Zac Crain’s New Book Is an Ode to Dirk, Dallas and a Son

Writer Zac Crain's new book I See You Big German is as much about his relationship with his son Isaac, right, as it is about Dirk Nowitzki.
photo by Zac Crain
Writer Zac Crain's new book I See You Big German is as much about his relationship with his son Isaac, right, as it is about Dirk Nowitzki.

As soon as Zac Crain got copies of his new book, he gave one to his son Isaac. Isaac hadn't read any of the manuscript while it was in progress, but Crain knew he needed to be one of the first people to see it in print.

I See You Big German, out now through Dallas publisher Deep Vellum, is an open letter from Crain to retired Mavericks' power forward Dirk Nowitzki that is as much about the author and Isaac as it is about basketball.

“I didn’t want to be someone who wrote a memoir, and I guess I kind of am now,” Crain says. “It’s the one instance where it makes sense, even though I really see it as me being a stand-in for other people. Still, there’s a lot of personal stuff in it, and I needed Isaac to see it as soon as it was out. I hadn’t really told him how far I was going to go with things.”

Crain, a longtime D Magazine writer and editor and former mayoral candidate, moved to Dallas in 1997, one year before the Big German. He wasn’t a basketball fanatic yet; he was mostly interested in music, a passion that served him well as this the Dallas Observer's music editor. He’d go out, smoke, drink, see a show, then return to an apartment where the shower constantly leaked and the posters barely clung to the walls.

To read I See You Big German is to get to know Crain and details like this. He imbues the book with a strong sense of place that will help readers far beyond Dallas envision how a man, a father and a city grew up alongside Dirk. Like writer Hanif Abdurraqib’s book about a Tribe Called Quest, Crain’s book is, in essence, a love letter that just wouldn’t have been the same if it came out while Dirk was still playing.

Crain toyed with the idea of writing about the basketball legend after the Mavericks won the NBA championship in 2011, but this time he had a collaborator he trusted. Will Evans, the director of Deep Vellum, had already published Crain’s Dallas photo book, and he let the writer do his thing.

“The team won the title, and I was with my son. It was almost too much to handle." – author Zac Crain

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“I generally write 15,000 words to get four [thousand] that I like,” Crain says. “But this time, there wasn’t a whole lot that I tossed.”

He wrote the book longhand (a first for him) and, unlike his 2009 book about rocker Dimebag Darrell, he didn’t labor over it in the dead of night when he could clock a few hours of uninterrupted writing. That’s not to say the book was easy. At first, Crain struggled with just how personal he wanted to get.

“I didn’t know if people would care,” he says. “I asked myself, ‘How much of me should be in here? How much of me has to be in here?’”

Ultimately, Crain says he had to get over that hesitation and just write. The result is a book that includes plenty of deeply personal material but doesn’t delve too deep into every single hiccup of the writer’s life. For instance, he talks about his divorce but spares some details. Crain keeps the focus squarely on the eponymous German and the impact he made over the course of 21 years. However, one figure from the book looms arguably as large as the 7-foot NBA player: the writer’s son.

Isaac, Crain and the game of basketball have always been intriguingly intertwined. Isaac was almost born the same day LeBron James played in Dallas the first time, but instead, he was born on 4/1. Dirk’s number, of course, is 41. Crain has also coached Isaac’s basketball team. But most important, father and son have been side by side during some of the Mavericks’ most important moments, including that championship win in 2011. Crain has a picture of him and his son from the night the Mavs defeated the Miami Heat, and in the blurry shot, he and his son are frozen in a moment of elation. Crain is clutching his son as a young Isaac raises a fist to the sky, not unlike the triumphant, post-game pose struck by the Big German on that fateful summer day 10 years ago.

“Everything good was tied up in that moment,” Crain says, reflecting on the win and the photo. “The team won the title, and I was with my son. It was almost too much to handle, and it was one of those moments where you don’t know what to say.”

Yet he found his words. A decade later, he has penned a 250-page letter that tells readers exactly how that and so many other moments felt, and some of the best parts of the book include Isaac. That’s another reason why Crain wanted his son to be one of the first to read it: He had to know what he thought.

“I sat there while he read it, and he got pretty emotional,” Crain says. “It was funny; he kind of made a joke, like, ‘I can’t believe I’m crying here.’”

Crain, who says he is “not a huge crier,” felt himself choking up a little bit, too.

“But I held it together,” he says. “I was just really glad he liked it.”