One arrived from Minnesota in 1993, the other from Germany in 1999. In the spring of 2010, they both played what may have been their last games in Dallas.
In between, Mike Modano and Dirk Nowitzki not only carved national Hall of Fame legacies, they altered the way we locals view sports. Modano made hockey and the Dallas Stars cool. Nowitzki transformed the lowly Dallas Mavericks into a perennial winner.
For what feels like forever, they have been the respected faces of their franchises. Don't look now, but those familiar images may be fading.
If Modano does indeed retire from the National Hockey League and Nowitzki opts out of his contract and becomes a free agent in July, there will be two gaping and impossible-to-fill holes in our sports landscape.
Great players. Good guys. Colossal departures.
If, I said. If.
Of the two, Modano is more likely to have played American Airlines Center for the last time. When he arrived, the Stars practiced in a refurbished building down the street from the Dallas Cowboys in Valley Ranch. The only real skating rinks were in malls. The tradition of hockey rivaled only that of our knowledge of hockey—both zilch.
Good-looking with a flashy, offensive game, Modano proved the perfect salesman. Shirttail flapping in his jetstream, he attracted men to Reunion Arena. Boyish yet somehow rugged, he attracted women to the Stars Club, Primo's or, honestly, wherever he damn well pleased.
Style is one thing, but Modano also oozed substance. Given Dallas is more a winners' town than a sports town, the Stars didn't become darlings until Modano led them to the Stanley Cup in 1999. It remains the last major championship trophy won by a local team.
On April 8 at AAC, he probably played his final home game. Fittingly, Modano fought through a recorded farewell video message to fans and a stream of tears in the final five minutes to produce an assist, the game-tying goal and, in overtime, a shootout goal that helped Dallas beat the Anaheim Ducks. He'll be 40 next month. He's eyeing being an owner next season more than a player.
"It certainly felt like the end," Modano said that night, "but I might come down with Favre-itis."
Modano's franchise leads in games, goals and points are safe, as is his spot as the sport's all-time leading American-born scorer. His legacy, too, will endure. As he departs, there are now StarCenters across the metroplex, two professional minor-league teams, a high-school hockey league, 23 hockey-specific rinks and more than 8,000 youth players in our area.
"We've grown the sport for sure, to the point where it's not going away," Modano said. "I feel good. I have a sense of pride about being part of that process."
As Modano is to hockey, Nowitzki is to hoops.
When he arrived at the Mavs' Baylor-Tom Landry Center practice facility as a reluctant teenager—complete with bowl haircut and two gold hoop earrings—the Mavericks were wholly irrelevant. The star-less, direction-less regimes of coaches such as Quinn Buckner, Richie Adubato and Jim Cleamons had reduced the Mavs to an awful afterthought. Before Dirk did Dallas, the Mavericks went more than a decade without making the playoffs.
He doesn't have the championship to boast like Modano, but it's been Nowitzki and his dazzling array of offensive efficiency that have propelled the Mavericks past 50 victories and into the postseason for 10 consecutive seasons.
It would be shocking if Nowitzki left Dallas. In the final year of his contract next season, he is scheduled to make $21.5 million. But after years of individual glory ruined by playoff failure, Nowitzki– who turns 32 next month—is now singularly focused on adding a title to his Hall of Fame résumé. Nowitzki, whose final game as a Mav at the AAC might have been his 15-point, nine-rebound game in the recent Game 5 blowout victory of the San Antonio Spurs, is the franchise's all-time leading scorer and unequivocal best player.
The Mavericks can pay him more than any other team. Owner Mark Cuban and general manager Donnie Nelson promise to bring in an elite free agent to complement their franchise player. But still, truth be told, Nowitzki can declare himself a free agent able to sign with any other NBA team.
He doesn't want to go. He wants to win, and he wants to win here. The Mavericks, of course, want him to stay. Without him they immediately deteriorate into lottery losers.
"He knows our priority is to keep him and win a championship, which is his goal as well," Cuban said last week. "I'm optimistic things will work out. I don't think Dirk's going anywhere."
Whether they return or retire, Modano and Nowitzki will remain amongst the all-time great players in Dallas sports history. If we erected a decidedly Dallas Mount Sportsmore, they'd be on it. The real Mount Rushmore in South Dakota has only four chiseled faces in Presidents George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln. Our mythical Mount Sportsmore needs more room, for the 10 most influential players in metroplex history. Not the best players, mind you. And no coaches, owners or management.
These are the men who played the games, prompting generations of fans to emulate, to spectate, to live and to die. This is our Mount Sportsmore:
10. Tatu—While Doak Walker and Bob Lilly and Michael Johnson and Carly Patterson are sterling, identifiable stars, remember this: The reason Dallas is one of the world's biggest hubs of youth soccer—Dallas Cup, anyone?— is because of the feisty little Brazilian with a penchant for taking off his shirt. As the leader of the Dallas Sidekicks in the 1980s and '90s, No. 9 encouraged generations of children to take up soccer. Look at it this way: Dallas would still have the Cowboys without Lilly, but there wouldn't be a Dallas Cup without Tatu.
9. Lance Armstrong—Before he was winning seven Tours de France and kicking cancer's ass, the Plano East High School prodigy was winning tiny triathlons at Lake Lavon.
8. Dirk Nowitzki—Before he arrived, they were the laughable losers known as the Dallas Mavwrecks. All that's missing from his résumé is—gulp—a championship.
7. Pudge Rodriguez—He is the best player and one of the most popular people in Texas Rangers' history.
6. Mike Modano—For 17 years he made the boys cheer and the girls swoon. Even better, he introduced us all to hockey.
5. Byron Nelson—Fort Worth's Ben Hogan may have been his equal inside the ropes, but no one promoted and cherished golf in this community like Lord Byron.
4. Emmitt Smith—He may not be the NFL's all-time best running back, but he is the most productive.
3. Troy Aikman—It wasn't just that he led the Cowboys to three Super Bowls, it's that he did it with unprecedented accuracy as a quarterback and impeccable accountability as a leader.
2. Nolan Ryan—As a player he gave the Rangers history; as a president he restored their credibility.
1. Roger Staubach—One thing we can all agree on, Captain America knows no peer.