 17.5 points, 6.4 rebounds, 46.1 percent from the floor and 37.9 percent from the 3-point line. That was the fruit of his summer work.
Popeye Jones, Mavs forward (2002-03) and former Dallas coach (2007-10)
Playing against him and with him and as a coach, the work ethic is second to none. Nothing else mattered but basketball to him. Socially, I am sure he gave up a lot early in his career. It would be difficult for anyone coming from another country as a very young man. But he had basketball.
Sometimes as coaches we would come in at night to the practice facility and watch film or do other things, and you would hear the ball and look, and it would be Dirk out there shooting. It’d be late at night, but he would be there.
I used to tease him and say, ‘Once you’re retired, people are going to hear strange sounds out on the practice floor at night, and it’ll be the Ghost of Dirk Nowitzki, out there shooting.’
His second season would show he was not a draft bust. But Nowitzki’s third season would show he could be a star.
In the second game of 2000-01, with the Mavs facing the Pacers in Dallas, Nowitzki got a taste of just how idiosyncratic his coach, Don Nelson, could be — and how that might benefit him in his development. Trent was still struggling with injuries, which meant that Nowitzki was ensconced as the team’s power forward.
But in the fourth quarter of the game against the Pacers, Nelson sought to take advantage of Indiana’s big men by moving Nowitzki to center and playing him with four guards (Nash, Michael Finley, Howard Eisley and Greg Buckner) for much of the fourth quarter. It was a strange lineup, but it helped hold off the Pacers for a Mavs win.
The Mavericks, who had not had a winning season since 1990, got off to a 10-5 start that set up Dallas for a 53-29 finish and the emergence of the team’s Big Three: Nash, Nowitzki and Finley.
Bolstered by the arrival of 42-year-old tech mogul Mark Cuban as owner of the team — he bought it from Ross Perot Jr. in January 2000 — the Mavs looked to be a future contender, especially after a stunning series win over the heavily favored Jazz in the Western Conference playoffs. That upset came after Utah had taken a 2-0 lead in the best-of-five series.
Nowitzki took enormous leaps during this span. He averaged 21.8 points and 9.2 rebounds in 2000-01, and he earned his first All-Star berth the next year (23.4 points, 9.9 rebounds). He shot 39.7 percent from the 3-point line despite playing most of his games at center. He was the only center in the NBA’s top 25 in 3-point shooting and one of only three big men.
That season also featured his first-ever 40-point game, coming in Atlanta on Jan. 15, 2002. It so happened that a future teammate and friend was starring in the backcourt for the Hawks and logged 46 points in a memorable shootout.
Jason Terry, Hawks (1999-2004) and Mavs guard (2004-12)
He has transcended the game when you talk about power forwards moving to stretch-4s and big guys shooting. He kind of started that. In a situation where he is hot and he has his shot going, you are trying to run two guys at him, but Dallas had enough shooters around him that it made it tough.
Even when you’ve got a guy who is 7-feet, you can only try to crowd him and get in his space, but back then, Dirk could dribble, too. He could put it on the floor, and people forget that.
He wasn’t super athletic, but he was athletic enough to keep you honest.
Despite his marked improvement, the postseason breakthrough that the Mavericks had in beating Utah in 2001 didn’t quite belong to Nowitzki. The second round, against the Spurs, was not much better. Dallas lost in five games, and Nowitzki came away from his first postseason experience aware he needed to get much better.
A year later, in the West’s 2002 playoffs, Nowitzki starred with three straight 30-point games to push a sweep of the Timberwolves in the first round. But then came the Kings in Round 2, and the weakness of Dallas’ defense — for which Nowitzki took much of the blame — was exposed.
The Kings notched 115 layups or dunks out of 207 field goals against the Mavericks, and though Nowitzki scored 25.4 points per game, he was uncharacteristically inefficient (40.2 percent shooting) thanks to the Kings’ variety of defenders.
One of those defenders who helped lock up Nowitzki in 2002, 6-7 wing Doug Christie, noticed changes in Nowitzki’s playoff approach the next year. Dallas won 60 games for the first time in franchise history behind Nowitzki’s 25.1 points per game, and it again met the Kings in the second round of the postseason.
