Rick Carlisle said he had been waiting for the right day to wear his old suit. It had been hanging in his closet for the better part of a decade, still “champagne-soaked, Miller Lite-soaked, Mountain Dew-soaked,” still with the heads-up penny that he’d found on Biscayne Boulevard in the pocket. Maybe if he’d known Dirk Nowitzki was definitely going to retire at his last home game back in April, the coach would have worn it then. Maybe he’ll wear it again at the next day like this, when a statue is unveiled, when No. 41 is raised to the rafters of the American Airlines Center.
But those tributes will be more about what Dirk meant on a basketball court. This day—when a stretch of Olive Street outside American Airlines was officially renamed Nowitzki Way—was more about what he meant to the city that took him in more than two decades ago, the community that supported him all these years, the place he continues to call home. And so it was a good time for Carlisle to put on the suit he wore the night of June 12, 2011—the tie, too, still with the same knot in it—the night the Mavs won the NBA championship in Miami. Because, as Dirk said, when he got up to speak to a smallish crowd full of family and friends and former teammates, that title was more for the city than it was for him.
There is probably no stronger bond between an athlete and a city than the one that exists between Dirk and Dallas, and it’s not just because he spent more seasons (21) with the same team than any player in NBA history. It’s because, almost from the very beginning, Dirk has been involved, setting up his charitable foundation in 2001. Having a street named after him is the natural endpoint of that involvement. “This is a bit bigger than basketball,” he said, before having to take a moment to compose himself, grabbing a water bottle as sort of a distraction. “This is about my relationship with the city.”
Dirk said he learned from Steve Nash and Michael Finley (the latter of whom was in attendance) what it was like to be a professional off the court, and part of that was being “a pillar of the community.” That’s what he has done, largely in secret, for two decades—regularly visiting sick kids at hospitals, for example, and always doing it privately, no cameras. Just last week, he bought tornado relief workers dinner and dropped by to say hi and lift their spirits. (Mayor Eric Johnson said that Dirk called him personally to find out what he could do.)
And that is what he will continue to do. “We’ll always, of course, stay here,” he said, before going outside to climb on a cherry-picker and unveil Nowitzki Way. But he’s been showing us the Nowitzki way for a long time.