When it comes to basketball in Dallas, Big D means Dirk.
Dirk Nowitzki has been the Dallas Mavericks’ linchpin throughout the past decade. He’s the greatest player the team has ever had, and his fortunes determine the fortune of the team. In an age where players switch teams looking for the best opportunity and big money, Nowitzki has remained with the Mavericks throughout his 12-year career. Only three NBA players have been with a single team longer. And Dallas fans have rewarded his loyalty in good times and bad, sometimes in the same season.
Between the time the Mavericks were founded in 1980 and the beginning of the Nowitzki era, the franchise experienced a single peak in the mid-1980s with the likes of Mark Aguirre, Rolando Blackman, and Brad Davis, but otherwise found themselves crippled by injuries to star players and off-court distractions. From 1990 to 1997, they were one of the worst teams in the league, never finishing higher than fourth in their division and not once reaching the playoffs. Over one two-year stretch, their record was 24 wins and 140 losses.
But in 1998, Dallas reversed their fortunes after pulling off a draft-day trade that brought them a floppy-headed German still a few months short of his 20th birthday. Gawky and painfully shy off the court, Nowitzki was a prodigy on it, drawing comparisons to Boston Celtics great Larry Bird. At seven feet tall, he was too big for shorter players to guard near the basket and his accurate long-range shooting gave taller opponents trouble. Even before joining the Mavericks, a teenage Nowitzki had been voted German Basketballer of the Year and outplayed NBA stars Charles Barkley and Rashard Lewis in international exhibition matches.
Dallas fans were understandably excited to see what their young star could do against the best players in the world, but an NBA players’ strike shortened Nowitzki’s first season to nearly half its regular length. Still, he said he felt a wave of support from his new hometown.
“Dallas has been great to me since day one,” Nowitzki said. “I will always remember my first year. I didn’t play well at all and they would still give me standing ovations when I got in the game.”
The following year, Nowitzki’s scoring average more than doubled, and the run of individual and team success was on. Billionaire Mark Cuban bought the Mavs in 2000 and soon moved the team from its original home of Reunion Arena to the more modern and spacious American Airlines Center. Dallas began to sell out its new building regularly and deliver wins consistently. Dallas has now won 50 games in a season in each of the last 10 years, a feat matched by only three other franchises in NBA history.
The highs and lows came packed tightly together in 2006 and 2007. The Mavericks reached the NBA Finals in 2006, with Nowitzki turning in career-defining performances in the playoffs during wins over San Antonio and Phoenix. His three-point play to send the game to overtime against the Spurs and stave off elimination, along with his 50-point outburst against the Suns, convinced the league that he was one of its elite offensive players. In the finals, however, Dallas won the opening two games, but then got rattled by questionable officiating and dropped four games in a row to lose to the Miami Heat.
Even though his scoring and rebounding totals fell the next season, Nowitzki still won the league’s Most Valuable Player award and was the best player on one of the league’s winningest teams. A second straight playoff collapse, though, this time to Golden State, sent Nowitzki off to Australia to get some relief from media criticism.
“The idea was to get some distance,” he hold Germany’s Der Spiegel later that year. “The media in Dallas really ripped us apart and wanted to see the team replace all its players, and they were claiming that we were all lousy. I just wanted to go someplace far away.”
Even when Nowitzki’s personal life spilled onto newspaper pages last summer, fans remained by his side. Nowitzki’s former fiancée, Cristal Taylor, was arrested at his house. She claimed to be pregnant with Nowitzki’s child, but that was later disproved. Taylor is currently serving five years in prison for violating probation in an earlier forgery and theft case.
“Dallas is very protective of Dirk,” Dallas Coach Rick Carlisle told ESPN The Magazine earlier this year. “He’s beloved here, and he’s earned every ounce of love and respect that he gets.”
After spending time with his family in Germany and keeping his mind far from basketball and the controversy, Nowitzki has returned with a season full of milestones. Within a month’s time this season he became the 34th player in NBA history to score 20,000 points, set the record for the most games played by a Maverick in franchise history, and played in his ninth All-Star game.
That final accomplishment carried particular significance. Nowitzki served as the city’s unofficial host as the All-Star Game was played at Cowboys Stadium, and reveled in the attention. A group of about 20 family and friends stayed at his house. He threw a party along with teammate Jason Terry inside an airplane hangar near Love Field. And then there was the game itself, attended by a world-record 108,000 people.
“All-Star weekend was a blast. I was so busy, but it was worth it,” Nowitzki said. “I always thought my first All-Star would be the most memorable, but this one ranks up there. Everything is bigger in Texas and we proved it that weekend.”
But now party time is over and the real work begins. The NBA playoffs begin Sunday for the second-seeded Mavericks as they take on the San Antonio Spurs. Nowitzki showed he’s ready with back-to-back games of 40 and 39 points in the final weekend of the regular season. Along the way, he has made 74 free throws in a row, breaking his own team record.