He’d become a better, more patient player. He was tougher defensively, and he averaged 20.7 points and 14.3 rebounds. Guard Nick Van Exel was explosive off the bench (25.3 points), but Nowitzki was steady, shooting 45.0 percent from the field and 40.9 percent from the 3-point line. He got to the foul line 5.9 times per game and made 87.8 percent of his attempts.
Dallas won in seven games, including two overtime wins. The Mavs would face the Spurs for a trip to the NBA Finals. Nowitzki averaged 25.3 points in that postseason, but he suffered a devastating knee injury in Game 3 of the conference finals and saw his hopes of winning an NBA title dashed.
Doug Christie, Kings guard/forward (2000-05)
He was one of my favorites to compete against, to be honest with you, because he was a big factor at the height of Western Conference basketball in those days.
He is an ultimate professional, a gentleman, a big-time competitor. I say gentleman, and some people have a preconceived idea of what that means, like he was soft. But, no, there was nasty in Dirk.
He would get into your face. He was a big-time guy.
PART III: A few changes and a low point
The trio of Nash, Nowitzki and Finley had led the team on an equal footing in 2001, but within two years, Nowitzki had become the team’s superstar anchor, with Finley and Nash his supporting cast.
But that didn’t last. In the summer of 2004, Nash left Dallas to sign with Phoenix. The following offseason, Finley signed with San Antonio.
Nash and Nowitzki had bonded during their time in Dallas, but the split, ultimately, was beneficial. Nash took firm control of the run-and-gun Suns, and Nowitzki flourished, too. Playing now in different cities, the two combined for three straight MVP trophies from 2005-07.
Steve Nash, Mavs guard (1998-2004)
He is definitely one of the all-time greats, and our relationship goes back to the beginning. It was my third year in the league. It was his first. We had apartments in the same complex. We went to the gym twice a day together during the lockout. We seemingly had almost every meal together throughout a season, and the bond was deep.
We pushed each other and supported each other through what was a tough time in our careers. Very, very formative period in our careers, and also a formative relationship that allowed us to support each other.
But, once we were split up, it was also the competition that pushed us to grow.
Another major change hit Dallas in late March 2005. After a routine shootaround ahead of a home game against New Orleans, coach Don Nelson addressed his players and said he would not be on the bench that night. Nelson already had plans in place to retire the following season, and assistant coach Avery Johnson had been groomed to replace him.
But Nelson chucked the plan aside and told the team he was resigning. Behind the scenes, there was building acrimony between Nelson and Cuban, but at the time, the change was a shock.
Johnson’s arrival did signal a change for Nowitzki. While Nelson embraced the unorthodox and was happy to have Nowitzki gun 3-pointers, Johnson wanted Nowitzki to play more in the post. His 3-point attempts dropped from 3.1 under Nelson in 2004-05 to 2.1 under Johnson.
Even as he played in the post more, Nowitzki was changing the NBA in real time, freeing more power forwards and centers to move to the perimeter and turn their jumpers into weapons. The 3-pointer had once been the province of shooting guards, but by 2006, five of the top 25 players in 3-point makes were power forwards.
Traditionally for NBA big guys, a perimeter-oriented game was taken by league old-schoolers as a sign of a glass jaw and a lack of intestinal fortitude. Nowitzki was flipping that perception.
Chris Webber, Kings forward (1998-2005)
It was like, all the things you were taught as a big man not to do or that you could not embrace before, Dirk was so good that he made you embrace it. Whether it was his 3-point game or the weird way he would work out before the game. I would love watching it, the crazy shots off of one foot, the kickstand kick and those type of things.
It was unconventional, but for me, I was a fan of him because he was so much fun to watch. But he was such a hard guard.
Guarding Dirk, of all the power forwards I played against — and I played in an era where there were some of the best with the stock that we had at that time — it was just something that this was a guy who was so unique. They call [Kristaps] Porzingis, ‘The Unicorn,’ but that moniker should go to Dirk.
For Nowitzki, it all came together in May 2006 — his confidence, his improved defense, his remarkable perimeter skill, the new in-the-paint approach he’d taken under Johnson. The Mavericks won 60 games that season, but because the Spurs (63 wins) were division champs and the West’s top seed, Dallas was awarded only the No. 4 seed. After sweeping past the Grizzlies in the first round, the Mavs got San Antonio in a heavyweight bout in the conference semifinals.
