Back to the Future

Welcome to a recap of The Short Happy Life of Dirk Nowitzki, in four-part harmony. Part I: Dirk rips down a rebound at one end, spins and takes off, bolting past unsuspecting defenders, dribbling the length of the court, then finishing with a thunderous dunk. Performed on numerous occasions at an arena near you during the Mavericks' sublime 53-29 Cinderella 2000-'01 season, this one-man fast break presents the full Dirk package--size, strength and agility.

Soon, opposing coaches warn their players to beware of the 7-foot German with blond hair and gym-rat pale skin. He ain't no speeding bullet; he ain't even Greyhound, they're told, but you'd better be on your toes, or he'll blow right by.

Part II: Utah, November 20, 2000, the Mavericks' 12th game of the season. Karl Malone, the Jazz power forward and resident bully, twists Dirk's arm into taffy while going for a rebound. A shoulder separation seems likely. Sprawled out on the court, Nowitzki writhes in pain. But when he rises, he does not cower, even as Malone flicks and jabs at the sore shoulder all night. The Mavericks serve early warning to the craftier Jazz with a 107-98 victory. Michael Finley, the team's stoic, fluid leader, rains in 29 points. Steve Nash, fluttering around like the second coming of little Bob Cousy, dishes out 17 assists. Nowitzki scrapes down 14 rebounds and holds Malone under 20 points.

The league is warned. This kid is physically tougher than he might appear.

Part III: May 12, 2001, Reunion Arena, Game 4 of the Western Conference Semifinal series. After disposing of the Jazz in the first round of the playoffs, the mentally drained Mavericks are on the brink of being swept by the more talented San Antonio Spurs. In a scramble for the ball, Nowitzki takes an elbow to the mouth. One of his front teeth is completely knocked out and blood oozes from his gums. His mouth cupped in his hands, Dirk jumps on top of and then over the scorer's table at courtside and runs into the locker room.

He returns shortly afterward and leads the Mavericks to a 112-108 victory. Nowitzki has 30 points and nine rebounds and plays all but six of the 48 minutes. This kid may not have all his teeth, but he's got heart.

Part IV: Two days later in San Antonio, Game 5. The Spurs dominate early and long, leaving no doubt the Mavericks' first playoff run in a dozen years is about to end.

But Nowitzki does not go quietly. He is tough but also elastic. He scores 42 points, the second-highest point total in Mavericks playoff history, and gathers 18 rebounds, the sixth-highest playoff total. And that is the way the Mavericks' can't-believe-it season ends, with Nowitzki still clawing, diving, pounding, scoring from here, there and everywhere.

Oh, yeah, the kid can shoot, too.

Now comes a new season and only a slightly different variation on last season's Cinderella theme. The nucleus--Finley, Nash, Nowitzki, 7-foot-6 center Shawn Bradley and power forward Juwan Howard--will be more familiar with each other and with Coach Don Nelson's effective, yet often unorthodox game strategies. Greg Buckner returns as the defensive pest (until injuries inevitably sideline him a month or two). Wang ZhiZhi, the 7-foot-1 Chinese import who made his American debut last year, is not expected to join the team until around Christmas. He could be intriguing, in an instant-offense sort of way. Eduardo Najera and Donnell Harvey could also provide a caffeine-like jolt when called on in pinch situations.

New and vital to the mix are veteran backup point guard Tim Hardaway, a vocal leader and gutty performer in those moments when the basket seems to get smaller; 13-year center/forward Danny Manning, a two-time All-Star whose 15 minutes per game should be quietly solidifying; guard Adrian Griffin, apparently rid of the back problems that sidelined him in Boston much of last year; and backup center Evan Eschmeyer, who moves well enough without the ball to pick up some hustle points and a few rebounds here and there.

Still, this team's most marked improvement may come from the continued emergence of Nowitzki (who, by the way, has chosen to play this season with a mouthpiece).

"Dirk is very intelligent, and he's extremely motivated," says Donnie Nelson, the club's director of player personnel and assistant coach to his dad. "He's got the same attributes a lot of unique superstars have. Great players like Magic Johnson know they want to be great, but then they go out and actually do it. The great ones don't get there without the work ethic. Period. End of story."

But the difference between this and last year's Mavericks will still hinge largely on the continued development of Dirk, as well as three other factors: how well the Mavericks compensate for a complete lack of rebounding, particularly in the absence of last year's promising backup center, Calvin Booth; how shrewdly Nelson uses the league's new zone defense rules to his advantage; and how well this team learns the lessons of past Mavericks success and failure.

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Steve Pate