The enshrinement ceremony for the Naismith Hall of Fame Class of 2023 was mere minutes away, and I was weaving my way through the throngs that had gathered in the Symphony Center in Springfield, Massachusetts. I was giddy with excitement. A who’s who of basketball greats streamed in alongside me. Chris Paul. Allen Iverson. Pat Riley.
As I darted to the left and down the aisle at the far end of the theater, I bumped into my friend Dirk Nowitzki as he was heading to his seat in the front row. For weeks, he had battled nerves as he wrote, fine-tuned, and rehearsed his speech. I gave him some last-minute words of encouragement, telling him he was going to “kill it.” He gave me a firm look in return. “I’ll get it done,” he said.
I knew he would. He always has.
Dirk’s selection as a first-ballot Hall of Famer was a forgone conclusion. This night had been years in the making. Still, I wasn’t sure what emotions and memories would spring up in me when it finally came. This was the crowning celebration for the athlete and man I have known and loved for 21 years. After the retirement announcement, street naming, jersey retirement, German jersey retirement, and statue unveiling, even Dirk joked this week that he was getting tired of everybody celebrating him. But we aren’t. And this weekend was the culmination of it all. He has been iconic and immortalized. Now he is enshrined.
My eyes first welled up on Friday night, when Dirk donned his orange Hall of Fame jacket for the first time. He selected his mentor, Holger Geschwindner, and his father, Jorg, to help him put it on. The long embrace that ensued between father and son spoke volumes about what this moment meant to them. The Nowitzki name, forever a part of global basketball.
Family and friends traveled from all over the world to share in this special weekend, and Dirk hosted them Friday night at a welcoming party at Tao in the Mohegan Sun casino about an hour away. He made time, in his orange jacket, to connect with everyone individually, but I could tell he was tense about the weight of the occasion. Meanwhile, I was processing my own emotions, often reflecting on what made him a great player, a great friend, and a great man.
I remembered the frustration in 2006, when I looked over at him late one night across his backyard, days after the NBA Finals had ended. He was shaving his head, a cleansing ritual. I soon followed suit.
I thought back to the lamentations on my couch after an unfilled season, the drive to work out in a gym an hour outside of Wurzburg on a hot August day, the bittersweet celebrations of a league MVP, the delirium of 2011, the tears when he scored the 30,000th point, and his thoughtful, heartfelt messages when my mother was dying.
Everyone in Dirk’s orbit has their own cherished memories from the impact he has made on their lives. In the basketball sense, that was former Mavs coach Rick Carlisle agreeing with my theory that he amplified the best versions of Dirk under Don Nelson (the sweet-shooting face-up perimeter player) and Avery Johnson (who, as Dirk noted in his speech, encouraged him to play closer to the basket). But, Carlisle was quick to note, it also worked because Dirk was “the most coachable star” he ever had.
Mark Cuban told me the early years were crucial in making Dirk who he was — years when Cuban himself was finding his voice as a new owner. “He learned what it meant to be a pro,” Cuban told me. “The work ethic. And he was smart to take advantage of the support systems of Michael Finley and Steve Nash.”
Those teammates became lifelong friends. And this weekend showed me that as important as play on the court is, it’s also about the relationships built during the journey. The outpouring of love for Dirk this weekend came from the impact he made on each person through his play and his humanity. Former Mavs assistant Jamahl Mosley, now the coach of the Orlando Magic, told me he has “never, ever met someone so real,” from the time he was first introduced to Dirk at the 2010 All-Star Game until now. I doubt he’s the only one who feels that way.
All of us recognized the man we know once Dirk took the microphone. His speech was quintessential Nowitzki. Funny, honest, transparent, poignant. Seeing the young man whom I met in 2002, struggling to find his way, now addressing his three children as a proud father who fought the good fight the right way was too much for me to handle. I once again was driven to tears — unashamed by a single one.
Sixteen minutes after he started speaking, Dirk wrapped up his speech by imploring those children to never stop learning. After a pair of hugs to his presenters—Nash and Jason Kidd, the best point guards he ever played with—he returned to his seat. Finally, he could exhale. He had gotten it done. When the ceremony concluded, he joined family and friends at a restaurant attached to the Naismith Hall of Fame building called The Place 2 Be, where he celebrated and reminisced well into the evening. And as night turned to morning, when the last of the revelers were leaving the party, I found myself walking alongside Dirk. His tie was loose. His face was creased with a smile. He was happy, fulfilled. I noticed he was limping after so many hours on his feet, a byproduct of the ankle that gave him so many fits in the latter years of his career. Even in celebration, Dirk knew no other way than to give his all.
It made me remember that while he is legendary, he is also human like the rest of us. A man who at 45 has a full life ahead of him. One filled with hopes, dreams, questions, and fears for himself and his family. I often forget what it is like for Dirk, the human, to live his life every day. Raising kids and finding purpose in a new chapter. Doing the little things we all take for granted.
Sometimes, he can’t, of course. Last September, I accompanied him on a trip to Milan for EuroBasket, which he attended as a FIBA representative. Our hotel was by the Duomo, a popular tourist attraction. We went to a late dinner, driving a back way in to avoid the crowds. The meal stretched well past midnight, and because the crowds had emptied from the plaza in front of the Duomo, we decided to walk back to the hotel. Dirk walked unbothered, gazing up at the cathedral above. Then it struck me. He can’t just be a tourist and do what we do. He is human like the rest of us, yet there are so many things he cannot do due to his fame. But on this night, he could, and I marveled at watching him take pleasure at the simple act of being a tourist. He stopped, turned, and motioned a colleague over to take a picture of the two of us in front of the Duomo. It was a simple gesture, but it meant so much to me. I cherish that photo, one I will never post or show. It’s for me. A reminder of Dirk, the human, not Dirk, the NBA legend.
That was who I was walking with on Saturday night, even though we were celebrating the highest honor every NBA player hopes to achieve. As he limped into the rainy night, I wondered what the future holds for him. Nash told me Dirk is smart for taking his time and exploring his interests. Right now, he’s learning the business world, all while making an impact globally with his foundation and traveling with his family. After that? Who knows? He has earned the right to find it at his pace. Dirk has blessed us with his play, his passion, and his perspective.
One thing I do know? Whatever does come next, he’ll get it done.
Just like he always has.