Dallas Mavericks

Bitter. Sweet.

Tears. Regrets. Sorrow. Ladies and gentlemen, your 2006-'07 National Basketball Association Most Valuable Player: Dirk Nowitzki.

“Honestly, this is a tough day for me,” Dirk today, just said minutes after accepting the highest individual honor in professional basketball. “Let’s face it, these are not great circumstances. As time passes -- 20 or 30 years from now -- I’ll look back at this as a very special day. But right now, it’s tough.”

You’ve got the fadeaway jumper, the one-legged floater and the finesse lefty finish. But of all of Dirk’s moves, his most pure is brutal honesty. Dirk clobbered good buddy Steve Nash in the MVP voting, garnering almost twice as many first-place votes. And then, in an American Airlines Center conference room seemingly packed with more media than there were voters in last weekend’s mayoral election, he held his trophy and won something else: sympathy.

This award was supposed to be accepted in front of 20,000 fans. Not in guilt.

Aside from one sheepish-free grin and his fancy buttoned-up suit, Dirk was Dirk. He showed his pain. He revealed his fragility. He made it impossible not to pull for him in the future. While most NBA stars would’ve pounded their chests and marveled at their own accomplishment, Dirk Downtrodden clearly wasn’t ready to even fake being over his team’s first-round defeat to the Golden State Warriors.

“At this stage, it’s hard for me to be happy,” he said. “Our playoff debacle is still fresh.”

Dirk’s failure -- and his ensuing frustration -- cemented his reputation as a normal human being. So touching, in fact, was Dirk’s reluctant acceptance speech that he watered several eyes in the room. (Not mine, mind you. Hard to be down in the dumps when you're gently sharing an arm rest with this woman.)

“Sorry I’m getting emotional,” owner Mark Cuban said to Dirk, wiping away the tears. “But that’s how special you are.”

I’ve known Dirk since a telephone call on June 24, 1998. It was moments after Don Nelson drafted him, and the 19-year-old German was open and upfront about his situation. “I’m not sure I’m ready,” Dirk said that night. “The NBA is just so big and so great. I’m not sure I belong.”

Watching him accept the MVP award and then answer questions while hunched over the podium today was surreal. It struck me that rarely has a superstar ascended to these rarest of heights with such a delicate psyche, fragile ego and genuine honesty.

“He’s an iconic, elite athlete who had a season for all seasons,” said NBA commissioner David Stern. “I’m honored to pay my respects.” Notice he didn’t say “last.” --Richie Whitt

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