SAN ANTONIO – With the clock winding down to 0:00 and the curtains finally closed on Dirk Nowitzki’s splendid 21-year career, many a tear was shed on Wednesday night. Including many by Nowitzki himself.
In the aftermath of retiring from the NBA once the books were closed on the Dallas Mavericks’ 105-94 season-ending loss to the San Antonio Spurs, Nowitzki had mixed emotions about not having to show up for work any more after doing so for over the past two decades. The 40-year described it simply as having mixed emotions.
“It’s been a long season here this year (and a) tough one with my (injured left) ankle, so I’m kind of glad it came to an end,” Nowitzki said in his post game press conference at the AT&T Center. “But it’s also bittersweet, of course.
“You know they always say an athlete dies twice, and it’s tough. It’s tough to let something go you love so much, something that you’ve been doing your entire life, something that you lived and breathed for basically over 20 years. So it’s going to be tough for a few months — maybe even years — but I tried to enjoy the heck out of the 21 years.”
Nowitzki sure did enjoy the heck out of what transpired on Wednesday as he willed his body into scoring 20 points and grabbing 10 rebounds while playing 32 minutes. That was the startling part.
One night after scoring a season-high 30 points and playing a season-high 33 minutes while turning back the clock and defying anything Father Time had to say, Nowitzki was back at it again less than 24 hours later and picking up his first double-double of the season.
“Well, second game of a back-to-back with all of the emotions of last night and then tonight — one word — amazing,” coach Rick Carlisle said. “You know the amount of adrenaline that must have been going through him tonight must have been something else.
“I think it’s just really appropriate that our last images of Dirk playing in an NBA game, are of him putting up games like tonight with 20 (points) and 10 (rebounds), and last night with 30 (points). It will never be the same after this.”
Out of obvious respect for Nowitzki, the Spurs spent a lion’s share of the game running a second defender at Nowitzki whenever he got the ball. Then, after the Spurs called off the double-team, Nowitzki found himself near the top of the key with Drew Eubanks defending him one-on-one.
From there, the Mavs’ franchise player lined up Eubanks and launched one of his signature fadeaway 20-footers right over his outstretched arms that nestled nicely through the nets and accounted for his 20th point and last field goal attempt in the NBA. The Mavs quickly got Nowitzki out of the game with 46.8 seconds remaining, and then came the celebratory hugs, the standing ovation from the sellout crowd of 18,629, and lots of cheering and applause.
Nowitzki said: “I mean, 20 (points) and 10 (rebounds) is obviously sweet, so I wanted to get it, so my teammates were trying to push me, ‘Shoot one more time, shoot one more time.’ I tried the last few nights just to push it and see what happens, and then the last shot I think Eubanks actually backed up.
“(Spurs coach Gregg Popovich) was yelling at him, ‘Get away from him, please let him make a shot.’ I was able to knock it down and that was definitely a fun moment. I got subbed out and I was relieved, tired, but fired up for everything and that it was over, and you know, I embraced it with my teammates and coaches.”
That embrace came after it was as if Nowitzki had drilled the game-winning basket to clinch Game 7 of a championship series. That’s how much everyone in the arena wanted his last shot to fall through the nets.
“The level of respect is just so high for him,” Carlisle said. “When you see how visiting arenas are feeling about Dirk — not just tonight, but all season long and knowing this is the final moment — it’s a feeling that is a combination of the best heart-warming on one hand and kind of empty on the other.
“But I’m just so happy that he ended this magnificent career with a magnificent level of both performance and dignity. And knowing him, none of us expected any less.”
Even Popovich, who has a great deal of respect and admiration for Nowitzki, walked over near the Mavs’ bench after the game ended and hugged the Mavs’ legend and gave him a little pep talk.
“Everybody – players, fans, coaches and staff, got to witness history watching him play his last game,” Popovich said. “He played a fine game, which was great. It’s not surprising.
