Farewell to Dirk Nowitzki, who loved Dallas back

Photo by Glenn James/NBAE via Getty Images   Photo by Sean Berry/NBAE via Getty Images   Photo by Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images
Photo by Glenn James/NBAE via Getty Images Photo by Sean Berry/NBAE via Getty Images Photo by Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images /

When it finally happened, I was happier for him than I was myself.

We may as well start there, because that isn’t how the social contract between athletes and the people who watch them tends to operate.

Ordinarily, the former are compensated with large sums of money and the latter pay decidedly smaller figures to live vicariously through them, siphoning the players’ accomplishments into their endorphins and co-opting the resulting sense of achievement for their own. You probably do not need me to tell you that this should not be a thing.

But, still: It exists, and it mostly exists in a certain format, and those unearned dividends figured to rush to the forefront following Game 6 of the 2011 NBA Finals, when Dirk Nowitzki hopped the visiting bench moments after capturing the first NBA championship in the history of the Dallas Mavericks.

They didn’t. What did was something far more vivid — joy and relief and catharsis and gratitude. Eight years later, that same brew percolated again after Nowitzki played what is widely presumed to be his final NBA game. It’s complicated because nothing can be simple, really, when one player spends 21 years in the same place. It has never happened before in NBA history and, on the off chance someone else does so again, it won’t mean precisely the same things.

Dirk Nowitzki revolutionized his position, opened the floodgates for European players, won a championship with no discernible second star and took more hometown discounts than any player of his caliber in recent memory.

But the most unique aspect about his career — the most meaningful — is what those 21 years mean to the place where he played.

Dallas, as a city, has no idea what it is.

At its best, it’s an amalgamation of Texas tradition and Los Angeles modernity. At its worst, it’s a soulless mess. The last five years have seen an uptick in transplants lured in by tax breaks and reasonably priced homes. They’re here for convenience, not the culture.

Which, fair play. Dallas has all the amenities one would expect of the country’s fourth-largest media market yet has never been the sort of place to stamp its cultural footprint on the rest of the nation. Its greatest pop culture export is the eponymous television show; the second might be that show’s reboot. The most significant moment in its history is JFK’s assassination, the site of which now doubles as the city’s most unique tourist attraction. Perhaps that wider relevance comes in time. Dallas, for all intents and purposes, mushroomed into what it is today within the past 40 years. You’d be hard-pressed to find a more relevant city that’s still so relatively young.

For now, though, this is certainly not Los Angeles or New York or Chicago, locales with similar brawn but far more pizzazz. For that matter, it’s also not Miami or San Francisco — smaller demographics that more than make for it through cultural cache. The Mavericks spent most of the decade absorbing that lesson the hard way, dissolving its championship roster only to then strike out on every premium free agent of consequence it chased. The on-court situation has plenty to do with that, of course; until Luka Doncic, about the only basketball selling point the team had was the chance to play alongside Dirk in his golden years. But it also couldn’t lean on the locale to pick up the slack, either.

So it was only natural for Chris Bosh and LaMarcus Aldridge, the game’s two most accomplished Dallas products this millennium, to reject the Mavericks in free agency without a second thought. Being a hometown hero sometimes only goes as far as your hometown can justify it. There’s a reason why, after nearly 40 years in existence, the team has never produced a local success story of consequence on its roster.

There is, however, Dirk.

He is from Germany but, after 21 years, he is now fundamentally of Dallas. Half a lifetime in one place would assimilate anyone, to a point, but Dirk charmed the city through the intimacy of that connection. From the beginning, he was private yet sincere. Nothing ever came off as affected.

Investing in that journey stretched far beyond his evolution as a basketball player. We watched him grow up. He arrived as a teenager lost in a foreign land and he leaves as a married father who redefined his sport. In between, there were moments of elation, ones the Mavericks had never come close to experiencing before him. There was also failure and embarrassment and pain. Dallas saw him reach the precipice of his goal and then slowly drift away from it, believing in and doubting him in turn. It also saw Dirk get his heart broken by his former fiancé, Cristal Taylor, and rallied around him.

