Crocodile Nowitzki

This summer Dirk Nowitzki went down under to find himself. Can he now lead the Mavs to the promised land?

As a player, he had gotten better each year, returning to Germany each off-season to work with Geschwinder, and now, nine years into his career, he could pretty much do it all—shoot, rebound, pass and even play a bit of defense. But could he carry a team? Early on, this had not been an issue, because the team had belonged to Michael Finley. But then Finley had left and Nash had gone to Phoenix, and like that Nowitzki had become the cornerstone of a franchise talented enough to win a championship. The pressure on him to deliver was now immense.

Had he ever wanted that kind of pressure? Sportswriters made much of the fact that as a boy growing up in Germany, his favorite player had not been Michael Jordan, but Scottie Pippen, an extremely gifted player but one who played a subordinate role. Perhaps Nowitzki wasn't cut out to be the team leader.

He had no choice now; he was the MVP of the league. He could picture himself the day he won the trophy, standing there in his pinstripe suit, his hair plastered with gel. He had planned to crack a couple jokes, to loosen things up, but then Mark Cuban took to the dais and broke down talking about how hard Nowitzki worked. "He's not the guy you have to encourage to get in the gym, he's the guy you have to lock out of the gym," Cuban said, his voice thick with emotion. "He's not the guy who you wonder if he cares, he's the guy who hurts so much when things don't go the way he wants." After Cuban choked up, Nowitzki had no choice but to play it straight, saying what an honor the award was, even though it was hard to accept considering the circumstances.

Nowitzki visited Uluruóalso known as Ayers Rockówhile on "walkabout" in Australia.
Tom Jenkins

"For me at this stage right now it's still a little hard for me to be happy 'cause of the way the season ended, with the postseason. But this is an award for the regular season, that's the way I got to look at it," he said almost apologetically.

The next day he flew home to Germany, held a press conference there, then left for Australia. It was Nowitzki's idea to go—he had never been—and Geschwinder agreed that it would be good to forget about basketball for a while and "get back to basics."

They had started the trip in Sydney, taking in Beethoven's Fourth and Seventh symphonies at the Sydney Opera House, and then they hit the road. In Alice Springs, they rented a four-wheel drive Jeep and drove across the Central Plains toward the rock the natives called Uluru. It was the largest rock on the planet, a single chunk of weathered sandstone that rose 1,100 feet in the air and extended like an iceberg another three miles underground. They pulled off the road about 10 miles from the rock that night and found a place to camp in the brush.

As Nowitzki lay there near the fire, the smell of alcohol on his breath, there was one shot he had taken during the Golden State series that he couldn't get out of his mind. Dallas had gone to Golden State down 2-1 heading into Game 4, which most NBA pundits agreed was the most crucial game of the series. Nowitzki felt the same way.

With three minutes to go, he pulled down an offensive rebound. The Mavs were clinging to a narrow lead and needed to milk the clock. But instead of passing the ball, Nowitzki rushed a shot and missed. The Warriors got the rebound, ran to the other side of the court and sunk a three-pointer, taking the lead.

Why had Nowitzki taken that shot? Why hadn't he passed the ball? The decision had been made in an instant, and there was no sense beating himself up over it, but he couldn't help but think that if he hadn't taken that shot, if he had passed the ball instead, the entire series would have been different.

The man sitting on the other side of the fire knew this was nonsense. For 13 years he had been Nowitzki's personal coach, his agent and his mentor. When Nowitzki didn't know what else to do, he turned to Geschwinder, whom he considered a second father.

That night, they slept in the Jeep, which had a pop-off roof and two pullout beds: Nowitzki on the top bunk and Geschwinder on the bed beneath him. The next morning they visited Uluru, where a few tourists recognized Nowitzki, despite his camping garb and the backpack, and then they set off for the Olgas, a cluster of dome-shaped rocks about 13 miles east of Uluru.

Whether Nowitzki realized it or not, he was following in the footsteps of the Aborigine, who had traced similar paths for thousands of years on their ritualistic walkabouts. They were spiritual journeys, a renewing of the Aborigine's relationship with the earth, and a communion with ancestral spirits. In modern times, the walkabout was often seen as a journey back to one's physical homeland, a reminder of who the Aborigine was and of the things most important in life.

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