Dirk Nowitzki is the Mavericks.

To anyone born after the late-’80s, that statement is more than merely symbolic praise for one of the greatest players in the history of basketball. It’s a truth: There are plenty of people in this city and who root for this organization who have no memory of basketball before Dirk.

I’m 25 years old, so I was seven when the Mavericks traded for a gangly German teenager on draft night in 1998. My most vivid pre-Nowitzki Mavs memory is from a few months before that night, when the Mavericks upset the Chicago Bulls in overtime in what was thought to be Michael Jordan’s final game in Dallas. That was an interesting moment in my seven-year-old mind. I knew who Jordan was (mostly because of “Space Jam”) and I knew that the Bulls were incredible. And when they took the floor and all of Reunion Arena became one giant camera flashbulb, I understood that this was more than just a game.

Things came full circle last night when Nowitzki came within two points of offensive immortality. For as long as he was within striking distance of history, the entire sold-out crowd was on its feet, and 20,000 phones were aimed at No. 41. He’s drawn “oohs” every time he’s touched the ball for nearly 20 years, but last night was different. It was more than just a game.

And when he scored his 30,000th point and even Holger Geschwindner, his stoic coach, became misty-eyed after one of many tribute videos, we knew this meant something more. When LeBron James, this generation’s Michael Jordan, immediately posted a tribute on Twitter, we knew this meant something more. When a video showing former teammates like Nick Van Exel, Michael Finley, Jason Terry, and Steve Nash congratulating him played on the jumbotron, it became apparent that this meant more.

I went to a ton of games during the three Js era, I’m told, but I’ll have to take my parents’ word for it. I know Rolando Blackman and Derek Harper through working for this organization, but I have no recollection of ever seeing them play for the Mavericks. I’ve seen the highlights, but not the real thing.

To me and most anyone else under the age of 30, Dirk is the only real thing we’ve seen. And we’re so spoiled for it.

This might not make sense to people who are much older than me, but I’ll try to explain it anyway: We all look up to people as kids, and when the person you look up to also grows up in front of your eyes, you really begin to identify with that person. To my dad, for example, who grew up in Detroit watching Al Kaline and Gordie Howe, Dirk was a kid when he was already an adult. But to me, 19-year-old Dirk was a kid in the NBA while I was starting second grade. The Mavericks’ young Big 3 won its first playoff series four months before 9/11, when living care-free was still a thing Americans did. The world was brighter and more colorful back then.

In my eyes, Nowitzki was larger than life, a 7-foot giant playing like a guard and forever changing the league he was still new to. No one could guard him, no one could stop him, and the Mavericks were so much fun. Think of how lucky my generation was to grow up at a time when Dallas was redefining offense; Eastern Conference teams were winning playoff games scoring 75 points while the Mavs and Kings battled in the 120s. But even heroes aren’t perfect, and when he and the Mavs lost the 2006 Finals, and then in the first round to the Warriors the next spring, it taught us that losing can happen to anyone. Those humiliating defeats irreversibly tarnished his legacy, at least at the time. He wasn’t perfect. To many, he was a loser, a choker.

Four years after suffering one of the most embarrassing losses in NBA history, Nowitzki put together perhaps the greatest individual playoff run of all-time and finally earned the national respect and admiration he’d deserved for more than a decade. To people my age, it’s strange that it takes success on a grand scale to earn respect. I knew Dirk was special all along. Why didn’t they? Sometimes the world doesn’t make sense to a young mind.

That championship came at the perfect time for me. I still had two years of college ahead of me, and Dallas winning finally let me put aside the emotional fandom stuff and focus on the game. Now I see Dirk all the time and it seems normal, and that alone is still weird at times, but so is being an adult.

Dirk Nowitzki is a legendary athlete and one of the 10 best offensive players in the history of this sport. People my age have nothing to compare him to, which means it’s very possible to take him for granted. I grew up watching Nowitzki shoot 47 percent at a time when volume-scoring was en vogue, always asking my dad why it took some players 22 shots to score 25 points, while it took Dirk only 18. The mid-range game is going extinct, but that doesn’t make any sense to those of us who only know Dirk, who made it possible to take mathematically inefficient shots yet still have a 50/40/90 season. Obviously as time has gone on, I’ve gained an appreciation for how astonishingly efficient he’s been from everywhere on the floor throughout his career, and I feel sorry for others who haven’t been able to watch him like I have.

His 19-year career has also greatly skewed the younger generation’s perception of winning. Nowitzki’s 870 wins rank sixth all-time, while his 507 losses rank only 71st. His 63.2 winning percentage averages out to almost 52 wins per season. Before the Warriors won the championship in 2015, it’d been 22 seasons since they won at least 52. Before drafting LeBron James, the Cavs won 52+ just three times in 33 seasons. Dirk averages that.

We simply lack the perspective. To us, losing means an early playoff exit. To basically 25 other franchises during Nowitzki’s career, losing means going 30-52 five seasons in a row. The Twitter debate of the season has been “to tank or not to tank,” and people my age overwhelmingly have wanted the Mavericks to tank since that dreadful 4-17 start. That same group has no concept of losing, so it makes sense that they might think pursuing a high draft pick would be the right thing to do. As I said earlier, I don’t remember the worst times in the ’90s, but I do remember at the end of that 1997-98 season looking at the paper and somehow thinking it was cool that the Mavs’ 20-62 record was a mirror image of the Bulls’ 62-20 record. I thought 62 losses was cool! I’d rather not go back to those days.

It’s been a privilege to have watched most of Nowitzki’s 30,000 points. Unfortunately, my generation of basketball enthusiasts won’t completely understand what he’s meant and the impact he’s made until he’s gone. But at the same time, I consider myself lucky to have grown up in an environment when Dirk was all I knew about basketball. I feel sorry for people who couldn’t grow up watching a superhero — even one who loses, sometimes.

Nowitzki’s highlights will always remind me of my early years — of elementary school and middle school and high school, of becoming the first man in my family to graduate from college, of my first exposure to success and to failure living vicariously through a legend. He’ll also always remind me of my first years as a professional, when it’s now not really OK to have an emotional or psychological connection to the outcome of a basketball game. That’s fine for me at this point, anyway. I don’t have a sentimental connection with the young guys; more than half the Mavs’ roster is younger than me.

It’s difficult to separate myself from that attachment to Dirk, though. I don’t know Mavericks basketball without him. He was a hero to me almost 20 years ago, and now, somehow, I get to see him up-close every day. That’s pretty awesome.

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