I am so, so happy for the Minnesota Timberwolves, and for Karl-Anthony Towns. Sometimes I feel like a lot of their fans aren’t quite as happy, which I attribute to the way we live on the internet these days, where everything happens too fast and too much and our brains have processed all the emotions we’re supposed to have in a year by Friday of the first week. We experience everything way more than we used to have to experience anything. It’s really too bad.
To me, though, it’s always a special moment to see a young team with a great player first make the playoffs because it is so, so rare — we don’t often think about how rare — to see something begin. Tim Duncan, Dirk Nowitzki, Kevin Garnett, and Shaq all had to make the playoffs for the first time, some time. And now there’s so much that comes after. This is that for KAT, and it’s very exciting. The Jazz have a similar story, without the singular great player, and of course most of the other teams have relatively young stars. But Giannis, believe it or not, has been in the league five years now; Anthony Davis and Dame Lillard six. Plus, those guys have all been there before.
Besides which — and sorry to switch from the general to the personal — this particular one really makes me feel my feelings for other reasons. After all, born and bred in Dallas, Texas, I have been a Mavericks fan all my life. And did you know, the Dallas Mavericks first made the playoffs with Dirk Nowitzki seventeen years ago, in 2000-01? Did you know that Dirk, like KAT, was in his third professional season? Did you know that he, too, was just 22 years old? And what an entrance it was. Literally 17 years later, I remember it more clearly than almost any other year, 2006, 2007, and 2011 aside. It stands out in my memory so strongly, and if there’s anything that sports is for, it’s for that.
Dirk would go on to be a legendary playoff performer, with numbers that boggle the mind even considerably more than what he’s achieved in the other parts of his career. Even though he made the playoffs at 35, 36, and 37, when he was much diminished, it’s still the case that his career playoff numbers are sky-high, 25 and 10, shooting .462/.365/.479. But nobody knew that then, what would happen next, just like nobody knows what KAT will do next. And just between you and me, there was, at first, no reason to think it was going to happen.
Do you know what Dirk did in his first ever playoff game, April 21, 2001? A respectable 20 points and 12 boards but on a putrid 35 percent from the floor. More easily pushed around in those days, Dirk took nine 3s — something that was pretty unusual, then. And for the record, he only hit two. And the next game was even worse. 15 points, four rebounds, 27.3 percentfrom the floor. The Jazz went up 2-0 — in those days, the first round was still best of five — and the Mavericks’ first trip to the playoffs seemed like it was going to be extremely short. Then something happened.
In Game 3, Dirk put up his first ever great playoff line — 33 points, 10 rebounds, 47 percent shooting, in a game the Mavericks won by three. The next game was even better: 33 points, 8 boards, 52.6 percent shooting from the field, 5-of-10 threes, in a game the Mavericks won by thirty. It was enough, at that time, to know that Dirk had learned something, had figured something out, but then the Mavericks miraculously won the deciding Game 5 — on a last-minute Calvin Booth tip-in — and shocking everyone paying the least bit of attention, they won the first playoff series of Dirk’s career, against, of all things, the hard-luck Stockton and Malone Jazz.
That year, the Mavs lost in the second round, and at first, Dirk struggled again, which is not all that surprising. The Spurs, in the playoffs, in 2001 as in 2018, are just a whole different kind of thing. But once again, he leveled up right before our eyes. After quite poor performances in the first three games, do you know what he did to extend the series in Game 4? I’ll tell you. 30 and 9 on 61 percent shooting. And you know what he did, in an ultimately losing effort in Game 5? I’m glad you asked. 43 points, 18 rebounds, 6 steals, 2 assists, 1 block, on 58 percent shooting in a game the Mavericks lost by 18.
With the benefit of hindsight, I still think very little mattered as much in Dirk’s career as getting the chance to play those last two games. Playoff seasoning is important, but it’s not like being in playoff games is magic in and of itself — it’s actually the players who are magic, and magic is shy. Magic thrives on faith, and you earn faith by proving things to yourself. If you can drop 43-18 on the 2001 Spurs, who won nearly 60 games and only lost in the WCF to the Shaq and Kobe Lakers, you can do it to anybody. If you can do it in the Western Conference Semifinals, you can do it at any time.
Dirk needed to know that, and he learned that, and the rest is now literally history. The next regular season was his first as an All-Star (the first of 11 in a row, and 13 total), his first as a really elite scorer (23.4 on .463/.397/.853) and it is a historical fact that in his very next playoffs he averaged 28 points and 13 boards over the course of eight games. In fact, the Mavs started that playoffs off by sweeping these very Timberwolves, at near the peak of KG’s career, and Dirk dropped a cool 33 points and 15.6 rebounds per game on him.
But, despite my inability to stop describing how great Dirk was, that’s not really my point here. Since history is behind us, not in front, we know now that this first series, the Utah series, was Dirk’s stepping stone to greatness, but it didn’t have to happen that way. It didn’t happen that way for Brandon Roy, for Tracy McGrady, for other guys who didn’t get the careers they deserved. Maybe, in an alternate universe, that Utah series would have been all we got, and maybe it went the way it was supposed to go, and we never got to know. That would be a tragedy, but like all the best tragedies, we’d never even have a chance to feel bad about it.
And even then — and this is where the relevance is for the Wolves and their young KAT — there is something so beautiful about the beginning of something, experienced as a beginning, without knowing the end. About hope and expectation, and really about the absence of expectation. I often joke that that Utah series was the last time I enjoyed basketball until the Mavs won it all in 2011. In the bloom of a new era, everything seems like a bonus. Just being there is a thrill, for the first and only time. After that, anything but the ring feels a little disappointing. And if you can’t enjoy spring, you can’t enjoy anything.
And though we might think this tentative northern bloom will be smothered under the snow of the Warriors’ implacable dominance, under the clanking machine the Rockets have put together, the reality is, even that isn’t new. Dirk’s first playoff series was the second year of the Lakers’ three-peat — nothing lasts forever. And when it is in the business of not lasting forever, it favors the young, who have time to wait, and a future to build.
That’s the beauty of beginnings. Who in the NBA has time? Not the Warriors, not the Rockets, not LeBron James. And when you’re young, you can spend freely of what’s yours, because it’s the only time when there’s plenty to go around. As Jorie Graham put it, in her poem “Over and Over Stitch,” “Nothing again will ever be this easy, lives/ being snatched up like dropped stitches, the dry stalks of daylilies/ marking a stillness we can’t keep.” Enjoy this moment when it’s all in front of you, Wolves fans, when everything seems hopeful and nothing seems clear. Seventeen year later, I can say with certainty that it’s just about the best feeling there is — next to a ring.