But there was also the personal esoterica. How, in the early years, he stocked his fridge with weeks’ worth of meals from Eatzi’s, a local gourmet eatery; dined at Kuby’s, a family-owned German restaurant, when he was homesick; and got tanked at The Loon, a true hellhole of a dive bar. He’d show up at other Dallas teams’ games or tweet about them from his couch, and he stuck up for Tony Romo when the Cowboys quarterback faced ridicule even worse than his own. Dirk’s Dallas could be everyone’s Dallas, give or take a mansion on Strait Lane. It’s accessible and familiar in a way that the most important athlete in a city generally isn’t, because the most important athlete in a city usually claims a deeper fealty to somewhere else in the United States. They’re often just passing through.

This would be special anywhere. Yet it would have been decidedly more appealing to do two decades in Los Angeles, for instance, the way Kobe Bryant built a monarchy in the league’s most glamorous city, playing for its most storied franchise, with myriad post-playing opportunities in full gleam. Dirk could have left several times over and, depending on the year, perhaps even should have. He certainly ought to have taken more cash. But he always stayed. He always chose Dallas.

The flying time from Tokyo to Dallas is a little under 12 hours direct. Factor in the 14-hour time change, and an 8 p.m. flight out of Haneda International Airport could put you in Dallas by 6 p.m., just enough time to snatch your carry-on bag from the overhead compartment, sprint outside, call an Uber and get to the American Airlines Center — you’d have to drop the bag in a friend or loved one’s car — in time for a 7:30 tip.

The route to San Antonio is more complicated. That requires real planning – a rental car and a fiveish-hour drive on severe jet lag, mostly, but probably also a place to crash afterward. Still, landing in DFW around 1 p.m. gives you a shot at making a 7:00 start.

These are the logistics I mulled over to be at one of Dirk’s presumed final two games if a work trip to Japan ended in time. Either one would have been an act of total lunacy; I was willing to do both.

I would have done it because they represented a seminal moment in the city’s history — and, for that matter, my own. Other than my parents and, by a few short months, my oldest friend, there has been no bigger constant in my world for the past 21 years than Dirk. I can measure the rhythms of my life against the milestones of his career.

I was heading into sixth grade when he got drafted and just finishing my first year at a new school. I was lonely. The transition was rough, and none of the few friends I’d made liked basketball, at least not the way I did. But I went to a handful of games with my father every year — we had a mini-season ticket package — and we sat in the upper bowl of the old Reunion Arena. Dirk played a bit that first year, often in garbage time and often not well. Dad would buy me plain M&Ms and a Sprite, and we’d grumble that the historically snake-bitten Mavericks should have selected Paul Pierce instead.

I was going into high school when he reached the playoffs for the first time. The Mavs hadn’t been there since 1990, which for all intents and purposes made this the first postseason basketball I’d ever seen in Dallas. Dirk was coming into his own; he’d be named an All-Star for the first time the following year. It was still Michael Finley’s team more than it was his, but the two of them and Steve Nash were all in their 20s and all under contract. Everything was in front of them.

I had just finished up my freshman year of college when, at last, he broke through to the Finals. None of it had gone to plan — Finley was gone, Nash was gone, and most of Dirk’s new supporting cast had only been in Dallas a year or two. But he’d gotten there all the same. And things were changing. I watched him play the finest game of his career — Game 7 against the Spurs in the conference semifinals, the first time Dallas defeated San Antonio in the postseason — at a dear friend’s house, pacing around some 15 feet away from the television as though the action radiating from the screen would melt us at a closer distance. It was our first summer home, and we felt invincible when they leapt to a 2-0 lead in the Finals against Miami. We took a long, aimless drive around the suburbs when they lost.

I was 24 when he finally won it. I had just left my job a few weeks earlier, during the second-round sweep of the Lakers. For the first time in my life, I had no idea what came next. I watched Dirk hop that bench in my parents’ living room sitting next to Dad. I spent parade day with a pack of high school friends. We pounded screwdrivers at 7 a.m. in an apartment around the corner from the American Airlines Center before we trudged into the early summer boil, hoping for little more than to fight our way through the throng of people and find a good spot on the parade route.

