Dirk_5 photography courtesy of Getty

THE CLASS CLOWN

Most players in the league see Nowitzki the way fans see him: quiet, focused on his game. They haven’t gotten to know “the real Dirk.”

CASEY SMITH, Mavericks head athletic trainer, 2004-present: There is some amount of transition every year with new players and new coaches and things like that, and everyone always seems to have this preconceived notion of him as this kind of stoic, competitive, almost like your typical German. And then, when people meet him, they realize he’s the one that makes the most fun of everybody, the loudest on the bus a lot of the time.

NOWITZKI: It took my teammates awhile to really get to see the real Dirk. At the beginning I was shy—and I still am that way. If I’m not comfortable in my surroundings, I’ll get shy. But once I’m comfortable, I clown 24/7. I love to have fun.

KIDD: He’s funny. He’s got a good sense of humor. He will show his vocal cords in trying to—well, I don’t want to say sing or rap.

NELSON: I think you’ve got to start with his heart, and then after that, he’s extremely intelligent. Funny, funny sense of humor. Engaging. There’s no façade or anything like that; he’s honest and candid, but also smart enough to know that he’s gotta be professional, too.

TYNER: One thing about him that is so different from so many athletes that you meet—and I’ve worked here a long time; I’ve worked here 27 years—is that he doesn’t look at things through that jaded lens cover. Everything to him is face value. Until you prove to him different, that’s the way he’s going to take it. He doesn’t come from that perspective, which is very refreshing. 

CUBAN: Dirk is just a good-hearted guy. He is fun to be around. He is a normal guy who happens to be an amazing basketball player.

A NEW LEVEL/A NEW LOW

With Nash gone and new coach Avery Johnson at the helm, Nowitzki was pushed into a role to which he was unaccustomed: team leader. Not one prone to speeches, Nowitzki could lead only by example. That led to his most iconic moment—it’s Cuban’s biggest memory, for one—in a Mavericks uniform: the three-point play that sent Game 7 of the San Antonio Spurs series to overtime, when the Mavs won, advancing them to the Western Conference Finals again and, later, the franchise’s first NBA Finals appearance.

TERRY: If you go back to previous playoffs series, everybody was questioning his toughness. Can he get it done? Does he want the ball in the clutch? This was a situation where, we’re in the huddle, and Coach says, “We’re coming to you, big fella.” You could see it in his eyes: just a determined look that guys hadn’t seen before.

NOWITZKI: Avery was like, “If you ever get in this position, there is so much time. Drive it to the basket. Anything is possible.” So coming out of that timeout, I knew that there was still a lot of time left. I wasn’t going to just force a bad shot. I was going to drive in there, get a quick two, maybe kick it out if Jet or somebody is open, get a good look at a three. I was actually trying to dunk it. I was going to go in there and dunk it, and then quick foul, probably. And I saw Manu all of a sudden in the lane. I thought he was going to let me go and dunk it, maybe. But he jumped up with me. I tried to go as hard as I could. Kind of laid it up. Lucky bounce.

DARRELL ARMSTRONG, Mavericks guard, 2004-06; assistant coach, 2008-present: We already knew he was going to make the free throw. It was just that quick. We lost the game in two to three seconds. And another four or five seconds [he snaps his fingers] he got it right back. That’s the way big game players do it. He wants the ball in this situation, you know—I love that.

NOWITZKI: That was definitely one of the greatest plays that I’ve made for this franchise.

Despite Nowitzki’s heroics against San Antonio and his 50-point game against Phoenix in the Western Conference Finals, ultimately the Mavs fell in the Finals to the Miami Heat. It was a gutting loss, since the team was up two games in the series and was well on its way to a third when the bottom fell out. It was Nowitzki’s lowest moment: “Nothing else is even close,” Cuban says. “We had it, and it was taken from us.”

That disappointment, though, pushed Nowitzki to new heights of personal achievement, directly leading to his league Most Valuable Player award after the 2006-07 season.

SMITH: From an overall standpoint of how he approaches things, how he takes care of his body, his nutrition—the guy that most closely resembles him that I’ve ever worked with is Kobe Bryant. There is a lot of respect around the league from a player’s standpoint for Dirk. It’s funny to listen to the media. The media will be like, he’s this, he’s that, he’s not this, but players around the league realize the amount of work that he’s put in, and they know how tough it is to stop him. There is definitely a healthy respect there.

TERRY: Coming off a Finals loss, all of us were pretty much locked in, but he took his game to another level. It wasn’t that he averaged more points. It was his all-around game: more rebounds, more assists. That’s what took his game to another level.

SMITH: He’s a guy that when we lose, whether it’s a game or a series, he figures there is something he could do better. It’s never just, Oh, well, it didn’t happen. So he was trying to rehone his nutrition, trying to evaluate his workouts, trying to evaluate his daily things. “What could I do better, what could I do different to get us those two more wins? All we needed was two more wins.” He definitely had a feeling of something uncompleted.

STEIN: I did not really expect the MVP season, and not as a slight to him. I think the thinking was that the whole team was just not going to be able to recover from that Finals loss.

They didn’t; it just took awhile to figure that out. Though the team blazed through the regular season, it only set them up for a bigger fall. The No. 8-seeded Golden State Warriors, coached by Don Nelson, knocked off the Mavericks in an unprecedented six-game series. Suddenly, Nowitzki was left with an MVP trophy that didn’t feel very valuable.

STEIN: They were so dominant that next season, it just made the Golden State thing 10 times worse.

NOWITZKI: I wanted to leave. I wanted to get out. But the league wouldn’t say anything. I only found out maybe three days before the press conference. They wouldn’t tell me earlier. Everything was so fresh. I felt embarrassed, I think, more than anything. We won [almost] 70 games, and all of a sudden, we’re a first-round exit.

SMITH: At that point, it’s such a hollow award for him. If you can imagine someone that competitive having to go do media and press conferences and stuff about that award when professionally and team wise we just had the biggest disappointment and letdown. That’s such a backward way to have to do things. But you really have to be kind of the most professional you can imagine to go forward and do the media and put on the team face and bear the brunt of all those team’s failures by yourself, because you’re the only one still in the media.

NOWITZKI: Looking back at it now, it was obviously a great, great honor. I can always say I was the MVP of the greatest league in the world.