The series did not disappoint. It lasted seven games. Two games went into overtime, including the finale. Four others were decided by fewer than two possessions. Nowitzki averaged 27.1 points and 13.3 rebounds, eschewing the 3-point shot (he was 1 of 8). On the opposite side, Tim Duncan averaged 32.3 points and 11.7 rebounds and scored 41 points in Game 7.
In the end, Dallas came away victorious and — for a short time, at least — shed its reputation as the “Team that Can’t Win the Big One.” But it was perilously close to a Dallas choke job, as the Mavs built a 20-point lead in Game 7, squandered it, trailed with 20 seconds to go and only won because Nowitzki sent the game into overtime with a remarkable 3-point play after drawing a foul on San Antonio’s Manu Ginobili.
The near-collapse against the Spurs should have been seen as a harbinger of things to come for Dallas. The Mavs rolled past Nash and the shorthanded Suns — star forward Amar’e Stoudemire missed most of the year with a knee injury — in the conference finals and reached the NBA Finals for the first time in franchise history, going against another team making its Finals debut: the Heat, surprise winners over the 64-win Pistons in the East.
Dallas took control of that series early, winning Games 1 and 2 and leading the Heat for 66 of the 96 minutes they played. But the Mavericks had a collapse in Game 3 after building a 13-point lead with just over six minutes to play. Dallas scored seven points with four turnovers in its final 13 possessions, and it got only one shot and two trips to the foul line for Nowitzki in that span.
One of those trips would haunt Nowitzki for years afterward. With 3.4 seconds left to play and the Mavs behind 97-95, Nowitzki — a 90.1 percent free-throw shooter that year — went to the line and made the first. But the second attempt caught the front of the iron and rimmed out, costing Dallas a chance at overtime. Miami won.
After being blown out in Game 4, the Mavericks again choked away an opportunity in Game 5, which they led by as many as eight points in the final minutes of the third quarter despite playing without Jerry Stackhouse, who had been suspended for a flagrant foul. Dallas had a 100-99 lead with nine seconds to play in overtime when Nowitzki was whistled for a touch foul on Dwyane Wade in the lane.
Wade made both free throws, his 24th and 25th attempts, as many as the Mavericks shot in the game. That sealed Game 5 for Miami.
The Mavs got 29 points and 15 rebounds from Nowitzki as he tried to keep his team alive in Game 6, but he wilted when he was most needed. In a tight fourth quarter, Nowitzki had just two points and was 0 of 4 from the field. Again, Wade shot an inordinate number of free throws (21) and finished with 36 points, including 11 points in the fourth quarter, to dash Dallas’ championship hopes, which were so real just days earlier.
Nowitzki was devastated. He had just not played well. Nowitzki averaged just 22.8 points in the series on 39.0 percent shooting, making 25.0 percent of his 3-pointers. The Game 3 free throw, the Game 5 mistakes, the Game 6 disappearance — it was a lot to process. He developed a grudge against Wade.
Dirk Nowitzki, Mavs forward (1998-2019)
For me, that was obviously huge after ’06 how they came back and won that series. That was tough for me, tough for us. But I always say, what happened in ’06, the loss there, it made me better. It made me a better player in 2011. I learned. It motivated me. It pushed me to get better.
Any way you look at it, it was part of my journey, and Dwyane Wade, he pushed me to become a better player. In a weird way, I am appreciative that they beat us in ’06.
We have gotten older. But when you’re young, you hold grudges. When you are older, you learn to appreciate each other’s game, respect each other’s game. We respect what each other has done for the game and the league.
The aftermath of the 2006 Finals loss was bittersweet for Nowitzki.
The Mavs lost the first four games of the 2006-07 season, but they ripped off 12 straight wins. Later in the year, they’d win another 13 in a row and follow that with a 17-game winning streak. Dallas closed the season with 67 wins, one of only nine teams to hit that mark in NBA history. The Finals loss had motivated them, turned them into a wrecking ball of a team the next year.
Nowitzki averaged 24.6 points and 8.9 rebounds, accomplishing a rare 50-40-90 season as a shooter (50.2 percent shooting from the field, 41.6 percent from the 3-point line and 90.4 percent from the free-throw line). He won the league’s MVP award, garnering 83 first-place votes to 44 for the No. 2 choice, Nash.
