You know you’re the GOAT when you give a speech at your own funeral.
On April 10, the Dallas Mavericks, at the merciful end of the worst season in franchise history, drew their second-largest crowd of the year to American Airlines Center. It certainly wasn’t there to show appreciation for a satisfying campaign or to see a wholly unforgettable starting lineup of Aaron Harrison, Kyle Collinsworth, Dorian Finney-Smith, Dwight Powell and Johnathan Motley.
No, it was all because of you, Dirk Werner Nowitzki.
The fans came to praise you and to bury you.
Surely this was it, right? The final game of your Hall of Fame career? During the season at age 39, you painfully hobbled around the court at times and missed the final week after undergoing surgery to remove bone spurs in your left ankle. Sensing the end, the fans flocked to soak in your final bow. If not one last swish, at least one more goofy smile on your way out the tunnel. “Dallas for Dirk” T-shirts draped the seats, complemented by cups commemorating your final night as a Maverick.
But just as they were prepared to pay their last respects to your 7-foot body, it instead lurched from the coffin and limped toward a podium and a microphone for a shocking announcement:
“That’s the plan, to come back next year,” you said, your foot in a protective boot, your body wearing a blue “Only in Dallas” T-shirt and your spirits as irrationally positive as ever. “That’s why I went ahead and got the surgery. To kind of get the whole rehab process started early. I’m planning on coming back.”
Just like that, the second player in NBA history to play 20 seasons with one team (joining the Los Angeles Lakers’ Kobe Bryant) became the first to stick around for 21.
That’s why you’re now firmly cemented as Dallas-Fort Worth’s sports GOAT — greatest of all time. Yes, above the iconic head coach, the Hall of Fame pitchers and catchers, the prolific American-born goal scorer, the record-holding running back, and the Super Bowl tacklers and passers. Your combination of individual accomplishment, team success, humility, flawless citizenship, dogged philanthropy, unprecedented longevity and unwavering loyalty makes you the best, most consequential figure ever in North Texas sports.
Bet you hate attention in general and this accolade in particular, validating part of the equation. Thought so. You would. All effort, no ego.
Sorry, Dork Nowitzki, the time has come to acknowledge your impressive handiwork. Our adoration starts with your resume.
In your first three decades, you’ve acquired a Most Valuable Player, a championship, an NBA Finals MVP, a 3-point shooting contest, 13 All-Star appearances, 15 playoff berths — and did we mention beating LeBron James and Dwyane Wade for the title in 2011? You’re the NBA’s all-time best white player. You’re the only player to record 31,000 points; 10,000 rebounds; 3,000 assists; 1,000 steals; 1,000 blocks and 1,000 3-pointers.
If you stay healthy next season at age 40, you have an outside chance of moving into the Top 5 on the NBA scoring list with more points than a guy named Michael Jordan.
But your immortal allure is deeper than numbers.
You are substance over style. Jump shot over mug shot. Your only off-court drama was when you were the victim, guilty merely of blind love to a devious fiancée.
Through hard work and diligent preparation, you’ve avoided major injury. You’ve deflected criticism, turning the other cheek to everyone mispronouncing your name (it’s no-WIT-ski because that’s how you pronounce it), David West’s playoff tap in 2008 and those “soft” catcalls you gloriously shredded in Miami.
While critics fixated on how you didn’t guard, you evolved offensively until you were simply unguardable. In doing so, you revolutionized the game for 7-footers and invented a new position — the “stretch four” — for a 120-year-old sport.
Despite playing with teammates who scored in the wrong basket (Samaki Walker), missed practice by oversleeping in a car that temporarily doubled as a home (Delonte West), distributed birthday party fliers immediately after a playoff loss (Josh Howard) and served as chalk-outline fodder in seemingly every NBA dunking poster (Shawn Bradley), you never complain. Never demand a trade. Never whine for more touches. Never slip off to Cabo before a playoff series. No drugs. No thugs. Your version of taunting is to hit a crucial shot and stick your tongue out at no one in particular.
You deserve this honor because you always do things the right way. Now: Pledging to come off the bench next season if that’s best for the team. Then: Consistently turning down more money in free agency to remain in Dallas.
That’s really it. Even having checked every damn box on your bucket list, you were too loyal to retire on top and too in love to quit in shame. You’re going to play until you can’t play any longer because your DNA consists of half talent, half try-hard.
You’re coming back even though you’ve scored 31,187 points and those season-finale scrub starters combined for only 2,356.