“He’s such a special guy for so many different reasons. As I said before, I feel honored and blessed to have been able to watch him all these years because he’s one of those consummate professionals and he never wavered from that. He played at a really high level all the time, (he was a) great teammate and ferocious competitor. We’ll miss him. He was having a lot of fun tonight. I was really happy for him.”
Except for those frequent double-teams, the Spurs sure did their part in making sure Nowitzki’s last game would be a comfortable and memorable one. Even before the game started, the Spurs showed a video tribute dedicated to Nowitzki on the Jumbotron, and the 7-footer got very emotional afterwards and shed a few tears.
“I guess I didn’t expect it to be that long,” Nowitzki said. “You know, for the first 20 to 30 seconds I was kind of holding it in. I was like, ‘Oh, that’s sweet.’
“Then it just all came out. I’m not sure why, but like I said, I was able to hold it together for a bit and then it just came out. Like I said, it was super special and I am super thankful for that.”
That was a certain part of the tribute that actually surprised Nowitzki.
“Not only did they show highlights from my career, but they showed highlights of me beating up on the Spurs actually, which was even more incredible,” Nowitzki said, while the assembled media laughed. “So like I said, thank you so much to the Spurs’ organization.”
In the game itself, the Mavs were able to trim a 22-pont deficit down to as little as five points – 93-88 – following a 3-pointer by Courtney Lee with 9:28 left in the game before the Spurs turned up the heat again and ran off and clinched the No. 7 seed in the Western Conference playoffs.
Meanwhile, proprietor Mark Cuban, whose team has never played a game without Nowitzki being on their roster since he purchased the Mavs on Jan. 4, 2000, explained that he’s processed all of the emotions he’d had over the past 24 hours.
“I mean, you just feel the emotions and you kind of remind yourself he’s not dead,” Cuban said of Nowitzki. “He is just moving into a different role.
“I’ve been a basketball fan, and Father Time is still undefeated. So it wasn’t a question of if (Nowitzki would retire), it was when. But it’s still hard. I’ve never known it any other way.”
Neither has Nowitzki, who spent his entire career playing for the Mavs. And as he walked off the court for the final time and into retirement, he took time out to be reflective on what many described as a job well done.
“Like I said, I’m thankful and grateful for 21 years, for all the support really from all over the place, from coaches, teammates, family,” Nowitzki said. “I’m kind of relieved, like I said, that it’s over.
“I can rest now and enjoy some wine here and there and some food. You don’t always have to work out and watch your diet, so some relief. I’m ready to move on with my life, I think.”
NOTES: So what’s the difference between Dirk Nowitzki the player and Dork Nowitzki the person? “Look, you’re talking about greatness however you stack it up,” coach Rick Carlisle said. “His will to compete has been such a constant theme throughout his career. If you go all through his career and go to certain points and time where big challenges came up sometimes — sometimes they were untimely injuries, sometimes they were things like difficult losses — he always found a way to persevere and bounce back and do it in a way that showed great class and great respect. I just have never seen someone of his magnitude as a player do so much for so many and ask for so little in return. The level of kindness that he displays on a consistent basis it belies today’s player and it’s something that I’m really going to miss.”. .Spurs All-Star guard DeMar DeRozan said he didn’t take it easy while trying t defend Nowitzki. “It’s cool playing against Dirk tonight, seeing him out there and playing against one of the greatest of all time for the last time,” DeRozan said. “Hopefully I got a good photo op.”. .Upon arrival in Dallas, the Mavs’ team charter was given a water cannon salute in honor of Nowitzki. Then came the applause for Nowitzki from those on board the plane. . .The Mavs ended the season with a 33-49 record. . .Luka Doncic did not play due to a left thigh contusion. Courtney Lee and Justin Jackson scored 14 points apiece for the Mavs, Devin Harris contributed 12 points and Jalen Brunson added 11 points and 10 assists and recorded his third double-double of the season. . .Seagoville native LaMarcus Aldridge led the Spurs with 34 points and 16 rebounds.