A rectangular, metal sign never caused such an emotional outpouring of love and respect as it did to Dirk Nowitzki on Wednesday.

Then again, as the ever-humble, always-gracious Maverick legend said: “After my first year, the city probably wouldn’t have named a dumpster after me, let alone a street.”

From humble beginnings, right?

And so, there it was, in all its splendor. As Nowitzki climbed aboard a scissor-lift cherry picker (“I pulled a hammy getting in that thing,” he said later), he rose up above a lively crowd braving the chilly weather in front of American Airlines Center.

With a tug of a black covering, Nowitzki unveiled the larger-than-you-think-it-is sign attached to the street light support pole. And what formerly was Olive Street in front of the arena he called his professional home for virtually all of his 21 seasons as a Maverick was officially renamed.

Nowitzki Way was born, and will no doubt live a long life long beyond its namesake and the rest of us.

“This today is less for me about the journey with the Mavs – of course, without the Mavs, I’d never be here – but this is about my relationship with the city and the community for the last two decades,” Nowitzki said to a crowd of reporters covering the event. “The love obviously, from the get-go when things weren’t going right, it’s been overwhelming.

“They always thank me, but I’m the one who should be thanking them.”

The morning and afternoon was filled with nostalgia and heart-tugging moments that symbolized Nowitzki’s incredible career. It wasn’t just on the basketball court. He admitted at the start of the ceremony inside AAC that when he had his official retirement in April, he got most teary-eyed when he saw videos of himself in the hospital visiting children.

The on-court highlights are what made his career.

His legacy, however, is something far more meaningful, a blend of both the basketball and the personal aspects of his life. Rarely have fans seen an athlete who was unafraid to reveal all parts of his life.

“Dirk was that rare superstar who graciously allowed us to participate in both his great triumphs and great challenges,” coach Rick Carlisle said. “And he showed us that vulnerability is not a weakness.

“So much of this is emotional for everybody because Dirk is such a sharing superstar. He let us into his world – his world of trying to be the best, trying to get to the top of the hill, trying to win a championship and the struggles that came along with it. He really humanizes the NBA superstar in Dallas. That’s why he brings tears to so many of our eyes.”

This moment was a long time in the making. And we’re only talking since the end of last season when Nowitzki made his retirement after 21 seasons as a Maverick official. The Dallas City Council had to vote to change rules about how and when a city can be renamed.

Until Wednesday, a person had to be deceased for two years before a street could be renamed in their honor.

Dirk’s thankful that the councilmembers found it in their heart to amend the rule in this case.

Then there was the issue of what the actual name would be. The name was limited to 14 characters, spaces included. So it couldn’t be a long, drawn-out name. But Nowitzki was adamant about only one thing, really.

“I wanted this to be the family name because I wanted them to be a part of this, too,” Nowitzki said. “Starting from my parents and grandparents that helped raise me all the way down to the next Nowitzki generations that come, whether it’s my kids or grandkids or my wife or her relatives that come to town.

“So I wanted it to be Nowitzki Way, for them to also be proud of what we’ve done in this city. And like I said, I’m proud of what I’ve done off the court (as much as I am) on it.

“Of course it’s a surreal moment, to be the first living guy that’s getting a street named after him – they changed the rule to make it happen. This means the world to me, of course.”

Mayor Eric Johnson was among the dignitaries to attend the ceremony and he said the fact that Nowitzki believes he owes the city as much as the city owes him is testament to just what kind of person the 7-foot German has become in his 20-plus years as a Dallasite.

“Dirk captivated this city with his play on the court,” Johnson said. “We watched him grow – a bona fide legend of the game.That incredible run in 2011 (to the NBA championship) is something that none of us who witnessed will ever forget.

“But Dirk is so much more than his achievements on the basketball court. I hope we will consider the whole person. Dirk is the real deal. He’s humble, dedicated, authentic, gracious and very, very kind-hearted.”

The mayor then noted about how Nowitzki and baseball great from Highland Park Clayton Kershaw personally contacted Johnson to offer financial help when the tornadoes and storms hit recently.

Nowitzki said he was grateful to the city council and mayor for “keeping us safe and giving us hope.”

“Like I said, that’s also a part of my legacy that was very important to me – not just being a basketball player,” Nowitzki said. “Of course, I invested a lot of time in my craft and I wanted to be the best player I could be, make the city proud on the court and entertain them – even help them through difficult times with entertainment.

“But to me, and I learned early on, it’s also about the community. It’s about making a difference, improving lives. I hope and feel like I’ve done that.”

All you have to do is look at the hundreds of kids he’s played “Santa Dirk” to at hospitbals every December and the dozens and dozens of community camps and initiatives he’s attended.

He’s been a saint for the Dallas area – arguably as great a treasure among athletes as this area has ever had. The short list of one-name wonders – Staubach, Nolan, Dirk, Emmitt.

There aren’t many others.

And for that, a street name will forever remind fans of what greatness – on and off the athletic stage – looks like.

Twitter: @ESefko

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