You’re coming back even though no one, especially those 20,000 wannabe pall bearers who showed up last month only to be pleasantly surprised, would blame you for walking away.
You are our Kobe, our Derek Jeter and our Eli Manning. Our superstar.
Being named GOAT will likely someday come complete with a statue, taller than the zoo’s giraffe, shinier than Deep Ellum’s Traveling Man, and more relevant than those that stand guard at local golf courses, football stadiums and baseball parks.
We know you’re going to squirm at this anointing. Thanks to you, it’s not yet a eulogy.
You know you’re the GOAT when you lift the standard without raising an eyebrow.
Not that your dribble-drive to becoming DFW’s non-American idol didn’t have its share of air balls.
The missed free throw in Game 3 of the 2006 NBA Finals that turned the series to the hated Miami Heat. The woeful 2-of-13 shooting performance in Game 6 of the shocking 2007 first-round loss to the Golden State Warriors when you were MVP and your team was the West’s No. 1 seed. Being duped by fiancée Cristal Taylor in 2008 and the subsequent alcohol-induced rebound, complete with unflattering photos circulating on the internet. The horrendous rendition of “We Are the Champions” on the balcony of the AAC in 2011.
But for a guy whose achievements will need extra Hall of Fame closet space in Springfield, Massachusetts, your transgressions would fit comfortably in a carry-on. As impressive as the minimal hiccups were your subdued, therapeutic reactions to adversity.
After the 2006 loss, you backpacked through Australia. After the upset loss to the Warriors, you showed up to accept your MVP trophy and tearfully said, “As time passes I’ll look back on this as a very special day. But right now, it sucks.” You’re so private that after Taylor was arrested at your Preston Hollow home for probation violations and identity theft, our first reaction was, “Wait, Dirk has a girlfriend?”
In 20 years, that’s the only time “Nowitzki” and “police” have been used in the same story.
“Like I always have, I want to keep my private life private,” you said at the time. “I’m not a fancy player, and I’m a shy person. I’m the one usually looking to sneak out a side door to avoid the spotlight.”
If you ever needed an emergency exit from the court, this year was it. You’ve played on bad teams, but you’ve never endured a nightmare season like 2017. Welcome to the Dallas Mav-wrecks.
Although you played in 77 games and averaged a respectable 12 points per game, the 24-58 record was the worst of your career. The Mavs finished way out of the playoffs and deep into the draft lottery.
For a guy who entrenched his team as a 50-win title contender for 11 consecutive seasons from 2001-11, it was a shock to your competitive system. And it wasn't the only one. Last season, the Mavericks lost not only 58 games, but also their founding father, Don Carter; their dignity via owner Mark Cuban being fined $500,000 for publicly admitting his team purposely lost; and a large swath of their class via a front-office sexual misconduct scandal uncovered by Sports Illustrated.
It was the most embarrassing season in franchise history.
Among the allegations were employees openly watching porn at their desks, unwanted sexual overtures by management toward female employees and the cover-up of repeated domestic violence by a high-profile employee.
The scandal rocked the team and the NBA, leading to investigations (still ongoing) and an overhaul of the team’s front-office flow chart. This included the hiring of a female CEO, Cynthia Marshall.
“It’s very disappointing,” you said of the scandal. “It’s heartbreaking. I’m glad it’s all coming out, but I was disgusted when I read all that went on. I was shocked that in my franchise, stuff like that was going on.”
You’d think a losing record and front-office in turmoil would usher you out the door. That’s why you’re worthy of sainthood. The negativity didn’t make you wave a white flag; it prompted you to try even harder to raise another championship banner.
You know you’re the GOAT when you keep preparing despite knowing the next time your team is good, you’ll (probably) be gone.
To keep it from getting worse before it gets better, the Mavs need you to be healthy. That and some good, old-fashioned luck. Since hoisting the trophy seven years ago, your team hasn’t won a single playoff series and has seen its win total plunge from 50 to 33 to 24 the last three seasons.
Help — a “reward” for such pratfalls — could be on the way in the draft lottery May 15 and the ensuing NBA draft June 21.
Because of their third-worst record, the Mavs have a chance for their first Top 5 pick since taking Jason Kidd No. 2 overall in 1994. Depending on the finicky whims of pingpong balls, they have a 13.8-percent chance of landing the No. 1 pick and a 66.3-percent chance of being in the Top 4.
In the Top 4, their choices could include Arizona physical freak DeAndre Ayton, lanky Duke center Marvin Bagley, 19-year-old Slovenian shooting guard Luka Doncic or even 7-foot Texas project Mo Bamba.
