If things go badly in Denver, the Dallas Mavericks have lost this series.

But Dirk Nowitzki should've won your heart.

Despite being sucker-shoved by Kenyon Martin, lambasted by TNT's chorus of critics, privately duped and publicly humiliated by his former fiancée, screwed by the referees and frustrated almost to tears by a gut-wrenching defeat just two days earlier, the genteel German turned gritty last Monday night. In a vintage performance that should once and for all silence the mainstream media morons who crow about him being too soft to win a championship, Nowitzki led, prodded, dragged, cajoled and valiantly willed the Mavericks to a 119-117 victory over the Denver Nuggets that further cements his legacy as the greatest and toughest player in franchise history.

Unfortunately, the 44-point, 13-rebound signature display was also a reminder that, inexplicably, Nowitzki is the most underrated and underappreciated athlete in the history of the metroplex. Shame on us.

As expected, the Nuggets are too athletic, too deep and too good for the Mavs. But with a chance to fold, their leader defiantly decided to stay and fight.

Nowitzki could teach us all a thing or two about pride, privacy and perseverance. Especially you, Tony Romo.

In the wake of the 44-6, season-ending loss that cost his team a spot in the post-season, the Dallas Cowboys quarterback is spending time this off-season playing golf. Lots of golf. Golf, in fact, that—had he successfully qualified for the U.S. Open—would've produced a conflict with a team minicamp in June.

Romo—with zero playoff wins on his résumé—seems content with being famous for being famous. He has high-profile hobbies, a celebrity girlfriend and doesn't hesitate to hop into the spotlight. Doing less with more, Nowitzki remains obscure for being humble.

The quarterback shrugs off losses. The future Hall of Fame forward not only absorbs defeats, he ingests them.

After the 2007 first-round loss to the Golden State Warriors, the NBA MVP assembled his posse—which consisted of 62-year-old mentor, Holger Geschwindner—for a five-week journey into the Australian outback. He backpacked, strummed his guitar, swigged whiskey from the bottle, visited youth hostels and slept under the stars in a Jeep. Amongst the Aborigines he was anonymous, just like he liked it.

And so when news broke last week that Nowitzki's fiancée—Cristal Taylor—had been arrested at his Preston Hollow house on charges of theft of services and probation violations, our initial reaction was along the lines of "Seriously? Dirk has a girlfriend?"

That's because, raised in an idyllic Bavarian town (Wurzburg) surrounded by forests and medieval castles, Dirk Werner Nowitzki believes in separation of church and state. He believes time and pressure and the supposed power of positive thinking are manmade bullshit. And he believes there is a line you don't cross—the one between professional player and private person.

"It's pretty obvious that I'm going through a tough time in my personal life right now," he said last week after Taylor's arrest. "Like I always have, I want to kind of keep my private life private. I really am not at the stage where I can talk about it yet and feel comfortable talking about it."

Though Taylor—considering her forgery and habitual lying—is a fascinating story, there's a reason the media isn't frantically digging through Nowitzki's recycling bin.

Through 11 years of community service and pristine behavior—last week was the first time I'd ever written "Nowitzki" and "police" in the same sentence—he's amassed a fortress of positive equity. He asks for privacy—provided he proves the problems don't affect his play—and he deserves it.

You get a whiff of his personal life, and you feel sorry for him. Even critics drenched with apathy suddenly have empathy. Then get another taste of his professional career, and you feel lucky to have him. Or at least you should.

In the first round, the San Antonio Spurs aggressively double-teamed him, mandating a deferential Dirk. Unselfishly, he continually passed to open teammates in the 4-1 victory. But against the Nuggets, he's been re-hatched as a domineering Dirk.

Denver's arrogant, stubborn philosophy led it to attempt to single-cover the 7-footer with a variety of defenders including Kenyon Martin, Nene, Chris Andersen and Carmelo Anthony. It didn't work. A decoy against the Spurs, Nowitzki was dominant against the Nuggets. Re-calibrating himself from passer to scorer, he averaged a redirkulous 35 points and 15 rebounds through the series' first four games.

Not that it was easy. One night he was getting viciously shoved in the back by Martin. The next he was under attack by TNT analysts Charles Barkley, Kenny Smith and Chris Webber, who each grossly misinterpreted his compliments toward Nuggets defenders as a white flag of surrender. And one grim afternoon he missed his last five shots—including a 12-footer in the lane that would've won Game 3—and watched helplessly as Anthony played through the referees' swallowed, silent whistles for a dagger 3-pointer that gave Denver a 3-0 lead.

Afterward, amidst chaos that was supposed to be confetti, his team lost all composure. Josh Howard berated a referee and damaged a camera. Owner Mark Cuban shoved a cameraman's arm and hurled an insult through Martin's mother.

Nowitzki? He calmly, solemnly walked off the floor with something much more precious than points and rebounds: dignity.

"I think this is about as tough of a loss as I've been a part of in my 11 years in the league," he said.

"It was a tough week for me and my family, but I stuck with it."

As the buzzards circled, something magically mundane occurred. Besieged by heartache and a 3-0 deficit that no NBA team has ever lived to tell about, Nowitzki showed up for work. The player chastised for being "soft" and pegged as the choke artist who authored the NBA's biggest Finals meltdown ('06 against the Heat) and biggest upset loss ('07 against the Warriors) went out and took an eraser to his critics' chalkboard.

In a memorable Game 4, Nowitzki was all things for his head coach and former Boston Celtic, Rick Carlisle. He was Larry Bird, raining jumpers and swishing free throws. He was Kevin McHale, dizzying defenders with multiple fakes and pivots in the post. And he was Bill Russell, rebounding, defending and, ultimately, winning.

People who say the Mavericks can't win a championship with Nowitzki weren't at AAC on May 11, 2009.

"The great ones, they somehow find the will to do it, and they get it done," Carlisle said afterward, beaming. "You know, he's one of the great ones."

The Mavs may be aging and unathletic and ill-prepared for the future, but at this point—whether rejoicing or rebuilding—it's impossible to imagine this franchise without Nowitzki. Because even at the end of the worst week of his life, he left AAC with a team on his back and a smile on his face.

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