DALLAS – During his illustrious 19-year career, Dirk Nowitzki has been named the Most Valuable Player in the NBA and the Most Valuable Player of the NBA Finals.
In many circles, the Dallas Mavericks’ superstar forward could also be named the Most Valuable Player when it comes to giving back.
Not long after he joined the NBA, Nowitzki established the Dirk Nowitzki Foundation. At the heart of its mission is to the betterment of health and welfare of children and women.
And actually, the Foundation is composed of two parts. There’s the Dirk Nowitzki Foundation that operates in the United States, and the Dirk Nowitzki Foundation that’s called the Dirk Nowitzki Stiftung – which is German for a charitable foundation – that operates outside of the United States.
They’ve provided grants to several organizations across the world with the blessing of Nowitzki.
“I was obviously very fortunate, very blessed growing-up in Germany and I was able to travel when I was young and just see different parts of the world, and was able to see early on that there’s a lot of need in the world,” Nowitzki said. “There’s a lot of help you can do, there’s just a lot of people that are a lot less fortunate.
“So when I was in position to help — I founded my Foundation in 2001 – I helped, and we’ve been doing some great projects.”
Nowitzki often refers to himself as a big kid at heart and he expresses that through his Foundation.
“That’s something that’s close to my heart,” Nowitzki said. “When you see a kid happy it melts your heart.”
And thanks to the attention his celebrity status affords him, Nowitzki’s heart has been melting a lot.
Lisa Tyner, the treasurer of Nowitzki’s Foundation, shares a story that tugs at anyone with a beating heart. It involves one time around Christmas when Nowitzki bought gifts for the kids at the Texas Scottish Rite Hospital for Children in Dallas.
“I was at dinner with the president of Scottish Rite several years ago and he was telling the story about how Dirk’s car was still in the (hospital) garage later than expected, and so he told the security guard, ‘Well, keep an eye on his car, he must have gone somewhere else and he’ll come back and get it,’ ‘’ Tyner said. “And the security guard said, ‘No sir, he’s still upstairs.’ ‘’ Dirk’s annual hospital visits can last 4-5 hours. Nowitzki was playing the guitar, video games and nerf basketball with the kids, and whatever other games the kids were capable of playing.
“He’s a private guy, but he gets it,” Tyner said. “He’s thankful he has three healthy children and he feels for the parents that are having to struggle because their kids are sick. He feels like he’s been so blessed that it would be a crime against humanity if he didn’t really give back — and that it would be so wrong.”
That move of embracing his position as a role model and visiting the kids in the hospital has nothing to do with Nowitzki’s Foundation. That’s just Dirk Nowitzki being Dirk Nowitzki.
“He’s kind of like the Pied Piper,” Tyner said. “He gets some outside support for his Foundation, but the majority of the money that funds the Foundation comes from him.”
Outside of the foundations, Nowitzki also rotates spending some of his free time between Cook’s Children Medical Center in Fort Worth, Children’s Medical and Scottish Rite around Christmas.
“Every Christmas he gets a list compiled of the kids that are in the hospital at Christmas and what they want Santa Claus to bring them,” Tyner said. “And those toys are purchased out of his pocket, and then he delivers them.”
The process to receive a grant from Nowitzki’s Foundation is simple.
“What we do is we get grants all year long with charities,” Nowitzki said. “Local charities can send in, introduce themselves, and at the end of the year the board gets together and decides how these funds are going to be distributed and which charities will be obviously funded.”
“It could be something little like the lacrosse thing where they take the kids off the streets and it’s an after-school program, which is unbelievably neat. Or it can be something as big as where they give backpacks to kids who can’t afford lunches, so they give lunches to the kids at the North Texas Food Bank.”
“It could be something really little that touches only maybe 20, 30, 40 kids, and then it could be something that’s as big as the North Texas Food Bank that touches thousands and thousands of lives of children. They’re all so amazing, and they’re so many people that just give their time and money and effort and never get recognized, but they do some special work.”
Nowitzki isn’t just generously giving his money and name to these projects. He and his wife, Jessica, have been hands-on.
“He and Jessica have actually packed those backpacks as well as give large donations to the North Texas Food Bank,” Tyner said. “The kids get the backpacks all weekend during the school year and in the summer.”
Since the Mavs acquired Nowitzki in a 1998 Draft Day trade with the Milwaukee Bucks, they’ve watched him selflessly become an integral part of the Dallas/Fort Worth community. They’ve watched him graciously take multiple pictures with fans, sign countless autographs, and hug and kiss more than his share of babies.
