By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
If the Mavericks fail to win a championship this season, or at least reach the Finals, there will be pressure to overhaul the roster. Team owner Mark Cuban has said he will never move Nowitzki, but it's hard to see how the team would be drastically improved without trading him for another player. This summer, Lakers star Kobe Bryant, generally regarded as the best player in the league, said he wanted to leave Los Angeles and has since named Dallas as one of his top two destinations. Bryant's contract with Los Angeles runs out in 2009, and if he is available then, or sometime before, there would be tremendous pressure on Cuban to make a run for him, even if it means giving up Nowitzki.
For the first time in his career, Nowitzki did not spend the summer retooling some aspect of his game. Instead, he went on a five-week trip to Australia to clear his head. He slept in youth hostels, he dozed on the beach reading German novels and he let his hair and beard grow long. He drifted out at sea for days. He slept in a car for a week. For Nowitzki, it was a journey of self-discovery—similar to the traditional walkabout Aborigines take in their 16th year as a rite of passage—a time to consider where he had been and where he was going.
Sitting there in front of the fire, with nothing but the stars of the Southern Hemisphere above him, Nowitzki's mind raced through the past several months. The 67-win season. The promise of a championship. Then finally, walking off the court at Golden State, his opponents celebrating their improbable victory as confetti fell around them.
How strange it had been, seeing his former coach, Don Nelson, on the other side of the court. Nellie, who had traded up to draft him, who had proclaimed him Rookie of the Year, who had stood by him even as Mavericks fans booed that first year, now pacing the opposing sideline, exploiting the weaknesses of his one-time protégé.
And it had worked. Somehow it had taken Nowitzki out of his game. After one loss, he threw a trash can against a wall in frustration, but when it was finally over, all he wanted to do was disappear. On the flight home, he asked a team official if he could leave Dallas as soon as possible, but after checking in with the NBA, he was told no—he would have to stick around for another week or so. He could guess why. It was a poorly kept secret that he would win the MVP trophy.
Back in Dallas, he had hunkered down in his 5,500-square-foot Highland Park home, trying to shut out the world. He did his best to ignore sports talk radio and the papers, but he knew what people were saying about him—that he couldn't finish, that he lacked a killer instinct, and that once again, he had come up short when it mattered most. "We got hammered pretty good here in the media," he would later recall. "You know, we got to rip up the team. Dirk can't lead, blah, blah, blah. You know you hear all these things and it kind of pisses you off. I just wanted to get away."
It was easy to forget how far he had come, how far the Dallas Mavericks had come. When he was drafted in 1998, the Mavs were the laughingstock of the NBA. His first couple years they practiced in a facility open to the public, meaning that if he wanted to stay behind for extra work, as he often did, he was relegated to a side hoop. What a sight it had been, to see the 7-foot Nowitzki and the 6-foot-3 guard Steve Nash, each of them million-dollar athletes, chasing after errant shots to make sure they didn't interrupt the pick-up games in progress. Now the Mavs were a model franchise with a billionaire owner who didn't mind spending money on a practice facility.
Nowitzki had also changed. He entered the league a shy 20-year-old with a bowl cut, completely naïve to the world (on his first trip to Dallas, he packed his own towel because he wasn't sure one would be provided) and unsure of his abilities. That first year a salary dispute had delayed the start of the season and privately Nowitzki had hoped it would go unresolved so he could play in Europe one more year. Even when he left, his parents worried he would return of homesickness, as his sister had done after a semester of playing college ball in the United States.
The transition was difficult. During a Christmas visit to his West Village apartment in 1999, his parents discovered he was sleeping on a twin-sized mattress and found a stack of paychecks he hadn't even opened in a corner.
Over the years, he adjusted until America felt like home to him. He often sprinkled hip-hop slang into his accented English, shouting out things like "Warzburg X-Rays are the craziest"—a Wu-Tang Clan-inspired homage to the club team he had played on as a youth, but for the most part, he was the same old Dirk, unaffected by money and fame. Clothes and cars held little interest for him; on one road trip to Seattle in 2001, his shoes were so beat up, Nash dragged him to a store and wouldn't let him leave until he had a new pair.