Crocodile Nowitzki

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What would come after basketball? Nowitzki wondered. He had enough money (he would make $16 million the next season alone), but money wasn't everything. "It helps," Geschwinder would say. "But it's not the point." Nowitzki wanted a family. He had never wanted to be married before 30, but 30 was approaching, and before long he would want to meet a woman and have kids. The Aborigines believed that the Elders bridged the past and the present, teaching important traditions and knowledge through "dreaming stories" about how the land was populated, how birds were given their colors and how sacred rocks and mountains were formed. They told these stories in song while performing the rote tasks of the day—walking down to the waterhole, or while grinding up seeds to make bread. One day, Nowitzki would also want to pass on the knowledge he had gained, whether it was about basketball or something else. He didn't want to stagnate intellectually, to just sit around and play PlayStation with the guys. When he got back to Dallas, he would take piano lessons. He would read good books, to find new ways of thinking, as Geschwinder described it.

They hiked the canyons and mountains of Central Australia, and then they flew back to Sydney, where they spent a few days washing clothes. Whenever they returned to the cities, their cell phones would be jammed with messages, some from friends who wanted to update them on how the NBA playoffs were going. But Nowitzki didn't want to know. They flew back out, to the Great Barrier Reef, and there, for three days, Nowitzki and Geschwinder went sailing, alone except for a cook and captain, taking occasional breaks to snorkel on the reef.

They flew to New Zealand and zigzagged around the country, stopping at geysers and a beach near a volcano. Then on to Tahiti, where they rented a house and did nothing but sleep, swim and doze on the beach. These were all three- to four-day loops, with Sydney as a stop-off in between. Finally, they went to Northern Australia, where they hiked near waterfalls and bathed in streams, even when signs warned them it was the wet season and crocodile danger was high. At times camping in the Outback, their campfires drew visitors. Sometimes these visitors were locals, and sometimes they were fellow tourists. Either way, they didn't recognize Nowitzki, which was just fine with him.

The key experience for Nowitzki, Geschwinder would later say, was to learn how long a day is. "When you're camping you have to get up at sunrise, you might not be totally up, but you're up," he said. "You use daylight to know when you should get up and when you should go to bed. You have to go with the flow of nature, you can't force it."

There was no direct application to basketball, because a basketball team runs a system, Geschwinder said, and "there is no flow." But in life, regardless of your profession and pursuits, you have to learn that in the end, you are not in control.

As the summer wore on, Nowitzki began to see the Golden State series more objectively. It wasn't his fault that they had lost. Simply put, they had caught a hot team. "It seemed like every game they would hit a crazy shot," he would say later. "Like Baron Davis would hit a leaner from half-court or something, bank it off the glass. They were on fire."

He couldn't change who he was as a player—it was too late for that. But he could learn to depend more on others. That summer, he called Dallas Mavericks coach Avery Johnson more than he ever had before. And when he returned to Dallas, he seemed different. He took on Johnson's challenge to become a more vocal leader and a more involved one—talking with teammates more off the court, taking them to dinner. Whether this would make him a better player and lead the Mavs to a championship, only time would tell.

It's a crisp fall morning at Irving's Hackberry Creek Country Club, a few days before the season opener against the Cleveland Cavaliers, and Dirk Nowitzki is late. Last night, the Mavs were at Six Flags with season ticket holders, and this morning players and coaches are playing 18 holes with big-money sponsors. Nowitzki is golfing with two Pizza Hut execs who are giddy they have drawn him as a playing partner. They are supposed to tee off in less than 15 minutes.

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Jesse Hyde
Contact: Jesse Hyde