But Nowitzki does it with amazing aplomb, and with nary a complaint.
“His heart is as big as his strike zone,” said Donnie Nelson, the Mavs’ president of basketball operations. “He’s become so integrated in the community on all different levels.”
“He’s the last guy in the locker room signing autographs for Make-A-Wish kids, and the first guy there. He’s got a huge heart and we’re just blessed and lucky to have him here in Big D.”
In addition to his contributions locally, Nowitzki also has touched the lives of those on an international level. Tyner said he even has a huge soccer game this weekend in Germany that raises money for his Foundation.
Also, Nowitzki made a contribution to the Foundation of former NBA player Dikembe Mutombo, whose $29 million, 300-bed hospital in the Democratic Republic of Congo opened in 2007.
“Mutombo started a hospital in his home country of Congo, so I was actually one of the first contributors to that,” Nowitzki said. “We gave him a check – I think it was at an All-Star game one year – maybe my first All-Star game we gave him a large check, and that hospital, later on, was up and running and helping people in need.
“Dikembe has been a good friend of mine, so I was glad to help there. But that’s obviously just one project we supported with the Foundation.”
Nowitzki has been involved in Africa in another way – and with a personal touch.
“In Africa we supported Habitat for Humanity that provides housing for families, as well as here in North Texas we supported numerous projects and foundations and local charities,” he said. “My wife is half-Kenyan also, so we have family down there and we help as much as we can, so that obviously means a lot to us because it’s family.”
“We’re about to start a project in her hometown. In the hometown of her mother, we’re able to start a little project there – she owns some land there – so we’re excited about that project.”
That project is a YMCA-type recreation center that also involves the sister of former President Barack Obama.
So what was the impetus for Nowitzki creating his own Foundation?
“Early on, I was very fortunate and blessed, but I also had great role models,” he said. “My first couple of years I had (ex-Mavs guard) Michael Finley, who, to this day, does great charity work, even after he retired.
“(Ex-Mavs guard) Steve Nash has been doing charity work basically his entire career, and even now he does amazing stuff. I had great role models that showed me how to do it, how to be active in the community, how to interact with fans in the community. They were great leaders for me and I just followed in their footsteps.”
“It’s something that you learn, you look, and then you kind of find your own way, your own passion on what you want to be involved in.”
From Nowitzki’s vantage point, creating smiles doesn’t always come in the form of money. And his Foundation notwithstanding, Nowitzki often uses his unique personality to connect with fans in other ways.
For instance, last year all 13-year old Anna Blackwell simply wanted was to play a game of H-O-R-S-E with Nowitzki. And through Make-A-Wish North Texas – along with Nowitzki and the Mavs – that dream was realized.
Blackwell underwent surgery to repair a left temporal brain tumor last year. A year later, she and her family were the Mavs’ guests at a home game, and after the game Blackwell played two games of H-O-R-S-E with Nowitzki.
“It was a year after my surgery, it was the one-year anniversary of my surgery date,” Blackwell said. “And just to come after the game and spend quite a long time with Dirk meant a lot to me.”
Back on June 24 at Dr Pepper Ballpark in Frisco, former Texas Rangers All-Star Michael Young was one of several pro athletes who participated in the Dirk Nowitzki Heroes Celebrity Baseball Game. The charity event was one Young wouldn’t miss, mainly because of the person whose name is attached to it.
“Dirk’s one of those guys if he asks me to do something I’m doing anything I can to drop what I’m doing to be there and help him out,” Young said. “He’s incredible and he’s just a great guy, and I think he’s grateful for the community embracing him.
“I think he recognizes his place in the game and his place in our community and he embraces it. People around here love him for great reasons, because not only does he play great on the court, but he does stuff like this routinely.”
Mavs guard Devin Harris believes Nowitzki has been a beacon of light when it comes to helping others with his Foundation because it’s part of his DNA.
“I think it has a lot to do with upbringing,” said Harris, who has had his own foundation for the past nine years. “It was taught to me early on in age to give back to the less fortunate, and it didn’t change when I got to the level that I got to. I think Dirk kind of feels the same way. It’s just something that we enjoy doing, and it comes from where we came from and how we deal with things that we like to do.”
And building a Foundation where he can share some of his riches with the less fortunate is at the top of Nowitkzi’s to do list.
“It’s been fun and I’m enjoying it,” he said. “There’s been some amazing projects, some amazing people we’ve met through that work that don’t get a lot of recognition, but do amazing work for kids in the Metroplex.
“And I think it’s going to be something that I’m going to keep doing after I’m done playing.”
Spoken like a true MVP.