By Jim Schutze
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"He's the same Dirk I've always known," says longtime friend/coach/mentor Holger Geschwindner. "Richer, but still the same Dirk."
In an NBA where the superstars have games above the rim and egos off the charts, Nowitzki remains firmly planted on the ground.
"He's got a quiet Bjorn Borg aspect to him," Nelson says. "He's respected, but he so avoids the limelight I'm not sure he's truly appreciated."
Says Dirk of being reared under the play-hard, work-harder mantra of parents Joerg and Helga in Wurzburg, "Thankfully, I was raised the right way."
Hmm, the area's biggest superstar also boasts one of its smallest egos. Hard to believe, huh, Keyshawn?
Once in a while Dirk will cause a stir by shaving his long locks or showing up on the Internet in very funny, very drunk pictures with buddy Steve Nash. But for the most part he is an endearing 27-year-old dork who looks like Shaggy and loves swishes as much as Scooby-Doo loves sandwiches. When Dirk does Dallas, hardly anyone notices.
He shows up to charity galas wearing low-top Chuck Taylor sneakers "because I'm old-school." He frequently goes out to eat "because I can't cook" and has never been in a music video, though a German producer once showed an interest.
"I don't know," Dirk says with a shrug. "He never called back."
He loves music, dabbles on the guitar and lugs around an iPod full of old rock 'n' roll like AC/DC, Led Zeppelin and the Stones. He also has a habit of bringing last night's concert to the practice court in song, recently zapping his teammates' will to live with countless encores of Lenny Kravitz's "Let Love Rule."
But at the heart of his existence, Nowitzki is 100 percent gym rat. While his All-Star peers played one-on-one-upmanship in Houston last weekend with their platinum posses, diamond-encrusted cell phones and Hummer stretch limos, Dirk lamented the fact that his individual practice time was limited.
"The atmosphere is crazy," he said. "It's like rock stars with all these people in the hotel lobbies. It's just not my scene. I look around and feel like I don't really fit in."
Likewise, the NBA doesn't quite "get" Dirk.
Last Saturday the Deutsch Marksman became the tallest winner in the 21-year history of the All-Star Weekend's Three-point Shootout. Despite the fact that as recently as 10 years ago the notion of a 7-footer shooting, much less making, three-pointers conjured up freak-show images of Manute Bol, Nowitzki's unprecedented achievement was overshadowed by the novelty act of 5-foot-9-inch Nate Robinson winning the Slam Dunk Contest, although an even shorter dunker--Spud Webb--turned that trick 20 years ago.
Critics still dismiss Nowitzki as "soft" and the Mavericks as "pretenders." But there's no denying Dirk has shattered the NBA mold for big men and evolved into the best European ever to play in the NBA. The best part? He's still getting better.
Nowitzki, who did sneak in the first and last behind-the-back dunk of his season in Sunday's All-Star Game, has added to his uncanny shooting an array of post-up spin moves complete with left- and right-hand finishes. Still, you get the feeling that the Mavs will go only as far as Dirk's unique, unblockable shot--the fadeaway jumper.
His popularity may be stuck in neutral, but it's Nowitzki's peers who view him as MVP material. "The fans may not recognize it, but we do," leading MVP candidate Kobe Bryant said during the Lakers' AAC visit earlier this month. "He's been phenomenal, and he's been doing it on a consistent basis."
What started as The Big Three with Nowitzki, Nash and Finley is down to The Big German. Dirk is the Mavericks' captain, their only five-time All-Star and already their fourth all-time leading scorer. Barring injury, his retired No. 41 will hang in the rafters alongside the team's first championship banner.
His ego, however, will remain on the chaotic court, muffled by a sport that cherishes noise more than nuance and quickly forgets players who excel by killing them softly.
"It's not natural for me to get a big head," Dirk says. "I've got friends who wouldn't let that happen. I'm so hard on myself that most of the time they're trying to pump me back up."
Welcome to American Airlines Center, home to debutantes, diversions, decibels and, oh yeah, Dirk.
Come for the hype. Stay for his hoops.