Fittingly, sitting courtside at American Airlines Center last night: Emmitt Smith.
What he witnessed was perhaps Dallas-Fort Worth's gutsiest individual performance since, well, his own masterpiece 17 years ago. Yep, on a night when he fought a 101-degree fever, Dirk Nowitzki willed the Mavericks to a heart-stopping, gut-wrenching victory that yanked the NBA Finals into a 180-degree turn.
Seemingly headed toward a devastating loss and an insurmountable 3-1 deficit, Nowitzki coughed, wheezed and pushed Dallas to a 86-83 victory that has the series 2-2 and his performance at least in the same breath as Smith's legendary performance back on Jan. 2, 1994.
"I've got a little infection," Nowitzki said afterward in a press conference in which he couldn't string together four words without taking a halting, struggling breath.
It wasn't Michael Jordan's 38-point performance vs. the flu and the Utah Jazz in Game 5 of the 1997 NBA Finals or Willis Reed dragging a shredded leg onto the court against Wilt Chamberlain and the Lakers in '70. It won't top Kirk Gibson's one-legged homer in the '88 World Series or Olympic gymnast Kerri Strug overcoming torn ligaments in her ankle for a vault that helped the U.S. hold off the Russians for the gold medal in '96, but what Dirk delivered in Game 4 was pretty dang special.
He woke up with a fever that reached 101. He was weak. Couldn't breathe. Felt, ya know, icky. His teammates noticed at Tuesday's shootaround when he wasn't talking. We all started realizing in the second quarter when -- during a timeout on the bench -- Dirk sat away from the huddle with a towel on his head, two warm-up jackets on his back and two water bottles in his hands, gulping liquids.
He had chills. He had that empty look in his eyes. You and I would've taken a sick day.
Not Dirk Noquitzki.
Emmitt won a Super Bowl MVP, but the signature game of his Hall of Fame career came that day in the Meadowlands against the Giants. With the NFC East title and home-field advantage throughout the playoffs on the line in the regular-season finale on the line against the Giants, Smith broke free for a 46-yard run in the second quarter but separated his right shoulder when tackled by safety Greg Jackson.
He missed only two plays, literally carrying the Cowboys to a 16-13 overtime win that paved the way to their Super Bowl XXVIII four weeks later. Smith rushed for 168 yards and on Dallas' winning drive in overtime he touched the ball on seven of eight plays to set up Eddie Murray's game-winning 41-yard field goal.
On his final carry, Smith used his injured arm to fight off the Giants' Lawrence Taylor to gain an extra, precious three yards to get Murray into a more manageable range.
Said Emmitt afterward, "You can't play the game if you can't play with pain."
Dirk wasn't injured, but his pain -- or to be fair, maybe his discomfort -- was visible.
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The Flamingo Fadeaway didn't have lift. He wasn't finishing near the rim. He missed his first free throw in 40 attempts and at one stretch he missed 10 of 11 shots. But somehow -- amazingly -- in the fourth quarter Dirk was, well, Dirk.
He scored 10 of Dallas' 21 points, including a gutsy drive and right-handed layup that provided the final margin with 14 seconds remaining.
"He was really struggling," coach Rick Carlisle said. "What he did out there tonight was pretty special."
Added Tyson Chandler, "For the average person, it would've been tough to get out of bed. Remarkable."