Crocodile Nowitzki

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

The key experience for Nowitzki, Geschwinder would later say, was to learn how long a day is. "When you're camping you have to get up at sunrise, you might not be totally up, but you're up," he said. "You use daylight to know when you should get up and when you should go to bed. You have to go with the flow of nature, you can't force it."

There was no direct application to basketball, because a basketball team runs a system, Geschwinder said, and "there is no flow." But in life, regardless of your profession and pursuits, you have to learn that in the end, you are not in control.

As the summer wore on, Nowitzki began to see the Golden State series more objectively. It wasn't his fault that they had lost. Simply put, they had caught a hot team. "It seemed like every game they would hit a crazy shot," he would say later. "Like Baron Davis would hit a leaner from half-court or something, bank it off the glass. They were on fire."

Tom Jenkins
Nowitzki reflects on his summer in Australia at Irving's Hackberry Creek Country Club.
Tom Jenkins
Nowitzki reflects on his summer in Australia at Irving's Hackberry Creek Country Club.

He couldn't change who he was as a player—it was too late for that. But he could learn to depend more on others. That summer, he called Dallas Mavericks coach Avery Johnson more than he ever had before. And when he returned to Dallas, he seemed different. He took on Johnson's challenge to become a more vocal leader and a more involved one—talking with teammates more off the court, taking them to dinner. Whether this would make him a better player and lead the Mavs to a championship, only time would tell.

It's a crisp fall morning at Irving's Hackberry Creek Country Club, a few days before the season opener against the Cleveland Cavaliers, and Dirk Nowitzki is late. Last night, the Mavs were at Six Flags with season ticket holders, and this morning players and coaches are playing 18 holes with big-money sponsors. Nowitzki is golfing with two Pizza Hut execs who are giddy they have drawn him as a playing partner. They are supposed to tee off in less than 15 minutes.

A few golfers are already on the course when Nowitzki pulls into the parking lot in his Denali. He steps from the car and pushes his blue-tinted sunglasses back on his forehead to keep his hair out of his face. He hasn't cut it since his trip to Australia, and it has grown long and a bit unruly in the time since.

He finds a golf cart and bends down to fit his 7-foot frame behind the wheel. Unlike some of the other Mavs players here, who are dressed in golf spikes and chinos, Nowitzki looks like he's headed to the gym. He's wearing a blue long-sleeved Mavs T-shirt, gray warm-up pants and white Nike sneakers.

While his playing partners get ready to tee off, Nowitzki leans back in his cart and reflects on the past five months and the long season ahead of him. He is asked what he thinks of the common complaint among fans and media types that he lacks a killer instinct. He shrugs his shoulders. "I can't worry about what people say," he says, dodging the question.

"We had a sports psychologist early on, and I went a couple times, but I think it's too late for that."

It is suggested that perhaps he is just misunderstood. Maybe if he dunked more or talked trash, the killer instinct questions would go away. Perhaps American fans are just accustomed to a certain style of play—slashing and dunking—and that as the game becomes increasingly global the perception of what it means to dominate will also change.

"I wish I could do that kind of stuff," he says with a smile. "But that's not me. I'll never be someone who dunks on somebody and then flexes his muscles. I can't change who I am."

Maybe it's asking too much for an athlete to change who he is, especially one as finely calibrated as Nowitzki. Maybe it's asking too much of any man.

And in the end, who Nowitzki already is—a team player who can do it all—may be enough. As he himself says, his career is far from over, and the championship may come this year, or the year after.

The Pizza Hut execs are getting antsy for Nowitzki to join them. He steps to the tee and squints in the autumn sun toward the yellow flag that's waving 300 yards in the distance. And then, without a practice swing, he lets it rip. Except the ball barely goes anywhere. He cuffs the top of it and it squirts off the tee, maybe 10 feet, hopping down the cart path toward a strand of trees. Most beginning golfers would be embarrassed, or would at least want another shot, but Nowitzki hardly seems to care.

There are some things you just can't control.

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