WHO: Current Dallas Mavericks All-Star Luka Dončić and retired fourteen-time Mavs All-Star Dirk Nowitzki.
WHAT: A photo in which the torch appears to be fully and forever passed.
WHY IT’S SO GREAT: Dirk Nowitzki is the greatest Dallas Maverick of all time. Either you agree or you don’t watch basketball. It’ll take a long time for any other player to even enter the conversation for that honor—but if anyone is headed down that path, it’s Luka Dončić, the six-foot-seven Slovenian star whose 2018–2019 rookie year coincided with Nowitzki’s farewell tour after 21 NBA seasons.
Dončić added another footnote to the chapter of Mavs history he’s writing on Tuesday night, as the team took a 2–0 lead in its first-round playoff series against the Los Angeles Clippers, when he sank a wild, one-legged three-point shot with thirty seconds left in the third period. The shot was a beautiful bit of improbable improvisation, the sort of thing that Dončić, over his young career, has built his name on. And no one who saw him make the shot was more excited than Dirk.
The moment gave the Mavs a 101–92 lead, and while the video of the shot is impressive, it’s the photo taken immediately afterward—which Dončić posted on Twitter Wednesday afternoon—that hit us in our feelings. In it, Nowitzki, in focus in the center of the frame, is on his feet and pumping his fists in the air as he watches his former team from the stands. Dončić, in the foreground, is out of focus with his arms raised and his head bowed in Dirk’s direction. Who knows exactly what’s going through either of their heads in this precise moment, but part of the fun of sports is projecting our own feelings onto the athletes, and in this moment it sure looks like Dirk is celebrating the greatness of a young player who wears the same blue and white jersey he wore for two decades. And it sure looks like Dončić is paying tribute to the iconic German big man in return.
There aren’t many teams that have the sort of relationship with their best player that the Mavs have with Dirk. Bulls fans love Michael Jordan, but he finished his career a Washington Wizard; Clevelanders will forever cherish LeBron James for the championship he brought home to northeast Ohio, but his detours and diversions in Miami and Los Angeles mean that no one city can claim his greatness. The Lakers have Kobe Bryant, the Utah Jazz have John Stockton, and the Spurs—spoiled for choice—have Tim Duncan, Manu Ginóbili, and David Robinson.
But Dirk’s 21 seasons in Dallas are more than any other player has spent with one team in NBA history, and his time with the franchise included the highest of highs and the lowest of lows. Nowitzki brought the franchise a championship, and he also played on a sub-.300 team. Watching his relationship with Dončić unfold is a way for fans to honor both the team’s promising future and its Dirk-inflected past. Mavs fans haven’t had to move on from the Nowitzki era—he’s still right there, cheering for Luka with them. Instead, they’ve been able to embrace a present moment in which it’s possible to believe the heir apparent might bring Dallas two more decades of brilliance from a gawky European superstar.