By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
What if I told you there was a great basketball player?
He was an All-Star. A Most Valuable Player. A future Hall of Famer. He was a class act on and off the court, his only transgression being naiveté about a past girlfriend. To him a wild night on the town was going to Richardson for a 90-minute foot massage from a hole in the wall in a quaint shopping center. He was his franchise's best all-time performer, an unprecedented 7-footer who averaged 25 points and 10 rebounds in the playoffs, took his team to the post-season 10 consecutive years and established it as an annual contender for a championship.
But what if I told you he, somehow, wasn't universally accepted in his community? Because of the color of his skin.
Dirk Nowitzki is white. And, therefore, he is the most underrated and underappreciated athlete in the history of Dallas sports. While he should be embraced as the man who rebuilt a franchise, he is instead criticized and denounced for reasons we only wish had disappeared with segregation.
In the wake of Nowitzki's near-perfect 36-point performance in the Dallas Mavericks' Game 1 victory over the San Antonio Spurs last Sunday night at American Airlines Center, I went on KRLD-FM 105.3 The Fan and lauded his performance. Immediately, the phone lines lit up.
With outlandish, unbelievable bullshit like this:
"He doesn't play defense," hollered one guy.
"Doesn't show up in the big games," barked another.
"He's soft. He'll never be an A-plus player," chortled yet another.
I realize the majority of local sports fans appreciate Nowitzki. But the fact that a vocal, boisterous minority even exists is as mystifying as it is maddening.
I won't go so far as to call the Dirk detractors racists, but I will label them racial. Instead of analyzing Nowitzki's game or commenting on the series, the critics took a curious opportunity—his 36 points on only 14 shots was the NBA's most efficient playoff game in 20 years—to remind us they see the world in black and white.
Inexplicably, to the African-American callers, Nowitzki is one of "them." Not one of "us."
"Dirk don't intimidate no one," said one of the callers. "He's just a soft white guy that'll never win anything. He's a loser."
The opinions would be entertaining if they weren't so damn scary.
It would be wrong to paint Mavericks fans with a broad brush. To be fair, I saw blacks wearing Nowitzki No. 41 jerseys at the American Airlines Center last Sunday night and there were calls from African-Americans the next morning supporting Nowitzki. Likewise, there was some "I'm white and I hate Dirk" sentiment.
But for the most part, the color-coded criticism of Nowitzki goes like this: I don't care what he does, I don't like how he does it. It's a toxic mix of stubborn insanity.
Nowitzki doesn't have tattoos or a highlight reel of dunks. He doesn't taunt. He has no street cred or sick crossover that makes fans of the And1 Tour literally fall all over each other even though the move is an obvious carrying violation. Nowitzki's all about subtle efficiency, not look-at-me braggadocio. He shoots fadeaway jumpers that are indefensible. He makes free throws (86 in a row and counting entering Game 2). He wins (with him as the centerpiece, the Mavs are in the midst of 10 consecutive seasons with 50-plus wins).
He may not be emulated on Dallas' blacktop playgrounds, but Nowitzki has scored 20,000 points in the NBA and has just as many rings as Karl Malone, Patrick Ewing and, yes, LeBron James.
Funny, because in San Antonio these days, they aren't talking about how Nowitzki is soft or overrated or inadequate on defense. They're lamenting how their once-proud franchise was reduced to purposefully fouling another player just to keep Nowitzki from scoring on them in Game 1.
"Dirk's a great player, what can you say?" Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said. "When I find a defense that consistently stops him I'll let you know."
For all his talents, Nowitzki is also self-aware. He realizes that, at 31, the window that had been quickly closing has been tenuously propped open by Dallas' mid-season trade acquisition of Caron Butler and Brendan Haywood. The Mavericks, who also boast Shawn Marion, are better suited for the playoffs than any team in franchise history.
That's right, I said it. We were all gutted by the 2006 NBA Finals implosion, when a 2-0 lead deteriorated into one of the most heartbreaking collapses in local sports history. And the following season, it was Nowitzki who had an atrocious Game 6 in his 67-win team's shocking first-round upset exit to the Golden State Warriors.
Time—and the trade—has healed the wounds. Nowitzki, Jason Terry, Erick Dampier and the scars remain from the Finals team, but I get the sense that Mavericks fans are again ready to emotionally invest in this team. TV ratings from last Sunday's Game 1 jumped to 13.1, up from 9.1 a year ago. Mavericks car flags that were chunked into the top of the closet years ago have been dusted off. Hope—albeit measured and careful—has returned.
Since the All-Star break, the Mavs are 24-7. They won 55 games, second in the Western Conference only to the defending champion Los Angeles Lakers. They have home-court advantage in the first two rounds of the playoffs.
They are in a rarefied air of success, with only Bill Russell's Boston Celtics, Magic Johnson's Lakers and Tim Duncan's Spurs managing similar decades of dominance. Mostly, they have Nowitzki.
"If the fans are more excited, hopefully we'll prove them right over the next two months," owner Mark Cuban said from atop his locker-room Stairmaster before Game 1. "I know this: We're better suited for playoff basketball than last year. There's more excitement. More energy."
Not bad for a team that was almost blown up in late January. Languishing around the middle of the pack in the West, Cuban one night sat in his shower and contemplated wholesale changes geared not at winning this season, but waiting for free agency in the summer and rebuilding around Nowitzki.
"I'm serious," Cuban said. "Ask my wife. We weren't playing well and there was no immediate prospect for us getting better."
The trade reshaped Dallas' roster and rebooted a city's interest. The bar, set just above mediocrity the last two seasons, is now again raised to championship heights.
"It's going to be another disappointing season for me if we don't win it," Nowitzki said before the playoffs. "Losing in the first round, second round or third round, it doesn't matter. If we don't win it all, that's another lost opportunity, another year in my prime gone."
It's not just Nowitzki that polarizes the races in Dallas. Throw out a topic these days—Terrell Owens, Tony Romo, Tiger Woods, Ben Roethlisberger, Ron Washington—and you can demark opinions almost directly along the color barrier.
If Nowitzki wins a championship, maybe he'll win over his critics. But, sadly, probably not.
What if I told you we'd made great strides on this planet? Indoor plumbing. Remote controls. Five-Hour Energy.
But, somehow, what if I told you we haven't progressed anywhere at all? When it comes to Dirk Nowitzki, Dallas still drinks from separate water fountains.