At this point, the Mavs aren’t drafting for need. They’re drafting for desperation.
There are only slivers of hope. Last year’s top pick, Dennis Smith Jr., is an athletic, play-making guard and the fledgling face of the franchise. Harrison Barnes and Wesley Matthews are steady, unspectacular veterans. But even with a cupboard seemingly bare, you see your Bavarian beer stein half-full.
“I think we’re on the right path,” you said on the night of your resurrection. “We’ve just got to keep pushing, and I’m here to help push through. I’ve said it numerous times: I want to help push through the tough times.
“I came into the league here — we had some tough times, didn’t make the playoffs a few years. Then we were riding the high time. We won 50 games every year. It seemed like it was easy. We took it for granted. And the last couple of years have been tough, so hopefully I can help the team push through those times. We have some interesting young pieces that can get better and hopefully be cornerstones of this franchise one day.”
You’ve dragged this team to the top of the mountain. Now, sitting at the bottom, you’re willing, even eager to help push it toward the peak again, knowing full well you likely won’t make it halfway.
It might be sad if you weren’t still so effective — 77 games are the most ever played by a player in his 20th season — and so close to further rewriting history.
When we watched you step off the plane from Germany and show off your skills at the Baylor-Tom Landry center after being drafted in June 1998, we weren’t sure you would score 32 points in the NBA, much less 32,000. Neither were you.
In Germany, your first love was tennis, followed by handball. But it was former German Olympian Holger Geschwindner who noticed your rare combination of size and athleticism and took you under his quirky basketball wing. At his gym he affectionately calls the “Institute of Applied Nonsense,” Geschwindner taught you hoops and health through nontraditional activities such as rowing, yoga and freelance dribbling to the sound of saxophone-infused jazz.
Only experience, however, could teach you confidence.
As a teenager, you always believed you were more Robin than Batman, hence the poster of Chicago Bulls sidekick Scottie Pippen — not superstar Jordan — on your bedroom wall.
Your first afternoon in Dallas, you carried your own luggage and minimal self-assurance.
“I’m not sure if I belong here,” you said that day. “I hope I do someday. I guess we’ll see.”
With the help of Mavs coach Don Nelson and Geschwindner, you evolved, matured and grew up before our eyes. At first, you complained about being homesick and fretted over not knowing how to use a microwave or ATM. You survived all sorts of questionable fashion phases: the gold hoop earring, feathered bangs, shaved head, scraggly beard, mullet complete with headband, the works. You ignored critics who said you were too soft to win and proved them wrong by constantly adapting.
With no vertical jump, you compensated by adding the slap-down strip-and-steal as a defensive go-to. Offensively, you tweaked your left hand into a reliable finish, perfected the escape dribble and maintained uncanny shooting accuracy.
You improved after your friend, future two-time MVP Steve Nash, left Dallas. You thrived under the diverse coaching styles of Nelson and Rick Carlisle, perfecting both the pick-and-roll in half-court sets and the transition 3-pointer in more up-tempo flows.
Within 10 years, you were a perennial All-Star and one of the game’s most high-productivity, low-maintenance players. You dropped 50 on the Phoenix Suns in a playoff game, made all 24 free throws in a playoff win over the Oklahoma City Thunder and thoroughly outplayed James in the 2011 finals, averaging 26 points and 10 rebounds to his 17 and eight.
After your lefty layup sealed the Game 6 win over the Heat, you could have retired as a legend on the spot. But just a couple of months after your private locker-room celebration in the closing seconds, you were back to work with Geschwindner adding to your tool box.
“Talent is only 20 percent of this,” you said. “Willpower is 80 percent. When I stop wanting to improve, I’ll hang ’em up.”
Not that you were ever outwardly fiery, but these days, you are much more the genteel German.
You’ve aged from beer to red wine, and now you’re a family man, married to your Kenyan-Swedish wife, Jessica, and raising three children, Malaika, Max and Morris. While the NBA still venerates those with games above the rim and egos off the charts, your feet remain planted on the ground.
“He’s the same Dirk I’ve always known,” Geschwindner said last season. “Much richer, but still the same Dirk.”
You’re modest about that, too.
“Thankfully, I was raised the right way,” you like to say.
With nothing left to achieve, what’s next to achieve?
