MIAMI – He held the trophy into the air, Dirk Nowitzki
marching across the court pushing midnight now, pushing past his
wildest dreams as a skinny, scared teenager arriving in the NBA all
those years ago. There were a couple hundred Dallas Mavericks
fans still waiting for him in Section 105, and they all looked like
proud parents, like they had witnessed a young man grow into a legend, a
Nowitzki held that Larry O’Brien Trophy higher now, like an offering
to the basketball gods. In those big, meaty hands, it looked like a lost
friend found. Dirk Nowitzki hoisted his first-ever NBA championship trophy Sunday.
“WOOOHOOOO!!!” Nowitzki screamed, and now he stopped in the
tunnel for a moment, lifting the big, shiny trophy higher and higher so
that they could touch it too. When everyone else doubted that a
European could be the cornerstone for an NBA champion, when the chance
to trade him for Kobe Bryant(notes)
once crossed the owner’s desk, they always believed that they would
witness this night with Nowitzki. They always believed he could be a
champion, could hold that trophy in the air, hold it high.
The prospect of ever trading Nowitzki always left team owner Mark
Cuban asking himself this: What would a title for the Mavericks be worth
without Nowitzki? He was the ultimate Maverick, a trailblazing European
that redefined and reshaped the way a 7-footer could dominate a
In the year of the trophy chase, here was the most improbable scene
on the shores of Biscayne Bay: Dirk Nowitzki had marched out of Miami
with an NBA championship, a Finals MVP and a victory for perseverance, staying the course.
This is rare now, a fading phenomenon in the NBA. Nowitzki has
forever been the sun the Mavericks’ planets surrounded, an orbiting
galaxy of coaches and teammates that have come and gone. He was the
constant, the conscience of a franchise that invoked his ethic, his
character, his relentless pursuit of victory. No one worked harder. No
one worked longer.
No one took what should’ve been imperfections as a slow, un-athletic
7-footer, and turned them into unconquerable strengths, an ability to
shoot with his body twisted, contorted and falling the wrong way. When
his shot wasn’t falling in Game 6 – missing 11 of 12 shots to start the
game – his longtime teammate, Jason Terry(notes), barked into his ear: “Keep pushing. Remember ’06.”
Five years ago, the Mavericks had a 2-0 Finals lead on the Heat, an
immense Game 3 edge late, and lost four straight, lost the title.
Remember ’06 was Terry’s way of reminding Nowitzki about the most
important thing of all: Remember the failure, remember the ache – and
make it all go away now.
“If I would have won one early in my career, maybe I would have never
put all the work and time that I have over the last 13 years,” Nowitzki
He’s been the most awkwardly graceful star the sport’s ever seen, a
testament to a game played far below the rim, and deep within the mind.
The Mavericks were a remarkable story, and Nowitzki a remarkable star.
Dallas swept the two-time defending NBA champion Los Angeles Lakers, beat the burgeoning Oklahoma City Thunder, and finally beat the defending July champion, Miami Heat.
“It wasn’t about our high-flying star power,” Mavericks coach Rick
Carlisle said. “Come on, how often do we have to hear about the LeBron James(notes) Reality Show? When are people going to talk about the purity of the game and what these guys accomplished?”
Forever now. Once again, James was an uncertain, uneven star with a
championship on the line. He didn’t play well in these Finals, and worst
in the moments that the Heat needed him most. He didn’t want the ball
in the fourth quarter, passing it away as fast as it had come to him. Dirk Nowitzki celebrates with longtime teammate Jason Terry during the second half of Game 6 of the NBA Finals.
James will win championships, but he’ll never enjoy a moment so
singularly pure as Nowitzki did. He’ll never have this connection to a
franchise and a fandom, a communion of shared struggle and pursuit and
angst. This is still Dwyane Wade’s
town, and probably Wade’s team. One Eastern Conference star said,
“Right now all he’s doing is helping D-Wade get his second ring.”
To hear James suggest that the world will have to return to its sad,
little ordinary lives and he’ll still get to be LeBron James late Sunday
night was a window into his warped, fragile psyche. It was sad, and
portends to how disconnected to the world he truly is.
“They have to wake up and have the same life that they had before
they woke up today … the same personal problems,” James said. “I’m going
to continue to live the way that I want to live. … But they have to get
back to the real world at some point.”
There’s nothing real about James’ world, and never has been. He’s a
prisoner of a life that his sycophants and enablers and our sporting
culture has created for him. He’s rich and talented and something of a
tortured soul. He’s the flawed superstar for these flawed times. He’s a
creation of a basketball breeding ground full of such twisted priorities
and warped principles. Almost every person who’s ever had to work
closely with him, who has spent significant time, who’s watched him
belittle and bully people, told me they were rooting hard against him.
That’s sad, and that’s something he doesn’t understand and probably
When the game was over, his attitude was downright defiant. They had
done enough to win, he insisted, and of course he was wrong.
Strange, but Chris Bosh
knew the truth. When he talked about Nowitzki, you had to wonder to
whom he was directing his words. “There’s nothing extra. There’s nothing
super. [Nowitzki] was just himself. And in these situations, I think
when you’re yourself and you play your basketball, the best thing always
“He’s worked very hard, for a very long time and he deserves it. I
think we can take a page out of their book and really just pay attention
to people’s work ethic and how much time they put into the game.
Obviously, what we did wasn’t enough.”
As the buzzer sounded on a 105-95 victory, Nowitzki didn’t run to the
middle of the floor, into the throbbing mob of teammates and coaches,
cameras and flickering lights. He wanted to get out of there,
wanted to be alone in the visiting locker room. The tears had started
to come, and he just thought that he ought to be alone with them.
Eventually, the Mavericks had to drag him back out to take his Finals
MVP trophy, and take his bow on the podium for national television. In
the culminating moment of his career, Nowitzki was sheepish, deferring
and humbled. He seemed so at peace, so contented. He had taken
everything the basketball world could throw his way, and there was no
Bleep You moment on Sunday night. There was no I Told You So.
Dirk doesn’t do endorsements and doesn’t do self-promotion. He
doesn’t care. He never wanted to be a brand. He wanted to be an NBA
Finally, the clock had pushed back to 1:20 a.m., early Monday and
Nowitzki clutched his MVP trophy on the walk out of the arena, out onto
the loading dock. There were still Mavericks fans waiting outside the
barricades, cheering him, chanting “MVP … MVP … ” Yes, he clutched the
trophy, but mostly the memories of making the Mavericks a relevant
franchise out of a joke, carving a legacy and a legend as a forever
hero. LeBron James will win a title, but he’ll never own it the way that
Dirk Nowitzki did this one.
The Mavericks bus was packed with players and coaches and family, and
the door opened up wide for Nowitzki. The noise and laughter and love
came tumbling out for him. He climbed on, the bus peeled out of the
parking lot and toward the Venetian Causeway across the green waters of
Biscayne Bay, toward a long night of partying, and a longer life as a
champion. And here’s how the Year of LeBron James finally ended in a
balmy night in June: Dirk Nowitzki was taking his team, his trophy, his
talents to South Beach.