Dirk Nowitzki Is Saving Dallas Basketball One Shot at a Time
An oral history of the big German who rescued professional basketball in Dallas.
At the trade deadline in 2008, the Mavericks brought in future Hall of Fame point guard (and former Maverick) Jason Kidd. It was not a panacea for the haunted team’s troubles; Avery Johnson was still fired after the season. But the trade did wonders for Nowitzki.
NOWITZKI: We lost the Finals, and then a first-round exit the following year, and then that next year we were struggling into February. I kind of felt like, I think everybody felt like, we needed a change. When Kidd came, he just made the game a lot easier. I felt great with him. I had fun again. I was running. I got open looks again. What he’s so great at, he sees stuff developing. With other point guards, you’d get the ball once you were open, and once you get it, they’d already closed out. Well, he already sees that, hey, this guy might be open, so the pass is already on the way—when you might not be open yet. But it comes to you right when you’re open, and you’re open for that split second.
KIDD: It’s easy. You’ve got a guy that wants to pass, and you’ve got a guy that wants to score; it doesn’t take long to mesh. He makes the game so easy for everybody that’s out on the court, because he draws so much attention. You’re going to get wide-open looks.
The Kidd experiment looked like it was finally paying off the next season when the Mavs, led by a rejuvenated Nowitzki, won a surprising 50 games and knocked off the archrival Spurs in the first round of the playoffs. What happened next was the strangest stretch of Nowitzki’s career, finding him in the media’s crosshairs for wildly divergent reasons.
An innocuous remark about how the Denver Nuggets were defending him with Kenyon Martin and Chris Andersen somehow turned into a made-for-TV controversy. NBA on TNT studio analysts Charles Barkley, Kenny Smith, and Chris Webber publicly and loudly questioned Nowitzki’s bona fides as a truly elite player and team leader.
That was nothing compared to what happened next: Nowitzki’s fiancée, Cristal Taylor, was arrested at his home and, from jail, claimed to be the mother of his unborn child. (She was later extradited to Missouri, where she was sentenced to five years in prison on fraud charges. And, as it turned out, she was not pregnant.)
BARKLEY: First of all, I feel like we were 100 percent right. Anybody who’s ever met a great player knows we were right. You never give credit to the defense—ever. Never heard a great player say that.
NELSON: Look, there’s lots of competitors: there’s Björn Borg, and the way that he kicked butt and was gracious and always said the right thing; and then there was John McEnroe, that smashed cups and hit tennis balls into the stands. Now, are you going to tell me that one way is right and the other way is wrong? When he states the obvious, gives the opponent what all of his coaches know—that they’re playing me like this, that, or the other, or they’re doing a nice job doing this—he’s not saying that he can’t kick your butt.
STEIN: What he played through in the Denver series is ridiculously off the charts. To have that all be played out in public, and the way he played, getting very little help, Josh Howard injured—he played as well as he’s ever played. I don’t know what more Dirk could have done. What did he do—34 points, 11 rebounds, and shot 54 percent?
NOWITZKI: Really, any time is a bad time for stuff like that. But I think it was good for me that we still were playing, and I was able to concentrate on the stuff that I love to do, which is playing basketball. In the morning for an hour in shootaround and at night for two and a half hours, I could escape a little bit, hang out with the guys in the locker room.
KIDD: I think it just showed his character, and him being a professional. That’s just the person he is. It doesn’t matter what’s going on outside those lines.
TERRY: His teammates really took that to heart. That’s why he’s the leader of this team.
NOWITZKI: You know, I still want a family. I’m still going to have a family, sooner or later. This is just going to push that back a couple of years. I still want kids. I love kids. [After I went back to Germany] I took everybody—my sister, her kids, her husband, and my parents—and we went to some island. Went to a resort. It was very quiet. Got some beach time. Talked to my family a lot, because obviously they were not here when it all went down. They had a lot of questions. We had a lot to talk about. Already after that two-and-a-half-weeks vacation, I felt a lot better.
The toughest thing then was, after the vacation, I had a press conference in Germany. Because when I was here, I always said, “Hey, I’m not going to talk about it. No comment, no comment. I’m not going to talk about it.” I knew at some point there was going to come a time when I was going to have to talk about it. Now, I’ve talked about it so much it’s actually not a big deal anymore. But that press conference in Germany, I didn’t sleep well at all the night before. I was a little nervous.
