Dirk Nowitzki Is Saving Dallas Basketball One Shot at a Time
An oral history of the big German who rescued professional basketball in Dallas.
STYLE POINTS: Through the Mavericks made the Finals in 2006, Nowitzki always thought he’d get there with Steve Nash, who was acquired on the same day (right).photography courtesy of Getty
THE BIG THREE
It would never be so bad again for Nowitzki. The next season, he started to become the player the Mavericks thought they had drafted, whose unique skill set made him a match-up nightmare. He averaged more than 17 points and six rebounds and finished second in the voting for the NBA’s Most Improved Player award.
It got better. Toward the end of the 1999-2000 season, billionaire (and Mavs season-ticket holder) Mark Cuban bought the team from Ross Perot Jr. Combined with Cuban’s financial support and the strides made by Nowitzki, Nash, and shooting guard Michael Finley (a trio that came to be known as the “Big Three”), the Mavs finished 53-29 and made the playoffs for the first time since 1990. There, the upstart squad stunned the Utah Jazz in five games, aided by Nowitzki’s 33 points in Games 3 and 4.
MARK CUBAN, Mavericks owner, 2000-present: It was amazing to come out of our hotel the day of the final game of the series and see hundreds of Mavs fans, in Utah, cheering our team on. Then, after we won, to have those fans storm the court—plus, the stories of people jumping up and down and driving through the streets honking their horns or running up and down the halls of their apartments shouting.
STEIN: Even though Utah was clearly on the downside, winning a road game, a Game 5 road game, at Utah, was still inconceivable. Down 17 in the fourth quarter—I mean, that was still unfathomable that they could come back and win that game.
The Mavericks, led by the Big Three, was an entertaining team that had a reputation, thanks to its over-reliance on offensive firepower, for faltering in the playoffs. It changed at least part of that reputation (while reinforcing the other part) in the 2003 playoffs, a dramatic run that ended when Nowitzki injured his knee in the third game of the Western Conference Finals against the San Antonio Spurs. Prior to that, however, the team played what is, perhaps, the signature game of the Nowitzki-Nash-Finley era: Game 2 of its semifinals series against the Sacramento Kings, a lights-out shooting display that saw the team score 83 points—in the first half.
NOWITZKI: They scored, like, 60—and they were still down 20 at the half. It was amazing. It didn’t matter who really shot it; it went in. It was fun. And actually, Sacramento accused us of running up the score, which was total crap. You’re out there in the playoffs. You don’t try to run up the score; you’re trying to win. You never know what can happen in a playoff game. That was a fun series.
And even the series before, I’ll never forget: when we’re up 3-0 on Portland, and they run three straight on us, and we have to go to Game 7. You don’t really know what can happen in a Game 7. I’ll always remember that year. That playoff run was a lot of fun. But to go seven in the first round, and seven in the second round, and it should have gone seven in the third round—we were up, I forget, 16 or 17 going into the fourth quarter, and then Steve Kerr just made all of those threes. That was a fun year.
Nowitzki’s injury, a chance knee-to-knee collision with Spurs guard Manu Ginobili, began the dissolution of the marriage between Cuban and Don Nelson.
NOWITZKI: Before Game 4, I was down there working up a sweat, because Nellie wanted to see how I was moving. And I was moving pretty well. Cubes was out there, too, and Cubes wanted to let me play. He’s, like, “Let him play.” Nellie was, like, “He’s too young. I wouldn’t risk it.” I think that’s where it started, where they went separate ways. After that, years later, obviously it got very ugly. But that’s the first time where they weren’t agreeing on some stuff.
STEIN: I don’t think there’s any question that Cuban and the doctors thought he could play, and Nellie was just not going to play him no matter what. Now I’ve asked Dirk about it 15 times, and Dirk to this day, says, “I don’t think I could have played; I think it would have been a mistake.” So, he hasn’t changed his position on it.
NOWITZKI: Even just standing up during the game, I could feel that my knee wasn’t right. Now, if we had made it to the Finals, then I probably would have suited up and played, because I would have had a couple more days. We lost in Game 6, but if we won we would have had a Game 7; that would have given me probably an extra week before the Finals.
Though the team seemed on the edge of a breakthrough, a year later, that version of the Mavericks was already in the midst of being disassembled. Nash signed a free agent contract with the Phoenix Suns in 2004. Nelson resigned as coach near the end of the 2004-05 season. Finley was released (and later signed with the Spurs) in the summer of 2005. But Nash, of course, was the departure that stung Nowitzki the most.
NOWITZKI: I told Steve the day before he actually committed, I said, “Now you actually have a family to look after”—he had the two kids on the way—“if it’s that much more—if it’s just a couple million, then you could stay—but if it’s really that much more, and a year more, then you have to do it.” I think I was the first call he made after he committed, so I guess that shows how close we really were.
CUBAN: Dirk and I just had honest discussions of all the details. Dirk understood that we made a great offer, but the Suns made a better offer. That’s the way the business works.
NOWITZKI: There will be some decisions you don’t like, and there will be some decisions that you like, but you can only control yourself. That’s how I’ve looked at it the last couple years.
STEIN: The general consensus in the NBA is they got better without each other and they grew without each other. They were more assertive without each other. I don’t buy any of that.
NASH: Would we have won a championship? Of course. Why not? I mean, you never know. Keeping me in Dallas wouldn’t have really affected their salary cap situation. They still would have been able to bring in the other guys they brought in, for the most part. I think it would have been interesting. But that will all be barstool debate when we’re long done playing.
NOWITZKI: We text a lot these days. You know, he’s got a lot going on. He’s got his two kids.
NASH: My daughters call him Uncle Dirk. They know he’s an important person to me. They can pick him out on a TV screen.
For the first time since he arrived in the United States, Nowitzki was forced to find a new running buddy, on the court and off. Through a series of roster moves, the team presented him with a possible alternative: Jason Terry. Their first season together was turbulent, remembered most for an on-court argument during the deciding game of a second-round series against Nash’s Suns, after Terry allowed the former Maverick to hit a game-tying three-pointer.
JASON TERRY, Mavericks guard, 2004-present: I was coming into a new system, trying to replace a guy that was pretty much the franchise, you know, an MVP point guard in Steve Nash—and Dirk’s best friend. It put a lot of pressure on me. The things that happened with me and Dirk brought us closer together. It was a situation where we’re both competitive; we all want to win. I messed up on an assignment, and it cost us a second-round series. It was a long summer for us. But we came back that next year. We started to work out together. We’d go to dinner. That brought us closer together. We’re good friends now.
Yeah, my daughters love him, too. “Mrs. Nowitzki”—that’s what it reads on Jalayah’s door when you go to her room. She would leave him notes after games last year. She’d leave him little notes. Like, “I love you, Dirk” and “Have a good game.” Stuff like that.