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How Dirk Nowitzki Stole America’s Heart And Changed The NBA


As a born-and-raised Texan and current Beltway resident, I attended the Washington Wizards’s home game against the Dallas Mavericks on Wednesday night, hoping to get my fill of Dirk Nowitzki nostalgia and to check out rising star Luka Doncic. What unfolded at Capitol One Arena would have confused any new NBA fan.

The crowd went absolutely wild for Nowitzki, a lanky, slow-moving German who put up a lackluster performance (two points and two rebounds in 12 minutes). His only bucket drew a roar from the fans. Attendees gave him the longest ovation of the game. With less than a minute left in the fourth quarter, the entire Wizards home crowd began chanting, “WE WANT DIRK. WE WANT DIRK.”

At a D.C. home game, the crowd stiffed Bradley Beal to chant the name of an opposing player who hasn’t been a serious threat in years. What gives?

For you young whippersnappers who think James Harden’s step-back traveling and Steph Curry jacking up threes are what basketball is all about, take a seat. Dirk is a legend.

Before the seven-foot German entered the league in 1998, no one had seen a big man with such a deadly jumpshot. Having put up more than 31,000 points in his career, Dirk is about 50 points shy of replacing Wilt Chamberlain as the sixth all-time scorer in the NBA.

Dirk and Wilt were revolutionaries of their day. Wilt popularized the slam dunk in an age of jump shots and layups, and Dirk took fade-away shots and three pointers in a time when big men were supposed to stay under the basket.

Now, at 40 years old in his 20th NBA season, many are expecting the legend to retire at the end of this year. In 2019, Dirk is both a basketball revolutionary and a reminder of a better time in the NBA. In the era of modern superteams, where superstars like Lebron and Durant have been accused of stacking teams to win a championship, Dirk is one of the last honest NBA champions we’ve seen in a while.

In the old days, one or maybe two great players led a good team to the finals where they faced off against another superstar for the title. But today, Klay Thompson or Curry can pick up the slack when Kevin Durant has a bad night. Of course Chris Bosh, Dwayne Wade, and Lebron James invented the superteam with the Miami Heat in 2010, and the league hasn’t been the same since. Despite this, Dirk and his Mavs were able to get a championship in 2011, a truly satisfying victory after the “big three” promised not one, not two, not three…

Contrast Durant signing with Golden State or Miami’s power play to win a championship with Dirk, who has stuck with the Mavericks through seasons good and bad since ’98.

But neither his team loyalty nor his dominance is why Dirk got chants at the Capital One Arena on Wednesday. Plenty of players put up big numbers or stick with the same team year after year. What separates Dirk most is his humility, a subtle and steady art that sometimes seems lost in modern sports. He put up huge numbers as a superstar, was a regular playoff contender, and took home an NBA championship, all without the bravado or criticism of his teammates that has become a stain on the game.

There is hope for more men like Dirk to rise up in the league. Players like him take time to get national recognition, so maybe the next Dirk is already among us. He could be quietly putting up solid numbers on a team that, like the Mavs, still has a few years before it’s a finals contender. And maybe, like Dirk, we’ll watch him for his deadly jump shot but love him for his quiet character.

Young fans watching the game today, take notice. And Dirk? Gut gemacht.