Dirk Nowitzki was lost. And he was starting to stink.
He had come this far, deep into the Australian Outback, and now that it was dark, he didn't know where he was. Not exactly, anyway. He'd ended up on a patch of wind-swept dirt, surrounded by sagebrush and stiff yellow grass, a place to park the Jeep and build a campfire.
The closest town of any significance was Alice Springs, or the Alice, as the locals called it. It was once a telegraph station so remote it had to be stocked by camel train. Aborigines could still be seen at times on its outskirts, wading shirtless in the muddy Todd River. But that was 250 miles away. Other than the wind, which blew softly through camp, the night was silent.
Nowitzki sat in front of the fire, strumming his guitar and sipping his whiskey straight from the bottle. He had stopped shaving days ago and didn't know when he would bathe next. He had been in Australia for a week and a half, even though it was May, and by all accounts he should have been somewhere else. He should've been on a basketball court, leading the Dallas Mavericks deep into the NBA Playoffs. He should've been winning a championship. But for the second year in a row, the season had ended in disappointment. Once again people were questioning his mental toughness.
He had but one traveling companion on this trip, his mentor Holger Geschwinder, a mostly bald 62-year-old German with puffy bags under his eyes and a big Roman nose that looked like it had been broken in a fistfight, or several fistfights over the years. In the light of the fire, his features looked sharp, as if his head had been cut from granite.
Nowitzki had come to Australia because he didn't want to be recognized. He didn't want to be reminded of his failures, of the places he should have been.
In his haste to leave Dallas, he had failed to consider one thing—it was winter in Australia, meaning darkness would fall early each night of his trip. At the present moment, sitting in front of the fire, there was nothing to do but sit and think, or talk to Geschwinder.
"Why me?" Nowitzki wondered, gazing into the glowing embers. "Why is this happening to me?"
He had just a few weeks to find the answer.
Now entering his 10th NBA season, Dirk Nowitzki is at a crossroads. He is one of the top five players in the NBA, but in the public eye he is defined by his failures of the last two seasons, so much so that just one season removed from winning the MVP trophy, NBA experts and scouts are already beginning to chart his decline. In a recent feature that ran on ESPN.com, NBA insider John Hollinger listed Nowitzki as one of 23 players on the downhill slope of his career.
And it's not just NBA pundits who are proclaiming Nowitzki, who is just 29, washed up. Former players—from Reggie Miller to Greg Anthony—have all recently wondered aloud if Nowitzki can overcome the psychological scars of the last two seasons.
For his part, Nowitzki says he is at the peak of his career and that as a player the improvements from here on out in the physical aspects of his game will only be incremental. The area where Nowitzki can most improve, most NBA experts agree, is mentally.
The knock on Nowitzki is that he is soft and that at crucial moments in key games he disappears, or worse. Two years ago, up 2-0 in the NBA Finals against the Miami Heat, Nowitzki was standing on the free-throw line to send the game into overtime. A 94 percent free-throw shooter, Nowitzki made the first shot but clanged the second off the rim. It was the turning point in the series and, for armchair psychologists everywhere, proof that Nowitzki doubts himself too much.
But even professional sports psychologists agree that something is going on with Nowitzki. "It's one thing if in the flow of the game you miss a shot, but when you're standing on the free-throw line and you have time to think about what this shot means—if you make it, you win, and if you don't, you lose—if in a moment like that you miss, there's definitely cause for concern," says Paul Baard, a sports psychologist at Fordham University in New York. "I would have to sit down with Nowitzki to know what's going on there, but I would wonder if there's some kind of fear of failure or doubt about his abilities that he hasn't moved past yet."
Nowitzki bounced back from his Finals meltdown to lead the Mavs to a league-best 67 wins last year. The team seemed destined for a title—in the league's history, seven of the eight teams that won 65 or more games went on to win the title—but in the first round of the playoffs, the Mavs drew the red-hot Golden State Warriors, and once again, Nowitzki shrank under pressure, shooting just 38 percent. In the final game of the series he went out like a lamb—finishing the game with more turnovers than field goals. Most tellingly, he didn't take the ball to the hoop even once, settling instead for long-range jumpers, a sign that he may fear the bruising physical contact that goes on under the hoop. It was the biggest upset in NBA playoff history.