By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
Come in, come in. Have a seat, Dirk. Better yet, lie down on the couch.
That's right, you and your NBA Most Valuable Player trophy get comfy. Or at least try. Because that's it, really, the reason I've summoned you here. To convince Dirk Nowitzki once and for all that it's OK—actually, that it's advantageous—to have peace of mind. To possess unwavering self-confidence. An ego. A swagger. Even a nasty edge.
This therapeutic session is about tough love. We love you, but dammit, man, you gotta get tough.
Ready? (Feel free to tell me to piss off at any time. It'll be good for your soul.)
The season commenced and climaxed with you hunching over a podium in the bowels of American Airlines Center. In October you accidentally broke a microphone. In May you broke the mold. In between, you produced the most fantastic, frustrating year in franchise history. A league-leading 67 wins and countless individual superlatives—save one—disintegrated in a first-round loss to the Golden State Warriors.
Last week you were officially named MVP in a surreal celebration saturated with bitter and sweet and tears and regret and...The crown has never sat so uncomfortably atop the head.
"Honestly, this is a tough day for me," you said between sheepish smiles. "Let's face it, these are not great circumstances. As time passes...20 or 30 years from now...I'll look back at this as a very special day. But right now it's tough."
So here you are. You have as many MVPs as Shaquille O'Neal and Julius Erving and one more than Kobe Bryant. But nationally you are the most scrutinized, criticized MVP in league history. Locally, you're the most sympathetic sports star this side of Tony Romo.
There are those who don't appreciate the fadeaway jumper, the one-legged floater or the finesse lefty finish. They only see "NO-WIN-sky," the soft Euro prone to dubious disappearances.
"I know I didn't play my best in the playoffs," you admitted after the early exit.
They point to you being the first MVP since '82 dumped in the first round—on the heels of being the leader of the first team since '77 to cough up a 2-0 lead in The Finals—as proof you'll never lead the Mavericks to a championship.
Me? I believe you can do it; you just haven't. People forget Larry Bird and even Michael Jordan were vilified before winning a title. And none of sports' reigning MVPs (hockey's Joe Thornton, football's Ladainian Tomlinson or baseball's Justin Morneau and Ryan Howard) got their teams past the second round.
But I wonder about you. I'm fearful the MVP trophy will start collecting dust on your parents' mantel in Germany as you brush off the praise and digest the poison.
"There are lots of stars that never won a championship, and I'm in that category now," you said as the statue began morphing into a monkey on your back. "I hope I have a lot of good post-season runs left. But I understand that might not happen."
See, you put us in a tough spot. Do we hug you? Or put a boot in your ass?
Either way, shit's gotta change. Not between the lines. Between your ears. You need anger. You need confidence. We'll settle for cocksure aggression.
When I last had you on this couch the day you were drafted—June 24, 1998—you were already setting the bar too low.
"I'm not sure I'm ready," you said as a 19-year-old. "The NBA...I hope I belong, but I'm not sure I do."
"When I started watching the NBA at age 13 or 14 my biggest dream was to someday play in an All-Star Game," you said last week.
Even after six All-Star Games, a Finals appearance and an MVP, still not totally convinced are you? Flawless jumper. Fragile psyche.
"Dirk's gonna be Dirk," Mavs coach Avery Johnson said recently. "He doesn't have an ego. I wouldn't call him passive. Maybe unselfish. But, yes, there comes a time when you have to force the issue."
No more Mr. Nice Guy, deal? Your fundamental flaw is your innate desire to deflect. Attention. Praise. Even shots. When you're pondering your game this summer over Bavarian hops and humble pie, consider a week in a dark alley with Bruce Bowen, maybe lunch with Terrell Owens, a barbed-wire tattoo or perhaps just some thin skin.
Start by showing up next season and demand we pronounce your name correctly. It is "Deerk," after all.
In your era, the Mavericks have been one of the NBA's most successful, softest teams. In '02 your 17-1 team blew a 30-point lead to the Lakers. In '03 you almost lost a 3-0 lead to Portland. Last year you barely saved a 3-1 lead against the Spurs before the epic meltdown against the Heat. And this year, you couldn't finish a 67-win regular season.
It's time to stop wilting and start maturing into the grab-the-reins star with the cold-blooded killer instinct this franchise has never had.
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