Often times when illustrating a successful NBA career, the staggering numbers far outweigh the value of words. Racking up points, dominating the boards and dishing out assists are the definition of a player’s career.
Not for Dirk Nowitzki.
Yes, the Big German has scored more points than the miles that make up the circumference of this planet. He’s crashed the glass to become a top-30 rebounder in NBA history and has always kept his teammates involved. But to define Nowitzki’s career by just some numbers would be a disservice to the legacy he has created in his nearly two decades in Dallas.
Nowitzki’s impact goes beyond the basketball court. It floods the locker room and permeates the front office. That’s why, in Nowitzki’s case, the words are just as important as the numbers.
Dirk Nowitzki has worked with a fairly consistent braintrust in his career with the Mavericks. General manager Donnie Nelson joined the team just prior to the 1998 NBA draft and helped orchestrate a draft day trade with the Milwaukee Bucks to bring Nowitzki to Dallas.
It was a risk taken by the franchise, especially with a guy like Paul Pierce still on the board, who they considered more of a sure bet. However, they took their chance on the kid from Germany and it wasn’t exactly smooth sailing out of the gate.
Nowitzki struggled his rookie year, which led to some doubts creeping in. But Nowitzki overcame early adversity and had an impact that have left many, including Nelson, speechless.
“You just can’t put into words what Dirk has meant to this city and this franchise,” Nelson said. “He was the one guy that brought a championship here to Dallas. When everybody was doubting the defense, can a foreign guy be really the best player on a championship team, especially after our first round in Miami… I mean you really just can’t find the words.
“This franchise and this city, I personally, am just indebted beyond words.”
Nelson isn’t alone in feeling indebted to Nowitzki. Head coach Rick Carlisle also credits Nowitzki’s presence as part of the reason for his longevity in Dallas.
“You don’t end up in a place for nine years straight in this league and then a contract extension for five more years without having that kind of a player,” Carlisle said of Nowitzki. “History will show he’s one of the really truly generational special players in the history of the game.”
While acknowledging that Nowitzki reaching the 30,000-point plateau is “rare air,” Carlisle also said he provides a very positive model in the locker room for the young players to look up to.
As far as just Nowitzki crossing 30,000 points, Carlisle joined Dennis and Cowlishaw on 103.3 FM ESPN and dubbed it the “the most amazing accomplishment I’ve ever witnessed in 33 years in this league.”
Nowitzki’s dominance on the court has certainly helped his lengthy stay in Dallas but he also has the ability to mesh with different personalities, including his outspoken owner, Mark Cuban.
“Dirk gets along with everybody,” Cuban said.
Cuban bought the team in 2000 when Nowitzki still hadn’t peaked. Since then, Nowitzki has had a number of epic playoff series, an MVP season, a championship, became the sixth leading scorer in NBA history and now the sixth player in history to score 30,000 points.
Cuban does have one regret.
“Every day I say I wish I would’ve appreciated more, watching him and really understood just what I had when we had it,” Cuban said. “Because I think he’s just so special, he’s so unassuming, you sometimes take it for granted and that was my mistake.”
In the midst of one of the toughest seasons of Nowitzki’s career, personally and as a team, Cuban points to the culture he established over his 19-year career as to why the team isn’t dysfunctional. As to what Nowitzki means to the franchise, and the city, Cuban made it pretty simple.
“Dirk is the Mavericks, the Mavericks are Dirk,” Cuban said. “There’s no other way to put it. He’s everything.”
When you take a peek inside the Mavericks locker room, Dirk Nowitzki truly is in a class of his own. He’s the only player that has had a locker there for nearly two decades and the only guy that has scored 30,000 points in his career.
He’s the only guy above the age of 35 on a roster that has undergone a youth movement and now features 10 players 26-years-old or younger. The youngest of the bunch is Nerlens Noel, who was recently acquired from the Philadelphia 76ers. After his first game in a Mavericks uniform alongside Nowitzki, he gained a memory that will last a lifetime.
“It’s something I’ll never forget,” Noel said. “He’s a Hall of Famer, one of the greatest to ever do it. Having him right next to me [in the locker room] is something special as well, being able to learn his habits and as it goes along, we’ll definitely be getting some work in together. It’s just something special.”
Despite the age gap, Nowitzki still has a knack to connect with his younger teammates. Center Salah Mejri was in awe when he first met Nowitzki.
“I remember one day I was sitting here in this locker room and he just walked in,” Mejri said. “It was only me and him in the locker room and I was like ”Oh my God, what am I going to say,” you know? I’d never met him before and he’s a big star. I’ve never been starstruck before, but I was with him.
“And he started talking to me and he asked me about Afrobasket. I didn’t even know he knew about Afrobasket so it was funny.”