But disaster again lurked. The top-seeded Mavs went against an eighth-seeded Warriors team that had won all three matchups during the regular season, one that had acquired forwards Stephen Jackson and Al Harrington during the season and finished the year 16-5. Worse, it was a Warriors team that was now coached by Don Nelson, who had done so much to bring Nowitzki along early in his career but who still knew Nowitzki’s weak points.
Nelson exploited one in particular — Nowitzki’s awkward first dribble. When Nowitzki would put the ball on the floor to back down smaller defenders and establish post position, Nelson ran a second defender at him to attack the ball and throw Nowitzki out of sorts.
It worked. The Warriors won Game 1 in Dallas, then won Games 3 and 4 in Oakland. Nowitzki was rattled and shot only 38.3 percent from the field and 21.1 percent from the 3-point line. With a chance to salvage the season in the decisive Game 6, the Mavs lost by 25 points. Nowitzki was 2 of 13 from the field, scoring eight points with three turnovers.
It was difficult to sort out which was worse — the way the Mavericks had blown a lead in the Finals in 2006, so close to a championship, or the embarrassing first-round face plant in 2007.
Didn’t matter, really. In this offseason, Nowitzki and Gerschwindner did not spend hours tweaking some aspect of his game. Instead, Nowitzki just wanted to disappear. They packed up a Jeep and spent weeks under stars in the Australian outback, anonymous, talking and thinking.
PART IV: A champion at ease
After another postseason disappointment in 2008, losing in the first round to New Orleans in five games, Johnson took the fall. The Mavericks replaced him with Rick Carlisle, who had coached six seasons with the Pistons and Pacers.
In Carlisle’s first two seasons, the Mavs’ postseason fortunes remained stagnant. Dallas topped 50 wins both years, but it lost in the conference semifinals in 2009 and, as the No. 2 seed in the West in 2010, was upset in six games by San Antonio.
By this time, the Mavericks (and Nowitzki in particular) were etched with the label of being too soft to win in the playoffs. Even Carlisle seemed to feed it when he said, after a loss to the Spurs in 2010, “There are a set of plays in the last couple of games where we’ve got to get down and dirty.”
The Mavs had the reputation of being unable to get either down or dirty. One Dallas columnist called the Spurs series “pathetic” and wrote, “The Mavs, a franchise with a history of choking in the playoffs, find ways to lose.” It was hard to argue.
At least, until one seven-minute stretch in the next year’s postseason.
That came in Game 2 of the 2011 NBA Finals against the vaunted Heat, rebuilt with Wade still starring on the wing, but with superstars LeBron James and Chris Bosh now alongside him. The Mavericks had buzzed through the 2011 postseason, beating the Trail Blazers, Lakers and Thunder with just three total losses, but they were still underdogs against the Heat.
Dallas dropped the first game of the Finals in Miami and was on the ropes in Game 2, behind the Heat by 15 points with 6:30 to play in the fourth quarter.
That was when Nowitzki and the Mavericks got down and got dirty.
Down four with just under three minutes to play, Nowitzki scored seven straight points, completing the Dallas comeback. That put the Mavericks ahead 93-90 with 26.7 seconds left.
Then, disaster hit — Mario Chalmers sank a wide-open 3-pointer in the corner to tie the game with 24.5 seconds to go. But with the game tied, not far from the scene of one of his most painful professional failures — the missed free throw in Game 3 in 2006 — Nowitzki would get his redemption.
He took a pass at the 3-point line on the left wing, guarded by Bosh. He deked to the right before spinning left, getting Bosh, up on Nowitzki’s chest like a bullet-proof vest, to the left elbow. Bosh was afraid of Nowitzki’s quick-trigger fadeaway jumper and was anticipating it. Nowitzki could read that and drove to his left where he had an open lane for a left-handed scoop shot.
Terry Stotts, Mavs assistant coach (2008-12)
He is so smart. He is so good at reading the game, reading the play. That shot, the little hesitation he had before he scooped it, that was the difference. Because everyone assumed he was going to go right shoulder and shoot, but he pulled it back and [Bosh] came toward him, and that was all he needed to get the step and then scoop it up to the basket.
