DALLAS – It seems like yesterday that Dirk Nowitzki left his home town of Wurzburg, Germany, and stepped off an elevator at Dallas Fort Worth International Airport and came face-to-face with a knot of reporters and a small adoring crowd.
At the time, Nowitzki was an impressionable 19-year old man who the Dallas Mavericks had pegged as the franchise’s next up-and-coming star. Well today, 13 trips to the NBA All-Star game and one league Most Valuable Player award and numerous other accolades later, Nowitzki is now a 40-year old man.
Indeed, Dirk Werner Nowitzki will celebrate his 40th birthday on June 19. And in typical Nowitzki fashion, he downplayed the milestone Monday during an exclusive interview with Mavs.com.
“Forty is a big step, but you can mentally prepare for it,” Nowitzki said. “It’s been creeping up for a lot of years now.
“I feel good still for 40. Mentally, I’m probably 30, body-wise I’m 50, so it kind of evens out at 40.”
Listen up folks. This may be part of the very last interview by Dirk Nowitzki while he's still in his 30's. The greatest player in @dallasmavs history turns 40 tomorrow! Wow, that time flew by. @swish41 @mcuban @NBA pic.twitter.com/sGz1ovrvS5
— Dwain Price (@DwainPrice) June 18, 2018
Of course, Nowitzki’s associates, teammates and former teammates took some good-natured shots at the NBA’s No. 6 all-time leading scorer now that he’s reached the age of 40. But no one landed any heavier blows than Mike Procopio, the Mavs’ director of player development and one of Nowitzki’s best friends.
“First of all, I think for (Nowitzki’s) 40th birthday the NBA should allow us to play with a 40-second shot clock, because it takes him 22 seconds to get over the half court anyway, so I think we should at least get that,” Procopio said. “Dirk changed the game with that one-legged fade away.
“Although no one ever told you that the reason why he invented the fade away in the first place was he kept on getting his shot blocked by Bill Russell. So he had to get it over him, so he had to find a way.”
Russell, of course, is 84 years old – 44 years Nowitzki’s senior — and played in the NBA from 1956-’69, while Nowitzki’s rookie season with the Mavs was the lockout-shortened 1998-’99 season. But Procopio said why let fake news get in the way of a good story?
“Procopio is the one that roasts me probably every day,” Nowitzki said. “He always tells me that (former Boston Celtics forward John) Havlicek stole the ball from me and that I played with Bill Russell and all these things. It’s fun. That’s the cycle of life.
“When I was 20, I made fun of A.C. Green and (John) ‘Hot Rod’ Williams, who were 38, 39 at the time. You make fun and you make old man jokes, and now you’re the butt of the jokes 20 years later. That’s just how life works.”
To hear Donnie Nelson tell it, Nowitzki actually is a bit older than 40.
“Dirk came to Dallas and then there was light,” said Nelson, the Mavs’ president of basketball operations. “It’s true. He’s like 2,000 years old.”
Michael Finley, who played with Nowitzki from 1996-’05, said Nowitzki shouldn’t fret about turning 40 years old. The 45-year old Finley, who retired in 2010 at the age of 37, said he doesn’t even remember turning 40.
“He can get out of the bed,” said Finley, who is the Mavs’ assistant vice-president of basketball operations. “He should be happy he can get out the bed at 40 and still play in the NBA.”
Nowitzki, who led the Mavs to the 2011 NBA title and averages 21.2 points and 7.7 rebounds for his career, acknowledged that he’s been receiving old man jokes for the past five years. And he’s come to grips with the fact that age is only a number.
“I think I’m at peace with it now,” Nowitzki said. “Forty is a big hurdle, but I’ve slowly crept up on it for years.
“It’s bittersweet. You wish your body feels like you’re 25, but you gain so much experience over these 20 years here.”
Guard Wesley Matthews said the scope of Nowitzki’s impact on the game shouldn’t be understated. That one-legged fade away jumper Procopio referred to has now been copied by luminaries such as LeBron James and Kevin Durant and many other current NBA players, and is considered as one of the most lethal shots in NBA history.
“It’s amazing to be a part of a legacy like Dirk’s,” Matthews said. “Being there for the 30,000th point, him turning 40 and still doing it at a high level and competing and loving the sport, loving the game and giving everything he has, nothing but kudos to him.
“And hats off and nothing but respect to him.”
Nowitzki eclipsed the 30,000 career point barrier during a Mar. 7, 2017 game against the Los Angeles Lakers. He now has 31,187 points for his career and is just 233 points away from passing Wilt Chamberlain for fifth on the NBA’s all-time scoring list.
