SAN ANTONIO – When San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich first started devising schemed for his team to play against the Dallas Mavericks during the 1998-’99 season, there was one player who had his undivided attention.
That player was Dirk Nowitzki.
“He was one of those guys that had to be dealt with because we had never really seen anything like that, somebody who’s 7-feet tall out on the court shooting the shots he shot,” Popovich said prior to Wednesday’s game between the Mavs and Spurs. “He made everybody change and the league had to respond because guarding him was different than guarding anybody else of that size.
“He made a lot of young kids want to do the same thing he did. All of a sudden we’ve got all the stretch-fours and that sort of thing. He was paramount in that change.”
Although Nowitzki is one of the arch enemies of the Spurs, he has always been one of Popovich’s favorite players. Nowitzki actually played for Popovich when the Spurs’ coach was the coach of the 2005 and 2011 NBA Western Conference All-Star teams.
“It’s been an honor to have had the opportunity to watch him play for all these years,” Popovich said. “I’ve got to see every single one of them, so I feel really blessed that that kind of a talent could be enjoyed for so long.
“He obviously put in a lot of work to acquire the skills that he’s shown all of us. It didn’t just happen. He put in a lot of hours.”
“The most impressive thing to me has been his competitiveness. Night in and night out, every game, he competes at the highest level, takes no prisoners, fierce, fierce competitor. That never wavered at any time in his career.”
Popovich said the two words that best describe Nowitzki are skillful ferocity. And he doesn’t want to reveal any bad memories when it comes to re-living the rivalry between the Mavs and Spurs.
“I’d just like to enjoy the body of his work,” Popovich said. “When you have someone who reaches that level, it’s not about this win or this loss or anything like that.
“It’s just being happy for a guy and his family to have had that kind of impact on the game and enjoy it so much. He was so great for the city. He’s beloved and he’s earned every bit of it, for sure.”
As far as young players emulating Nowitzki, Popovich noted they can start with the professional way the 21-year veteran carries himself on and off the court.
“The way he went about his work, the way he prepared during the week, in practice, before games and after games,” Popovich said. “How he handled himself during games and after games and came back ready year after year.
“There are many examples of his professionalism would be a great example for anybody who wants to do anything in their lives, whether it’s basketball or playing the violin or being a computer scientist. It’s a day-to-day work ethic.”