Only one guy in our group was deluded enough to believe we’d make it inside the arena, where ticket holders would celebrate each player, one by one. “We’re going to be in there, somehow,” he insisted. No one believed him, certainly not when we were boxed out of even catching so much as a glimpse of the float. And then, somehow, we did: A stranger literally handed us four tickets. We bounded into the arena and snuck down one more level, shouting our voices hoarse long before Dirk was brought out last.  I’m pretty sure my friend cried. I almost did, too. For one morning, at least, the future seemed fine.

Now I’m 32, the age when Dirk won his ring. Once again, a pivotal moment in my life intersected with one in Dirk’s career: His final season began less than two months after I moved back to Dallas following six years in Los Angeles. I am a fully-fledged adult, with responsibilities and a career and a wife and a dog. Most of my friends here have tacked on a mortgage and at least one child. My best friend’s younger brother lives out of state, in Boston, where he went to college and now has two years under his belt in the corporate world. He was three when Dirk arrived in Dallas.

You can call us the Dirk Generation, millions of people who came of age watching him slip on a No. 41 jersey or barely understand life without him in it at all. He has outlasted presidents, governors, mayors. He predates three Dallas teams’ ownerships and all but one building the cities’ five largest professional sports teams play in — which, conveniently enough, is also entering its final hurrah. Everyone has their version of a narrative like mine, in which their own stories latch onto his timeline like trellises on an oak. It’s impossible to resist: Too much time has passed, and too many other things faded away.

I said my goodbye to Dirk at the fifth-to-last home game, a Tuesday night tilt against Sacramento. I went with my wife, who has taken over for my dad as my foremost companion. Dirk was introduced last, as usual; announced as a “Tall Baller From The G,” as usual; the PA guy elongating the ‘r’ in his name like a chainsaw’s roar, as usual. I’d seen it and heard it so many times before. This time, I did cry.

At halftime we met up with a few friends, one being the guy who prophesied we’d find our way into the American Airlines Center eight years earlier. We traded notes about Dirk’s recent statistical uptick, how he drilled damn near every shot in warmups, of the little anecdotes suggesting that, no matter how many physical gifts it stole, time has yet to rob him of his joy.

Then we balled those little truths into one hopeful lie: “He can go one more year.”

None of us really believed it, I don’t think. But it beat reckoning with the inevitable any earlier than we had to. It’s only natural. You always believe there’s more time, until there isn’t.

Aside from the retirement itself, the dominant Dirk-related storyline this season became his passing of the torch to Doncic, his metaphorical reincarnation. It’s an easy narrative, in the sense that it’s both rooted in fact and not at all true.

Doncic is also European, of course, and he too manifested in Dallas as a 19-year-old on a franchise in disrepair. But Luka, as Nowitzki himself has noted, is already realized on the floor to a degree light years beyond where Dirk was at the same age. To some degree, that’s true away from it as well. Dirk was racked with self-doubt; Luka is certain. Dirk was terrified; Luka is nonchalant. The long tail of Doncic’s relationship to the city is destined to be shorter because he is already cognizant of his place in it. That’s ultimately healthier. But the relationship will never run quite as deep.

The real analogue to Dirk is Giannis Antetokounmpo, a cultural outsider and basketball curiosity who came of age in basketball-starved Milwaukee. But even that will only carry similar weight if he stays with the Bucks as a free agent after next season. And then only if he extends again, after repeated personal and professional humiliation, after most of the country gave up on him and much of the city, too — after the reasons to leave outnumbered the ones to stay. And, then, only after he finally achieved the very thing expected of him at the least expected time, with a supporting cast seemingly too heavy for him to hoist upon his aging bones. And, after that, if he settles down for good even as the team fritters away the rest of his prime through one miscalculation after another, because nowhere else could be home.

The magic of Dirk was only ever partly tied into the confluence of milestones and moments. It was that, time and again and often to his own detriment, he demonstrated that Dallas, of all places, was enough.

The Mavericks will be great again someday, possibly starting as early as next season with Doncic and now Kristaps Porzingis in the fold. If not then, they will be some other time down the road. It matters, and it doesn’t, because none of it will ever matter in the same way again.

It foolish to expect anyone to replicate the broad strokes of Dirk’s career. Longevity is elusive; permanence is borderline impossible. But even if someone else manages to do it — play 21 years in Dallas at a historic level — they could never match his cultural impact, because nobody needs to now.

There’s a beauty that comes from feeling validated. But it’s even more spectacular to validate someone else.