Let's face it: If Dirk Nowitzki were black, we wouldn't be having this conversation.
You know the one, where each spring I throw out his accolades as the Mavericks' elite player and a first-ballot Hall of Famer, only to have some of you swat my argument into the fifth row because "Dirk is soft!" Above Nowitzki's locker at American Airlines Center sits his very own bobblehead. But there's no title at the top of his resume—and until there is, there's no way to combat critics who crow about his empty statistics and claim his will be a hollow legacy.
"I think I've pretty much done everything in this game except win a championship," Nowitzki said last week, before the start of the Mavs' first-round playoff series against the Portland Trail Blazers. "It's not so much that I want to prove something to my critics. It's just that I want to win. At this stage of my career, every time I don't win a championship it's another disappointment."
And with that, Nowitzki, at age 33, willed the Mavericks to a Game 1 victory, turning in a vintage 28-point, 10-rebound performance. Stifled for three quarters, the supposedly soft superstar bulled his way to the basket time and again in the fourth. He scored 18 points in the final 10:44, sank a momentum-seizing three-pointer from the corner with three minutes left, and made all 13 of his clutch free throws in a gritty 89-81 win. He followed it up with 33 points and seven rebounds in Sunday's Game 2 win.
"Dirk was Dirk," said Mavs point guard Jason Kidd, who hit six 3-pointers, scored a season-high 24 points and played a surprising Robin to Nowitzki's consistent Batman in Game 1. "You get kinda used to it, but what he does in games like these is amazing."
If Dirk were black, covered in tattoos or saturated in self-promotion, he'd be George Gervin or Jamaal Wilkes or Kareem Abdul-Jabbar or even Paul Pierce. Like those players, his finesse game would be appreciated, not attacked. He'd be known as the most-skilled 7-footer in the history of the NBA. He'd have a cool nickname like Gervin's "Ice Man" or Wilkes' "Silk," and his one-legged fadeaway would be alongside Jabbar's sky hook as one of basketball's all-time best unblockable shots.
But instead of a clutch player—a guy who joins Hakeem Olajuwon, Elgin Baylor and Bob Pettit as the only players in NBA history to average 25 points and 10 rebounds in the playoffs—his critics call him a choker. Instead of being known as only the fourth player (along with Jabbar, Moses Malone and Karl Malone) to amass 1,600 points and 500 rebounds in four consecutive seasons, he's written off as one-dimensional. Instead of being known as the guy who led his team to 11 consecutive playoff berths, all after 50-plus-win seasons, his critics dub him a loser.
Instead of being appreciated for what he is—the best player in franchise history—Nowitzki's haters keep coming, confirming that he's the most underrated athlete in the history of Dallas sports.
Nowitzki stiff-armed potential interest from other teams last summer and quickly re-signed with the Mavericks, explaining the decision romantically: "My heart is here." But many fans responded with a shrug, as if without him the Mavericks would have filled the giant, floppy-haired void and still fired another bullet at the NBA Finals target.
Let's be clear: Without Nowitzki, the Mavs wouldn't even be in the postseason. They proved that in January, when Nowitzki's absence prompted a 2-7 dry spell.
"Dirk does everything for us and does it at an exceptionally high level," head coach Rick Carlisle said recently. "He's a one-of-a-kind superstar. Aren't many like him."
The problem throughout the years hasn't been Dallas' best player. It's been the team's second-best player. Dirk is the Lone Ranger, but his is a sad list of Tontos when compared with the No. 2s on title-winning teams.
Russell had Cousy. West had Chamberlain. Bird, Jordan and Magic were blessed with McHale, Pippen and Worthy. Olajuwon won a title with Clyde Drexler, and David Robinson didn't win his first ring in San Antonio before the arrival of Tim Duncan. The Celtics' '08 title was fueled by three stars. After pairing with Shaq for his early titles, Kobe's newest two rings with the Lakers were made possible by the arrival of Pau Gasol.
The No. 2s on Dirk's 11 consecutive playoff teams? Michael Finley, Steve Nash, Jason Terry and Josh Howard. Other than Nash—who didn't win his two MVPs until he left for Phoenix, where he was paired with Amar'e Stoudemire, among others—that group doesn't sniff basketball immortality. And who is this year's second-best player? Is it Terry, whose outside shooting is streaky and whose temperament is sketchy, evidenced by his being benched the final week of the season for yelling at Carlisle and teammate J.J. Barea? Kidd, who's 38 and needed a week off down the stretch to prepare for the post-season? Or Tyson Chandler, a talented center for whom the Mavericks rarely, if ever, run a play?
Truth is, the Mavericks' second-best player crumbled in a heap when Caron Butler tore up his knee in January, and the Mavs' title hopes went with him. So while the Chicago Bulls have Carlos Boozer to complement Derrick Rose and the Miami Heat have LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh to choose from, the Mavs have no one to turn to when the bodies start flying at Nowitzki.
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"We don't have one guy," Carlisle says. "We have to do it by committee."
And now you know why the oddsmakers pegged the Mavericks—despite another 57-win regular season and No. 3 playoff seed—as 18-1 longshots to win this year's title, well behind the West's fourth-seeded Thunder. When Carlisle says the team has "a lot of doubters," that obviously includes Vegas.
First-round losses in three of four years will indeed bloom skeptics. So will a 2-13 road playoff record since the epic collapse against Miami in the '06 Finals, and a first-round exit as a No. 1 seed the next year.
As the playoffs started last weekend it was all too familiar: the giant, burning basketballs and The Who's "Eminence Front" during pregame intros; Mark Cuban reacting to every play as if his portfolio were in peril; and, in crunch time, Dirk saving the day. Afterward, the guy who strode to the post-game press conference alongside Nowitzki was Kidd, that night's rent-a-Robin. The Mavs will have enough spontaneous cameos like Kidd's to survive Portland, but they won't get past the second round against the Lakers. (Yes, they will play the Lakers.) And when it's all over, and another autopsy is performed on another ultimately disappointing Mavs season, Nowitzki will be written off again, because Nowitzki will still be white.