You scored 927 points this season. With 233 next year, you will pass Wilt Chamberlain and become No. 5 on the all-time scoring list. Enjoy it while you can because around the same time — if not sooner — LeBron will vault past you as well. The unfathomable reality is that with 1,106 points, a total you topped in a season as recently as 2016, you will pass Jordan.
“I don’t want to come back another year just to move up the scoring ladder,” you reasoned. “I play the game for fun. I play to compete. If things happen along the way, that’s great.”
Further proof that you see life and sports and everything through a different prism than us humans, you’re not afraid to talk about playing a possible 22nd season in 2020.
“I’m hoping the ankle will be tons better than this year and I can play some decent basketball next year, and we’ll kind of go from there,” you said. “I always kind of leave the end open.”
You know you’re the GOAT when your first name is one of the most revered brands in DFW sports history.
In music, there is Willie. In cycling, there is — or was — Lance. In appetizers, there is queso.
In DFW sports, there is you.
Dirk. Just Dirk.
With an unprecedented combination of successful performance and staying power, you’ve risen above your local one-name peers. Your humility will prompt you to sheepishly shrug this off, but you’re better than, well, everyone. Better than Pudge. Better than Nolan and Young. Better than Byron and Hogan. Better than Doak. Better than Modano. Better than Landry and Lilly and Roger and Jerry and Troy and Emmitt.
You won more than Pudge; had far less help than Modano; recorded more playoff victories than Landry, Roger, Jerry, Troy and Emmitt combined; and boast more longevity and loyalty than any other DFW player.
The only real debate? Which DFW icons will serve as your wingmen on our Mount Sportsmore.
Better than Pudge Rodriguez: Like you, the Texas Rangers catcher won an MVP and made the Hall of Fame. But during 13 seasons in Arlington, Pudge caught only one playoff win before journeying to five other teams and winning his only championship in Miami. He doesn’t have your trophies or your tenure.
Better than Nolan Ryan: Despite the fact the Rangers pitcher was knighted for a bloody bulldog headlock on Robin Ventura while you merely returned to a playoff game after Terry Porter knocked your tooth out in 2001 against the San Antonio Spurs, this isn’t even close. Nolan played for three other teams and went only 51-39 in five seasons in Arlington. His two no-hitters can’t touch your sustained success.
Better than Michael Young: He was the face of the Rangers for 13 seasons, and for most of his career, he was a great player on some awful teams. Young played defense (Gold Glove) and offense (American League batting champ), played in two World Series and won an award that always escaped you (All-Star Game MVP). But when making comparisons of the best versus the best, the margins can be thinner than Bethenny Frankel. You’re better than Young because he left Texas at the end of his career to play for the Philadelphia Phillies and Los Angeles Dodgers, slightly tarnishing his otherwise pristine legacy.
Better than Mike Modano: The Dallas Stars scoring machine won more playoff games (74) than you (70), led his team to its only championship and landed in the Hall of Fame. But Modano never sniffed an MVP, was assisted in 1999 by three other Hall of Famers — Brett Hull, Ed Belfour and Joe Nieuwendyk — and finished his career playing a season for the rival Detroit Red Wings. The only Hall of Fame help on your title team came from 37-year-old shadow-of-himself Jason Kidd, and you’d never even consider playing for a fierce foe such as the Spurs or Heat. In fact, in signing five contract extensions, you’ve never as much as taken a free-agent trip.
Better than Byron Nelson: The legendary golfer won an unfathomable 11 consecutive tournaments in 1945 and has a tournament and even a local high school named after him. While Byron’s humanitarian legacy is incomparable, he never won The British Open to complete his Grand Slam and retired at 34 after only 15 years on the tour. Your resume has no blanks, you played longer, and your philanthropic works include the Heroes Foundation and your annual off-the-grid visits to Children’s Medical Center as Dallas’ tallest Santa.
Better than Ben Hogan: DFW’s most accomplished individual athlete, Fort Worth-bred Hogan won 64 golf tournaments over 41 years, including nine majors. Despite a near-fatal car accident, he was golf’s player of the year four times. You both are credited with near-perfect strokes — your shooting and his swinging. But you’re better than Hogan because, well, you’re a better person. While you have always been approachable and affable, Hogan was a surly, harsh introvert who refused to give co-Hall of Famer Gary Player swing advice because he didn’t play Hogan’s brand of clubs.
Better than Doak Walker: The iconic running back starred at Highland Park High School and Southern Methodist University and is the namesake of one of college football’s most prestigious awards. Good as he was, Doak won his two NFL championships in Detroit with the Lions. Your fairy tale could be edited so that you were born in Waxahachie instead of Wurzburg, but that’s just being nit-picky.