That game and that series, that is going to be the legacy of his career. They had lost in the Finals in 2006, and this was something that Dirk wanted, obviously everyone wanted, but you knew what it meant to him. You saw it at the end of the last game, after Game 6, he was just overcome.
One opposing player was not much surprised to see Nowitzki win the game with an attack of the basket rather than the perimeter jumper for which he is so well-known. In the second round of the playoffs, Nowitzki had torched Kobe Bryant’s Lakers for 25.3 points per game in a sweep with the bulk of his offense coming near the rim (Nowitzki shot 57.4 percent from the field in the series).
Bryant had seen Nowitzki develop into a good post player and expected him to do much the same to the Heat as he’d done to the Lakers.
Kobe Bryant, Lakers guard (1996-2016)
The idea of having a guy that was 7-feet that could stretch the floor, that was revolutionary. Dirk obviously took it to a different level because of his mobility, the ability to put the ball on the floor and spin.
But by and large, when Dirk won that championship that year, the biggest problem we had with him, that Miami and all the other teams had with him, wasn’t his picking and popping. It was his ability to play at the free-throw line and below the free-throw line. For him, that was his biggest growth as a player.
That game — that fourth-quarter run, that scoop shot — saved the series for the Mavericks. They lost Game 3, but they bounced back to win the final three games. After clinching the title in Game 6, Nowitzki exited the court immediately. There would be celebrations into the night with his teammates. But he needed a moment alone.
Things would change for Nowitzki, starting then. The Mavs were never quite the same after the championship. Center Tyson Chandler left in free agency. Injuries battered the aging team the following year, and the Mavs have not won a playoff series since.
But Nowitzki could be satisfied having delivered the championship that so many had doubted would come, having completed the circle that Gerschwindner had imagined when he first began training a gangly teen in a small German city in the mid-90s.
Jason Terry, Mavs guard (2004-12)
He’s the greatest European-born player to play the game. He is a winner, even after the championship, he’s just wanted to win. Watching his work ethic, his dedication to his craft, his willingness to do whatever it took for his team to win — he made everyone around him better.
But what a lot of people don’t know is that he is a funny, funny guy, and on an NBA team, you need some of that. He knew when to go, when to be serious. But there were plenty of times he’d say something and we would all crack up, and that’s important from your leader because it keeps things light.
The season is a grind, so you need those moments where you loosen up. So it was good to see him loosen up on himself, too.
PART V: A lasting legacy
In the final days of the 2018-19 season, Nowitzki is sharing a roster with seven players who were not yet in kindergarten when he was being hustled between Wurzburg and Texas ahead of the 1998 draft. The player who has taken the reins from him as the cornerstone of the franchise, rookie Luka Doncic, was born three weeks after Nowitzki made his NBA debut.
Around the locker room, they call him abuelo, Spanish for grandfather. As a guy who found it important to keep the atmosphere light and congenial in the locker room — even if that meant razzing older players and coaches along the way — Nowitzki appreciates the nickname.
“Abuelo, yeah,” Nowitzki said with a grin. “I love it. You’ve gotta embrace whatever is coming your way, you know? In a locker room, there’s a lot of jokes going around every day. So you have to hold your own and joke a lot and when you joke a lot… you’ve gotta take a lot, too. They call me abuelo and grandfather and all sorts of things. I enjoy it.
“I was a young guy once, making fun of the old guys. I was playing with [Jason] Kidd, and he was in his late 30s getting massages pregame, and I would say, ‘Come on, old man, get going.’ Now, I am the old man laying on the rehab table, so, it’s the circle of life.”
Stotts remembered well Nowitzki’s rapier wit, but he also knows well how sharp Nowitzki’s competitive edge can be.
In March 2016, when Nowitzki was 37 years old and the Mavericks were in the midst of a stretch of 10 losses in 12 games, Nowitzki had a turn-back-the-clock night. He scored 40 points, his 20th (and likely final) 40-point game, leading Dallas to an overtime win.
Terry Stotts, Trail Blazers coach (2012-present)
Over the course of a season, you’ve got to have fun with it. And he does have fun not only with his teammates, but he’s also self-deprecating as well. You don’t stay in a place 20 years unless you are well-liked and appreciated.
