Dirk Nowitzki is a rarity. Not just because of his skill set, the shot that Jason Gay wrote “resembles a camp counselor teetering off a canoe,” the way he always seems to find the only possible window to escape from danger, no matter how small, like a teutonic, shabbily elegantÂ Steamboat Bill. Yes, that, too, but also because he is one of the few superstar athletes who has remained with the same team since introduction. As such, he has a history, on the court and off — a relationship. And even among the few others you could name — Kobe Bryant and the Lakers, Tom Brady and the Patriots, Derek Jeter and the Yankees — he probably has the closest ties to his city (and I only say “probably” because dating models and champagne toasts at the NYC club of the moment is a cornerstone of the Jeter wheelhouse; Bryant and Brady have no allegiance).
I think that is part of what drives him. I’m not saying that he screams “Let’s do this for Dallas!” before leaving the locker room or anything like that, but I do think the city that raised him is part of his motivation. I think he wants a title (obviously) for himself and for his teammates, and I think he wants to make up for 2006 and 2007 on a personal level, but I also think he wants that title to come here. Because of 2006 and 2007, because the city has been a real home to him and not just a place where he keeps his clothes during the season.
I may be delusional or romanticizing a connection that just isn’t there, but I believe this gives him an edge. All things being equal, this puts him ahead of the respective stars on the other three teams that remain. LeBron James doesn’t care about Miami, and even if you’re being generous does not have any sort of track record there to fall back on. His teammate, Dwyane Wade, does — he’s played there and, you may remember, won a title there — but the dude is Chicago all the way. I interviewed Wade in Chicago once. I guarantee you a tiny piece of him can’t kill the Bulls because he grew up there and still lives there. For the Bulls, Derrick Rose only cares about his mom and basketball, so location is irrelevant. And Kevin Durant does seem to have a real bond with OKC, but 1) he hasn’t been there that long and 2) that feels more like part of the “KD is the most humble superstar ever” meme than legit biography.
(Dirk is the most humble superstar, by the way, and I can’t imagine someone knocking him off, unless a player quits to drive a cab Dave Cowens-style. He is not terribly far away from the guy who didn’t cash his checks while living in a dinky apartment near where the West Village is.)
Do I think any of this is enough to put Nowitzki and the Mavericks ahead in the OKC series, or — knock on a forest full of wood — the Finals? Not on its own. But I think that is another thing you could point to about how 2011 is different, and it’s something that should not be completely overlooked.