Dirk Nowitzki’s preparations for the last home game of his 21-year NBA career involved more than the sprints and scrimmages and stretches on the trainer’s table that have been necessary all season to keep his forty-year-old, seven-foot frame ready to compete. To confront what promised to be Tuesday’s greatest challenge, the Dallas Mavericks legend practiced breathing.
He hoped the right techniques might keep him from shedding tears as he said goodbye to the sold-out crowd at the American Airlines Center. Yes, the Phoenix Suns showed up for a basketball game, but the night was all about paying tribute to the Mavs’ GOAT. The four quarters of play were merely a backdrop to celebrating a man from Wurzburg, Germany, whose athletic feats have made him a Texas icon. To say that Nowitzki is beloved in Dallas because of all he’s accomplished in the game of basketball would be to undersell how much North Texas sports fans adore him. It might be more accurate to say that the game of basketball is beloved in North Texas because of all that Nowitzki has done.
By any standard, he’s an all-time NBA great—a fourteen-time All-Star, sixth all-time in career points, a former MVP, and NBA champion. But more than these achievements, what Dallas fans gathered to celebrate on Tuesday was his remarkable longevity and loyalty. No NBA player has ever spent 21 seasons with the same team. “You’re not going to see this ever again,” Mavs head coach Rick Carlisle declared.
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Ninety minutes before the game, Monica Garcia Wilkerson and Iris Ramos, a pair of 39-year-old women with faces painted and homemade signs in tow, joined hundreds of other fans in the plaza outside the AAC. They waited with the sort of nervous excitement you might expect before a Game 7 of the NBA Finals, not a meaningless match between two teams out of playoff contention. “Dirk is just a huge inspiration,” said Wilkerson, a lifelong Mavericks fan. “Not only is he fabulous on the court, but he’s amazing off the court. He does so much in the community.” Last season, she persuaded Ramos to attend a few games with her. “I knew nothing about sports, but there’s just something about his energy and the way the crowd reacted to him,” Ramos said. “You could not help but love him. You could not help it. It was amazing.”
Neither of them was able to secure tickets to the game, but they felt that they had to be near Nowitzki anyway. Fans fortunate enough to make it inside didn’t take the experience for granted. Randy Kelly, 26, brought along a large canvas board featuring hundreds of signatures. He’d carried it throughout Dallas during the preceding few weeks so that other fans could sign it. Each of their messages expressed essentially the same sentiment: Thank you, Dirk.
Twenty-one years ago, Dallas was a different city. Texas was a different state. The NBA was a different league. Each in that time has undergone the kind of gradual changes that sneak up on you until you reach some benchmark to measure against—like when someone who’s always been there goes away.
Nowitzki’s pregame introduction was met with a standing ovation that delayed tipoff. He’d aged out of being the dangerous offensive threat he once was, but the team understood what the night was about. They fed him the ball on the first eight possessions, and he scored the Mavericks’ first ten points. Each of his baskets was met with the sort of roar usually reserved for buzzer beaters. Dallas celebrities and NBA greats were peppered throughout the crowd or loitered near the tunnels leading to the court, careful not to draw attention away from the night’s main attraction. Twenty-one years’ worth of Nowitzki’s teammates were there. Dallas Cowboys players had their own suite. Texas Rangers great Michael Young was on hand to show his support. Nowitzki had arrived in Dallas before almost all of them.
Each stoppage of play was filled by some video tribute or remembrance. Whether the Suns were uninterested in or incapable of ruining the night, Dallas fans got just what they came for. Nowitzki scored thirty points, despite only having reached twenty once before all season, and the Mavericks secured a 120-109 win. When the game ended, everyone remained. Even the Suns stayed on the sideline as a forty-minute tribute began, the culmination of which was a video of Nowitzki discussing five NBA legends (Charles Barkley, Scottie Pippen, Shawn Kemp, Larry Bird, and Detlef Schrempf) who inspired him growing up. When it ended, all five of his inspirations appeared on the court. Each congratulated him and explained how he had inspired them.
Nowitzki took the microphone and thanked the fans of his adopted home state. Throughout the AAC, tears were wiped away, and cracked voices screamed Nowitzki’s name when he delivered the final blow, confirming what he had previously refused to confirm: “This is my final home game.” Then he walked off the court, and the night was concluded. It almost seemed like an injustice then that there was one more game yet for him to play, the next night against perhaps his greatest rival, the San Antonio Spurs.
Nowitzki had received an icon’s sendoff in cities throughout the country this season. There were standing ovations in New York and Boston. Los Angeles Clippers coach Doc Rivers stopped a game with seconds left in order to honor Nowitzki. Opponents literally half his age had waited sheepishly beside his locker to request signed jerseys. Yet the prospect of his final farewell coming against the Spurs felt different. Some measurable percentage of San Antonio fans’ love for their team was intertwined with their hatred of Dallas and the Mavericks’ franchise player. Nowitzki had broken their hearts multiple times, and they equally reveled in having prevented him repeatedly from winning championships.
Still, as Nowitzki was introduced at San Antonio’s AT&T Center for the final time on Wednesday night, a two-minute video tribute ran on the arena’s video screens. It didn’t just show him playing against Spurs legends like Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili, and Tony Parker; it showed him scoring on them. It showed him celebrating victories over San Antonio. It showed him winning the 2011 NBA championship. “Thank you, Dirk,” its message announced as the crowd gave him a standing ovation. The moment was perhaps too unexpected for him to recall his breathing exercises, and Nowitzki broke down crying.
He scored twenty points, though the Spurs won, 105-94. With seconds left in the fourth quarter, he checked out of an NBA game for the last time, and San Antonio fans stood for another ovation. They chanted “Dirk.” Then they chanted “MVP.”
Nowitzki has been in Texas now for more than half his life. He met his wife, Jessica, here. He had two children here. He chose again and again to stay in Dallas, with the Mavs. That means something to the people of this state—whether in Dallas or San Antonio—as the abundance of crying and heartfelt respect in the wake of Nowitzki’s departure attests.
The last thing Dirk said before he surrendered the microphone on Tuesday in Dallas, therefore, wasn’t so much sentimentality as it was purely a statement of fact. “I left Germany twenty years ago and became a Texan.”