The admiration for Nowitzki runs through every player in the locker room. Wesley Matthews, one of the team’s most vocal leaders, says there are many things he appreciates about the Big German but one thing stands out the most.
“His love for the game, his work ethic,” Matthews said. “You don’t see too many people like that with that same passion and drive.”
One of the veterans who’s had a front-row seat for Dirk’s career evolution is guard Devin Harris.
“He’s worked hard to get to where he is,” Harris said. “He’s grown over the years, became a better leader, understanding how to play with different types of guys. He leads by example. He’s who you want to have in a franchise guy.”
The other longtime cohort, J.J. Barea, is the last remaining piece in the locker room from the legendary 2011 championship run.
“To see him go through what he went through and then we were able to win it together, and to help him get it accomplished, it’s amazing,” Barea said. “It’s something that I will never forget and he will never forget.”
In Barea’s absence, one of the guys who has burst on the scene for the Mavericks of late has been guard Seth Curry. He said observing Nowitzki has definitely played a part in his success.
“He’s steady, works on his game,” Curry said. “He goes out there and puts what he practices into the game so it’s a good thing to witness and take some things from his game, the way he works at his, and apply it to mine.”
Nowitzki’s competitiveness is infectious throughout the locker room. He has the ability to bring out the best from his teammates, and isn’t scared to voice his opinion.
“I appreciate Dirk for his competitiveness,” guard Yogi Ferrell said. “In [a past] game we had, he was yelling at me a lot for not making great plays and I like that. He’s getting on me because he’s a competitor, I’m a competitor so he’s just trying to bring the most out of his teammates. One thing I love about him is his competitive edge.”
That competitiveness is visible in his preparation and while Nowitzki hones his craft, guys like Dorian Finney-Smith, an undrafted impact rookie for the Mavericks, take note and use it to hold themselves to the same standard.
“Still at the age he’s at, he’s always in the gym,” Finney-Smith said. “He’s lifting, getting up shots—even on days off. If he can put in the extra work, knowing who he is and what he’s accomplished so far in the NBA, just makes me feel like I have that much work to do.”
With Nowitzki still setting the standard in the twilight of his career, the Mavericks are holding on to every precious moment, but still have an eye to the future. Nothing quite signifies that like Harrison Barnes, a 24-year-old player they signed to a max contract this past summer.
With Nowitzki facing injury issues early in the season, Barnes was thrust into the power forward position where he added many of the plays designed for Nowitzki to his repertoire. The two even had a playful exchange earlier in the season when Nowitzki jokingly told Barnes to stop stealing his plays.
“They’re under new management,” Barnes replied with a smile.
With his locker next to Nowitzki’s and the torch of the franchise slowly being passed, Barnes is appreciating the opportunity to learn from him, on and off the court.
“For me, it’s just being around him so much, not only learning from and having him in my ear, but just working out with him as well,” Barnes said.
What’s the biggest lesson he’s learned from the Big German?
“To quote him in so few words, 30K didn’t happen by accident,” Barnes said. “I think that’s the biggest thing.”
The evolution from a lanky German kid with bleach blonde hair to the sixth player in NBA history to score 30,000 points has been both a blur and a lengthy process for Dirk Nowitzki.
Nowitzki entered the NBA in 1998 and his early struggles led him to doubt if he belonged in the league. Nineteen years later, the story of the NBA can’t be written without Nowitzki, who revolutionized the power forward position.
“It’s been a long, amazing ride,” Nowitzki said. “I’ve been fortunate health-wise, been fortunate with the franchise here, the fans, with coaches with teammates that supported me the right way.
“It’s been a great, great ride and hopefully I can play solid a couple more years.”
Through the long ride, Nowitzki’s leadership has evolved along with his game on the court. As the oldest player in the locker room, it’s sometimes hard to believe where the time went the past 19 years.
“It just goes so quick,” Nowitzki said. “You’re in your twenties, it’s fun; you’re the young guy. Next thing you know, you hit 30 [years old] and you’re in the middle of the pack all of a sudden. Next thing you know, Vince [Carter] leaves and you’re the oldest.
“It’s been crazy how fast this ride went. I’m enjoying it.”
There has been plenty to enjoy for Nowitzki through the years, whether it was winning 67 games in a season or the MVP award in 2007, and of course the championship in 2011. Now in the twilight of his career, he’s hitting a lot of milestones, including the exclusive 30,000 points club.
What does being in that fraternity mean to him?
“It’s a nice milestone, obviously,” Nowitzki said. “If you would’ve told me that 20 years ago, I would’ve said you’re out of your mind.”
As he sunk the shot to put him over the 30,000 points mark, the past two decades flashed in front of Nowitzki’s eyes.
“Thinking about all the work I put in, all the teammates I had, all the support I had over the years,” Nowitzki said. “It’s been fun.”
And for Mavs fans, and basketball fans in general, it’s been fun to Nowitzness.