Crocodile Nowitzki

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The transition was difficult. During a Christmas visit to his West Village apartment in 1999, his parents discovered he was sleeping on a twin-sized mattress and found a stack of paychecks he hadn't even opened in a corner.

Over the years, he adjusted until America felt like home to him. He often sprinkled hip-hop slang into his accented English, shouting out things like "Warzburg X-Rays are the craziest"—a Wu-Tang Clan-inspired homage to the club team he had played on as a youth, but for the most part, he was the same old Dirk, unaffected by money and fame. Clothes and cars held little interest for him; on one road trip to Seattle in 2001, his shoes were so beat up, Nash dragged him to a store and wouldn't let him leave until he had a new pair.

As a player, he had gotten better each year, returning to Germany each off-season to work with Geschwinder, and now, nine years into his career, he could pretty much do it all—shoot, rebound, pass and even play a bit of defense. But could he carry a team? Early on, this had not been an issue, because the team had belonged to Michael Finley. But then Finley had left and Nash had gone to Phoenix, and like that Nowitzki had become the cornerstone of a franchise talented enough to win a championship. The pressure on him to deliver was now immense.

Had he ever wanted that kind of pressure? Sportswriters made much of the fact that as a boy growing up in Germany, his favorite player had not been Michael Jordan, but Scottie Pippen, an extremely gifted player but one who played a subordinate role. Perhaps Nowitzki wasn't cut out to be the team leader.

He had no choice now; he was the MVP of the league. He could picture himself the day he won the trophy, standing there in his pinstripe suit, his hair plastered with gel. He had planned to crack a couple jokes, to loosen things up, but then Mark Cuban took to the dais and broke down talking about how hard Nowitzki worked. "He's not the guy you have to encourage to get in the gym, he's the guy you have to lock out of the gym," Cuban said, his voice thick with emotion. "He's not the guy who you wonder if he cares, he's the guy who hurts so much when things don't go the way he wants." After Cuban choked up, Nowitzki had no choice but to play it straight, saying what an honor the award was, even though it was hard to accept considering the circumstances.

"For me at this stage right now it's still a little hard for me to be happy 'cause of the way the season ended, with the postseason. But this is an award for the regular season, that's the way I got to look at it," he said almost apologetically.

The next day he flew home to Germany, held a press conference there, then left for Australia. It was Nowitzki's idea to go—he had never been—and Geschwinder agreed that it would be good to forget about basketball for a while and "get back to basics."

They had started the trip in Sydney, taking in Beethoven's Fourth and Seventh symphonies at the Sydney Opera House, and then they hit the road. In Alice Springs, they rented a four-wheel drive Jeep and drove across the Central Plains toward the rock the natives called Uluru. It was the largest rock on the planet, a single chunk of weathered sandstone that rose 1,100 feet in the air and extended like an iceberg another three miles underground. They pulled off the road about 10 miles from the rock that night and found a place to camp in the brush.

As Nowitzki lay there near the fire, the smell of alcohol on his breath, there was one shot he had taken during the Golden State series that he couldn't get out of his mind. Dallas had gone to Golden State down 2-1 heading into Game 4, which most NBA pundits agreed was the most crucial game of the series. Nowitzki felt the same way.

With three minutes to go, he pulled down an offensive rebound. The Mavs were clinging to a narrow lead and needed to milk the clock. But instead of passing the ball, Nowitzki rushed a shot and missed. The Warriors got the rebound, ran to the other side of the court and sunk a three-pointer, taking the lead.

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Jesse Hyde
Contact: Jesse Hyde