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Basketball

Dirk’s Last Big Moment in the American Airlines Center Was a Gift to All of Us

Like so much else in his career, his jersey retirement was about Dallas as much as him.
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When Dirk Nowitzki played his last home game, on April 9, 2019, I was somewhere over the Atlantic Ocean, on a plane bound for Frankfurt, Germany. I was on my way to meet my then girlfriend’s family, telling myself that I didn’t want to see the end of Dirk’s career, anyway. I convinced myself that I preferred to remember a version from a year or two or five before. I deluded myself with the idea that if I didn’t see the end, there wouldn’t be one, that Dirk would always be on the bench ready to come in for a few minutes, that there would always be one more shot. “We tell ourselves stories in order to live,” as Joan Didion put it in The White Album

I regretted it almost immediately, scrolling through highlights on my phone in a Frankfurt airport cafe, and I regret it just as much now. I should have been at the American Airlines Center that night or at the very least in front of a TV, and either way, I should have been with my son, Isaac. Since he was barely old enough to remember—a shirtless 7-year-old jumping into my arms when the Mavs won their championship in 2011—Isaac and I have been together to celebrate all the big moments of Dirk’s career. We should have been together for that one.

Last night went a long way toward making up for my mistake. When Dirk’s No. 41 was raised to the rafters in a ceremony following the team’s gutsy win over the first-place Golden State Warriors, Isaac and I were there in the upper deck, a few sections over from where his mom and I once had half-season tickets, where I took him to his first game. It was the exact right spot for us, all of us, to finally say goodbye to Dirk.

Because this is the real last moment, isn’t it? When that introductory press conference happens and the player holds up your team’s jersey against his chest, showing off his new number, you hope that one day this is where it leads, with that number finding a permanent home high above the court, hopefully next to a championship banner or two. 

Dirk brought us one, and that was enough. Some of the teammates who helped him were there last night to celebrate. Shawn Marion, Tyson Chandler, Brian Cardinal, Ian Mahinmi. Caron Butler. Peja Stojakovic looking like a Bond villain. Jason Kidd, of course. (He was the only one to speak and jokingly offered Dirk a 10-day contract.) There was a great moment when the video board showed Dirk speaking, and in the background were the members of the 2011 squad, and beyond them, sitting on the floor almost in shadow, was Luka Doncic. It’s still amazing that he played long enough to share the court with all of them. He played against Gary Payton in his first game as a pro and lasted almost long enough to play against Gary Payton II, who suited up for the Warriors last night. 

The ceremony wasn’t an end to Dirk and the Mavericks. He is working for the organization again, and there is still the unveiling of the statue of him (previewed last night) that will eventually stand in front of the AAC. And it wasn’t an end to Dirk and Dallas. He and his wife, Jessica, are raising their three kids here. His foundation is based here. This is home, basketball and otherwise. 

All of that, however, is epilogue. Even the inevitable Hall of Fame induction is part of that, because it will belong to the world. It is beyond his time with the Mavericks. Bigger but not greater.

But last night was the end of this arc, this particular hero’s journey, from his first press conference with Don Nelson and Steve Nash to standing next to his wife and kids and pushing a button to raise his number to the ceiling. Last night was for family, and so it belonged to me and Isaac, and all the other me-and-Isaacs in the arena and at home, the parents and children and brothers and sisters and best friends and drinking buddies. It belonged to us. It belonged to Dallas. And Dirk knew that as much as anyone. After thanking Mark Cuban and all of his coaches and all of his teammates over the years—more than 200, incredibly—and Holger Geschwindner and his parents and Jessica and his kids, he saved his last thank-yous for the fans, for the city, for the people who had been with him through the high highs and low lows and long seasons spent in the middle.

This was where he finally got choked up.

Me? I had already gotten teary a few times. During the various video packages showing big moments and clutch shots and milestones achieved, I was thinking about the games but also the surroundings in which I experienced them, prompted by a question from Isaac earlier in the night. He asked me what was my favorite Dirk shot, and after thinking for a moment, I decided upon the three-point play that tied Game 7 of the 2006 Western Conference Finals. Then he asked me if I remembered where I was when I saw it. (At my friend Eric’s house.) 

And so, whenever they would show something amazing that Dirk had done, I would think about where I was when I saw it and who I was with. And almost every time, the who I was with was my son. More than once, I could feel my eyes getting glassy. They’re getting glassy now.

For much of his life, we have been able to retreat into the world of basketball no matter what was happening in the world outside of it, and for most of that time, Dirk was the bedrock on which that world was built. (Half of my book I See You Big German is about this.) The world still exists for us, and it has now annexed the Land of Luka. For us, it will always exist.

Last night, though, thinking about Dirk, thinking about me and Isaac and Dirk, I realized the world is about to change. He will go to college soon. We won’t be able to share these moments in person as much, and maybe for a while not at all. 

Dirk gave us one more, coming through in the clutch again. Turns out he did have one more shot left in him.

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Zac Crain

Zac Crain

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Zac, senior editor of D Magazine, has written about the explosion in West, Texas; legendary country singer Charley Pride; Tony…

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