Guard Erick Strickland was Nowitzki’s teammate during his first two NBA seasons and heard all the rumblings when fans thought the Mavs made a bad move by passing up Kansas All-American Paul Pierce in the 1998 draft and subsequently making a day-draft trade with the Milwaukee Bucks to secure Nowitzki. But Strickland noted that what those fans didn’t know was Nowitzki’s outlandish workaholic attitude, his desire to become one of the all-time greats, and his penchant for leaving everything out on the court.
“I was one of those guys that I knew that once Dirk got acclimated to not only the system, but was able to get into the weight room and go get his body to catch up with his physical abilities to play the game, that he would be a force to be reckoned with,” Strickland said. “He became everything that I saw he would be once he figured it out.
“His rookie year he tried to post me up and I’d have him out by the 3-point line. And as I begin to watch him throughout the playoff losses, being ousted by Golden State, how they physically handled him, to see him take that challenge and then become dominant inside and take advantage of you inside is what’s been phenomenal to watch over the years.”
Nowitzki has carved out such an iconic niche in the D/FW area that former teammates such as Eduardo Najera, Erick Dampier and Greg Buckner speak of him in glowing terms. They know the depth of Nowitzki’s game and the many battles he had with Tim Duncan, Kevin Garnett and others will be talked about for many, many years.
“I even told him, ‘Man, you’re my hero,’ “ said Najera, a Mavs scout who played with Nowitzki from 2000-’04 and again in 2010. “To be moving out there at that age, and not only that he’s still producing.
“But it ultimately goes back to the work that he does. That’s why I said he’s my hero. He’s got so much mileage, and it’s not like he’s taken a year off here and there.”
Nowitzki has punched the time clock in the NBA for 50,573 minutes in 1,471 regular season games, and for an additional 5,895 minutes in 145 playoff games. And every minute of his illustrious 20-year career has been with the Mavs.
“He’s a helluva player,” said Dampier, a Nowitzki teammate from 2004-’10. “He’s obviously coming down to the last couple of years, and if he can extend it another year or two that will be great for him and great for the team.”
Buckner, who played with Nowitzki from 1999-’02 and again during the 2006-’07 season, turned 41 last September and said he knows what lies ahead for Nowitzki.
“He is a (basketball) freak, so we won’t have the same problems,” said Buckner, who is an assistant coach with the Memphis Grizzlies. “But the 40s gut is coming.”
Nowitzki is now married, has three young kids and is rehabbing from left ankle surgery that he underwent on Apr. 5. He plans to play next season, and said he will evaluate things after that in determining if he’ll play during the 2019-’20 campaign.
“I’ve had an amazing, amazing ride,” said Nowitzki, who is one of the NBA’s all-time prolific 3-point shooters. “I basically grew up here (in Dallas), grew into a man on and off the floor, so I can’t complain.
“I still feel halfway decent for 40. I’m obviously rehabbing after the surgery, but that’s coming along. I hope for 40 I can still play a good season next year and contribute.”
From Nowitzki’s perspective, he blinked his eyes and his career was in its 20th season, careening towards a journey that will culminate with him becoming a first-ballot Hall of Famer.
“As you know if you stay busy time flies,” Nowitzki said. “Basically my entire 20s I played every summer for Germany (on its national team) and the next thing you know the (NBA) season is already beginning in September and October and I’m trying to train.
“The first 10 years flew by and then now I have kids. My oldest is already turning five this summer. The time has been flying. It’s insane.”
Najera marvels at the way Nowitzki does one community event after another – especially those involving children at hospitals – with amazing aplomb.
“My favorite moments are when we do community work and the way (Nowitzki) welcomes everybody and empowers everybody, because he can be intimidating,” Najera said. “He’s seven feet tall and has been the face of this city and the whole Metroplex in the NBA for so long that people tend to be a little intimidating.
“I’ve been with him in hospitals and other events. . .he’s just incredible with people. He has the skills to talk to them and make them feel comfortable, and that’s my favorite part of him. That even though he has been a superstar for so many years he’s still humble enough to do that off the basketball court.”
While still rehabbing his left ankle and keeping a close eye on basketball, Nowitzki is gearing up to bring in his 40th birthday in grand style.
“I have a bunch of Germans in town staying at the house,” Nowitzki said. “They want to party (today), so it’ll be fun.
“I’m still feeling good and looking forward hopefully to having a better season as a team next year and contribute still as a player and as a teammate and enjoy myself, and hopefully have a good time.”
While that party will be going on, Procopio is still having fun at Nowitzki’s expense. But Nowitzki is used to the back-n-forth between he and Procopio, who has an idea why Nowitzki has joined Vince Carter, Manu Ginobili and Jason Terry as the NBA’s only active 40-year old players.
“The guy that should take the most credit for Dirk’s success is (Mavs head athletic trainer) Casey Smith,” Procopio said. “That guy should get a Nobel Peace Prize for keeping that guy on the court every day.
“I mean, even Dirk’s calcium deposits has got calcium deposits.”