By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
Welcome to American Airlines Center, home to bells, whistles and enough sensory stimuli to obliterate the line between Mavericks game and Mardi Gras.
On the court, roving reporter Chris Arnold prods fans, screaming into a microphone. Up in the stands there is a drum line, a section of freaky face-painters, not one but three mascots, a hovering mini-blimp dropping freebies, a group of really fat guys in torn T-shirts and a gaggle of really curvy girls flaunting short-shorts wedgies that would make John Stockton blush. All 'round the arena there's an overload of manufactured ambience: blaring music, light shows, video snippets and public address announcer Billy Hayes chortling "C'mon!" as if slamming his scrotum in the shower door.
And then there is the star of the show, the guy the whole damn circus is built around.
He's tall, he's blond, he's, um, really polite, and he's, oh, let's face it: In this frenzied environment orchestrated more for ADD wet dream than NBA game, Dirk Nowitzki is downright boring.
"I'm not a fancy player, and off the court I'm very shy," says Nowitzki, a 7-foot, 245-pound contradiction of the Dallas Mavericks' 2006 slogan who's neither rowdy, proud nor loud. "A lot of times our league is all about hype and entertainment. But usually I'm looking for a side door to sneak out of the spotlight."
Smack dab in the middle of Dallas' auditory anarchy is a quiet introvert who reluctantly conducts the chaos as the NBA's most subtle superstar.
Surely everyone sees the irony?
"I don't see the irony," says Mavs owner Mark Cuban, apparently blinded by his handcrafted sensation smorgasbord. "Dirk is a great player who has fun at work, and we try to make sure people watching him have fun as well."
Maybe. But in an NBA founded on bling-bling, Nowitzki is blah-blah.
"He could be a much bigger star, a corporate marketing monster if he wanted," says Mavericks general manager Donnie Nelson, who drafted Nowitzki and lured him from Germany to the United States in 1998. "But he's not comfortable being anyone but himself. It's like pulling teeth to get him to do anything that focuses attention on him."
Says Dirk, "I'm just not the kind of guy who can sell a toothbrush one minute and a chocolate bar the next."
Quietly--how else?--Dirk is suddenly the best player on the NBA's best team. A revolutionary 7-footer who can bang in the paint or bomb from the perimeter, Nowitzki was the only All-Star from a Mavs team fresh off a 13-game winning streak, owner of a gaudy 41-11 record and staring down its best chance for a championship. How is it then that Nowitzki's nightly 25 points and 9 rebounds are merely footnotes to the fun?
"He's not the flashiest guy," says Mavericks coach Avery Johnson. "But if you're talking [Most Valuable Player], he's got to at least be included in the race."
Dirk is proficient but not popular. In a league that covets and even promotes style over substance, flash over fundamentals and reputation over rings, he's the giant white elephant in the corner that everybody ignores. A top-five player with only top-20 popularity.
"I'm not out there dunking from the free-throw line," Nowitzki jokes while relaxing on a training table after a Valentine's Day practice. "I've got no hops. I'm not on the ESPN highlights every night. I'll never be as exciting as Kobe or LeBron. But that's OK. I have to play to my strengths and help my team win, and I'm doing a pretty job of that, I think. That's enough for me."
And for his peers, who last year voted him All-NBA as one of the five best basketball players on the planet. But not for his fans, who whiffed by not coming close to voting him an All-Star Game starter.
It's one thing to finish behind Volkswagens, Beck's and Nena's "99 Luftballons" on America's list of favorite German imports, but getting only 626,000 All-Star votes is embarrassing. "Cricket" Nowitzki--the silence is indeed deafening--finished fifth. Not in overall voting but at his position, in his conference.
"It's not a big deal, because it's a popularity contest," says Nowitzki, named to his fifth straight All-Star team via coaches' vote. "I know I'll never be that popular."
Dirk's salary is less than former teammate Michael Finley, whom the Mavs cut last summer. His jersey is only the 15th-best seller in the NBA, behind even Stephon Marbury of the cellar-dwelling Knicks. While Blazers pedestrian guard Sebastian Telfair has his own movie, Dirk doesn't even have a mainstream commercial. His idol-worship quotient is limited to "I Love Dirk" T-shirts and a teenage hottie who held up a "Dirk Is My Home Boy" sign at last week's game against the Wizards.
Which is just the way he likes it.
"I get recognized, but it's not overwhelming," he says. "I can go out and live my life, and I love that."
Before you shed a tear for a poor, tortured soul, let's be real. Dirk makes $13.8 million this season, has a house in Highland Park, drives a Mercedes ("German engineering," he says with a wink. Duh.) and remains human and humble enough to hang out with his steady, non-People-magazine-cover girlfriend at Primo's or The Loon without need for security guards or VIP velvet ropes.
"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.