Better than Tom Landry: Given his record 29 years, 20 consecutive winning seasons, five Super Bowl appearances and impeccable morality, ranking the former Dallas Cowboys coach behind anyone feels blasphemous. But, then again, he did wear a hat, not a helmet. You are more directly responsible for the Mavs’ success than Landry was for the Cowboys’.
Better than Bob Lilly: “Mr. Cowboy” was the first draft pick in franchise history. A menacing tackle who anchored the famed “Doomsday Defense” for 14 seasons, he won a Super Bowl, made 11 Pro Bowls, and now lives in both the Ring of Honor and Hall of Fame. Your advantage over Lilly is that he rarely (aside from one career interception, 18 fumble recoveries and three touchdowns) touched the ball. You played longer and at such an elite level that, at times, you were the best player in the world.
Better than Roger Staubach: America’s quarterback won a Heisman, served in the Navy, won an MVP, won two Super Bowls and wound up in the Hall of Fame. Your advantages: Roger played with six Hall of Famers compared with your two (Kidd and Nash), lasted only 11 seasons and no longer leads his franchise in any major passing category. Roger threw passes to Bob Hayes and Drew Pearson. You caught passes from J.J. Barea and Jason Terry.
Better than Jerry Jones: The Hall-of-Fame owner won three Super Bowls and built one of America’s premier sports venues in AT&T Stadium. In almost 30 years, however, Jerry has witnessed only 14 playoff wins, and he’ll never redact his firing of Landry or parting with Jimmy Johnson. Your loyalty to Geschwindner never wavered, even when you had to bail him out of jail when he was accused of tax evasion in Germany.
Better than Troy Aikman: The Cowboys quarterback began his Hall of Fame career 11-1 in the playoffs and won three Super Bowls and a Super Bowl MVP. But you can argue that Troy was never even the best player on his team, something you’ve been for most of 20 years. While Troy doesn’t crack the Top 30 in major all-time NFL passing statistics, you will finish in the Top 5 in most NBA shooting categories.
Better than Emmitt Smith: Tough to shove aside a guy whose Hall of Fame career includes three Super Bowls, a Super Bowl MVP, an NFL MVP, four rushing titles, and gaping leads in all-time rushing yards and touchdowns. But the image of you in an enemy uniform — like Emmitt as an Arizona Cardinal — is something that will never cheapen your legacy of loyalty. With your “hometown discounts” in contract negotiations, you’ve sacrificed almost $200 million to remain in Dallas and build the best team possible around you. In 2010, you left $16 million on the table. Your reasoning: “My heart’s here in Dallas. It always will be.”
End. Of. Discussion.
You know you’re the GOAT when swooning sportswriters are erecting statues while you get ready to play another season. Or two. Or …
You’re better — and you’ve achieved your singular fame — by being more blah than bling. You’re the idol bound to idiosyncrasies, like storing your mouthpiece inside your sock and incessantly tugging at the NBA logo on the upper left of your uniform. You’re the selfless superstar who never needed multiple tattoos or phat nicknames or an entourage or signature shoes or anything other than life as a gym rat. Heavy on private workouts, light on public self-promotion.
That explains how you’ll retire — someday — as a Top 10 player with Top 50 popularity.
But we won’t let you fade into obscurity. You have been too good and too loyal for too long, and besides, since you won your championship seven years ago, it’s been really sports sad around here.
Before the season finale, Carlisle said, “I couldn’t imagine being here, and Dirk not being here.”
So, let’s keep you around. Like, forever.
Because you refreshingly never got the big head, we’re going to immortalize yours in cast iron. Maybe marble. We’re thinking of you falling back, launching your one-legged, signature shot, The Flamingo Fadeaway.
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Unblockable. Unstoppable. Soon unforgettable.
Like Byron in Las Colinas, Hogan at the Colonial, Nolan in center field and Landry outside AT&T Stadium, your effigy at AAC will be perpetually poised to overlook the Mavs into a murky, uncomfortable future without you.
“Honestly, I’ve always thought it was a little bit silly,” you said during The Perfect Shot, a German-produced documentary about your life. “I’m good at throwing a ball into a basket, mostly because I’m tall. But there are so many people who are good at so many things. Me getting all this attention and praise just makes me uncomfortable. It’s actually embarrassing.”
Why are you the deserving GOAT? Because you’re living, legendary proof that nice guys don’t always finish last.