THE BIG DALLASITE
The events of the Denver series sent him running from Dallas to Germany, but through the years, Nowitzki has found it harder to leave his adopted home. In more ways than one.
TYNER: We always tease him—well, now he does live north of there [on Strait Lane]. But we always told him before that he doesn’t get south of Woodall Rodgers and he didn’t get north of Mockingbird. Even though he’s been around the world, he doesn’t get out much. He was happy over on Byron Avenue. But he was getting a lot of school kids. He lived across the street from a school. They would just come up and knock on his door all times of the day and night. Crawl across the creek. He’d catch them looking in his window when he’d wake up.
He loves the house he’s in now. He was looking at another one, and I said, “You can’t buy this house.” It was a lot bigger house and a lot more expensive. He said why, and I go, “Because I’ve just counted 63 doorways that will have to be raised. You can’t live here.” [laughs] When you’re 7 feet tall, regular people don’t think about that kind of stuff.
NOWITZKI: It progressed from year to year. After my first year, I stayed one day. I left. I had to go home. Back then I still had a German girlfriend, and my family. Year to year, it was more. It got to be a couple of days, then a week, and now, it takes three, four weeks for me to finally actually get out of here. I really love it. I’ve found great new friends over the last 11 years or whatever. I see it as kind of my home now.
TYNER: He likes Dallas. He likes the city. His parents still live in Germany. His extended family is still in Germany. His sister is still in Germany. However, it’s kind of like when you went to college. You kind of get attached to that, and you do a lot of growing in those four or five years. Even though he’s technically a German citizen, he’s really a citizen of both countries. He’s more Americanized than he is German.
STEIN: He’s definitely one of those few guys who you could see finishing his career with one team. I think he would like that. And he’s said it, and knowing the way he is, I believe it. You know, going somewhere else to win a championship as a contributor wouldn’t be the same; he wants to do it here because of the ups and downs here. I think he really wants to try to do it here.
NELSON: I think really what he’s done for the franchise is pretty well stated. He’s been the common thread here. If you look back and point to when we got here, I mean, it was what? It was a 10-year walk in the desert with no playoffs? And as soon as he kind of got through his period of time where he’s not a rookie or sophomore, and he started becoming the Dirk we know and love, you know, we’ve averaged 50 games and been to the playoffs every year, went to the Finals one year. So yeah, I think people appreciate what they have in Dirk. I can’t speak for every fan—I mean there’s no way I can do that—but I think true basketball fans have understood what he’s done for this franchise.
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A Chronological Snapshot of the Dallas Mavericks Icon
June 19, 1978: Dirk Werner Nowitzki is born in Würzburg, Germany, to Helga, a professional basketball player, and Jörg-Werner, who plays for Germany’s national handball team.
1993: While playing for DJK Würzburg, Dirk meets Holger Geschwindner, who becomes his personal coach and mentor. His tutelage includes encouraging Dirk to learn to play saxophone.
1998: Drafted ninth overall by the Milwaukee Bucks as part of a prearranged deal with the Dallas Mavericks. The Mavericks acquire point guard (and
Dirk’s future best friend) Steve Nash on the same day.
1998-99: Suffers through a strike-shortened first season, rarely living up to Coach Don Nelson’s Rookie of the Year prediction.
2000: Finishes second to Jalen Rose in the voting for the NBA’s Most Improved Player award.
2001: With Nash and Michael Finley, he helps secure the Mavericks’ first playoff berth since 1990. He also becomes the first Maverick to be voted onto the All-NBA squad, making the third team.
2002: Dirk is named to his first All-Star Game as a reserve. He has been a part of every All-Star roster since.
2004: Nash signs a free agent contract with the Phoenix Suns, officially making Dirk the face of the franchise. Finley leaves for the Spurs the following season.
2006: A crucial three-point play against the Spurs helps propel the Mavericks to their first NBA Finals appearance, against the Miami Heat. Despite being up 2-0, the Mavericks lose in six games.
2007: Leads the Mavericks to a franchise-best 67 wins and earns the league’s Most Valuable Player award. The team is stunned in the first round of the playoffs by the Golden State Warriors.
2009: A rare bit of personal turmoil: Dirk’s fiancée, Cristal Taylor, is arrested at his home and is later sentenced to five years in prison. Despite this, he averages more than 30 points against the Denver Nuggets.