But I have seen it up close, how much he wants to win. He scored 40 on us. He was 37 years old. I just have — any time, even today when he does not have the same numbers — I still go into a game knowing it is Dirk and what he is capable of doing. If he plays until he is 50, it will be the same. I will game plan for him.
In that game, you saw it. When he is open, he is a deadly shooter. Teams looked to crowd him more as his career went on, make him put it on the floor because he was not as quick as he used to be. But even without that quickness, he was still smart enough to beat you putting it on the floor, even at 36, 37 years old.
That was something Harrison Barnes learned in the four years he spent defending Nowitzki while with Golden State and in the two-plus years he spent with him playing for the Mavericks before being traded to Sacramento this year.
Harrison Barnes, Mavs forward (2016-19)
Guarding him, even when he was older, it was tough. There were certain things you had to tell yourself when you’re guarding him. ‘Don’t jump on the shot fake because you are not blocking the shot.’ He is 7-feet, and he gets it off so quick. There is a history of guys in the league who have tried, and you’re just not going to get to it. So you have to keep your feet, be disciplined.
That shot fake, I tell you. I watch people to this day go up on that fake, and I shake my head because I’m thinking, ‘He does not get his shot blocked. Don’t bite on that fake!’ But he could always do it, and people still would try to contest it. That’s how good it is.
In the wake of that shot fake, in the wake of all those broken-hearted defensive players, in the wake of all the made 3-pointers — at one time an impossible notion from a player his size, but now so commonplace — is a player who will leave behind an impression on the game bigger than the points he scored or the championship he won.
Reggie Miller, Hall of Fame guard
He changed the 4-spot forever and revolutionized what the 4-spot is, and if you look at what the game is today, 4s now are shooting 3s.
He came around at a time, when you thought of how a power forward is supposed to be, you thought of Charles [Barkley], Karl Malone. Everything was done in the paint. You would have a midrange game, but most forwards, they made their bones with their backs to the basket. He extended the range of power forwards to where now, you’re able to shoot 3s.
He’s the best 7-foot shooter, maybe of all time.
Maybe most important is the way Nowitzki forever changed the way we view international players. He changed the way teams scouted players. As Nowitzki became an NBA elite, more owners wondered why their scouting departments had missed a 7-foot German who could shoot like a guard.
Teams poured resources overseas, especially into Europe. The mission: Find the next Nowitzki. At the start of the 2018-19 season, there were 108 international players in the NBA, representing 42 countries.
“There’s a lot of international players in the league now, not only playing but franchise players,” Nowitzki said. “There’s tons of them now. It’s amazing to watch over the last 20 years how many more have come into the league and had an impact, have an impact on their communities.
“The style of play is great for international players now. The game is open and not as physical, not like when I came into the league and all the 4s and 5s were huge and battling under the basket. Everybody can shoot. Everybody can dribble.”
Nowitzki, of course, is a big reason for that.
Pat Williams, Magic president (1998)
Just to give a little history on scouting players in Europe: In 1968, I had just gotten to Philadelphia, and Jack Ramsay was our new coach. Before the season, he told me he wanted me to go to the Philadelphia airport and pick up a player who was flying in from Europe. We were going to give him a contract. Jack had been dealing with someone in Europe, and I asked, ‘What am I looking for?’ Jack said, ‘He’s a big man. Look for a big man.’
I waited at the Philadelphia airport, and eventually I hooked up with the guy, and my thought was that he was not all that big. At all.
I drove him down to the practice facility on the Jersey Shore, walked into the gym with him and Jack took one look at him and told me, ‘Take him right back to the airport.’ Jack had been hoodwinked. Players from overseas who said they were 7-feet had a habit of shrinking a half-foot or so during the journey. I took the poor kid back to the airport. So, that tells you what overseas scouting was like in the early days. …
Dirk was the first international star, a franchise player. He absolutely opened the floodgate. Part of the problem that we saw after Dirk really came into his own, once we saw that, I think for a lot of teams there was a notion that, maybe if we go to Europe and shake the branches there hard enough, another Dirk is going to fall out of that tree.
Is there another one like that? Where’s the next one? You can see a lot of draft dreams dashed when you look through the history around that time, the early 2000s.
It took a while for it to dawn on everyone — there is no next Nowitzki. We’ve only got one. And he’s changed everything by being really, really good.