On a cold, late-winter night in Dallas, the Mavericks are playing the 61st game of another season in which they’ll lose more than they’ll win. With a little under 8:30 left in the fourth quarter, Dirk Nowitzki — in only his third start of the season and his first at home — shoots a three-pointer. As soon as the ball leaves his hands, you can hear the crowd noise increase. If he misses, a collective groan will rumble across the arena. If he makes it, fans will cheer wildly.
He makes it. Fans cheer. Mavericks go up by five over the Indiana Pacers.
Less than 50 seconds of game time later, Nowitzki walks to the bench. He follows his usual routine. After high-fiving any hand teammates offer, he works his way toward the end of the bench. He takes out his mouthpiece and tucks it into the top of his right sock. A ball boy hands him a long-sleeve shirt and Nowitzki puts it on, then another. The ball boy gives him his tear-away pants. Nowitzki steps over the pant’s inseam, secures the top-right hip button, then the left. A few more buttons on each side. The game is close, but Nowitzki, the best player the Mavericks have ever had, won’t play the rest of the night. He sits in the middle of the bench, and watches.
You watch him. Gone is the long hair — once described as “blond locks [resembling] some teenage idol from another decade” — that complimented his youthful appearance. His face isn’t as young as it once was. Also gone is that effortless stride with which he ran up and down the court. When he runs backwards, transitioning between offense and defense, his movement appears even more labored. His shoulders look almost-shrugged as his arms swing about as fast as his legs move. By the standards of professional athletes, Nowitzki is an old man. But even at this stage of his career, his impact and importance endures, not just on a young Mavericks team but in the city where he plays.
Before the game began, a 28-year-old father, Jahir Martinez, held his 5-month-old son, Judah, as they waited in the hallway outside the Mavs’ locker room. The father wore a white Nowitzki jersey. The son wore a blue Mavericks onesie.
As players ran out of the locker room to get to the court, they slapped the hands of fans standing along the walls shouting encouragement. Nowitzki was the last player out. Instead of running, he walked. Martinez held out his son and as Nowitzki went past, he delicately engulfed baby Judah’s entire forearm with his hand.
“I’ve met him in person,” Martinez says of Nowitzki, his favorite player, “and the reason why I took my son — everybody was asking, ‘Why you take your son? What’s the motivation behind it?’ — because when my son grows up, I want him to see what type of athlete he got to meet.”
Dallas loves Nowitzki. On the court, no other player is as responsible for the success the Mavericks have had in the last two decades. Before Nowitzki, the team was dreadful. Throughout the 1990s the Mavericks were among the worst teams in professional sports. Thanks to a back-to-back wins to close the 1993-1994 season, they narrowly escaped becoming the first NBA franchise to lose 70 games in consecutive seasons, but they never won more than 36 games in any season.
As they struggled, a teenaged and then-unknown Nowitzki played on a club team in obscurity in villages and small amphitheaters around his hometown of Würzburg, Germany. In 1998, Nowitzki arrived in Dallas without much fanfare despite being described as someone who could revolutionize basketball. “The Mavericks, in the ’90s, had a tough decade,” Nowitzki remembered. “[I’d] go somewhere all the time, and people were like, ‘Oh, you’re tall,’ but they had no idea who I was.”
Thousands of miles and about a 10-hour flight away from home, Nowitzki experienced complete culture shock. He couldn’t get through many conversations in English without having to ask, “what?”, multiple times. Fans booed him during his rookie year, in which he averaged eight points per game. He played so few minutes that a Dallas journalist wrote, “Dirk sweats so little during games, he doesn’t even need to shower.” Frustrated, Nowitzki knew that once he’d fulfilled his contract with the Mavericks, he could always go back to play in a European league. He stayed in Dallas for one day after the season ended before returning home.
But Nowitzki and the Mavericks would quickly improve. Steve Nash, acquired during Nowitzki’s rookie year, helped him acclimate to the league and the United States. The two played together six seasons, improving to 60 wins in 2002-2003, before Nash signed as a free agent with the Phoenix Suns in 2004.
Mark Cuban, who bought the team during the 1999-2000 season, called not re-signing Nash among his biggest regrets as an owner. Nowitzki was heartbroken.
“There will be some decisions you don’t like,” Nowitzki said in 2009 of his close friend leaving, “and there will be some decisions that you like, but you can only control yourself.” Yet Nowitzki stayed loyal, and racked up individual accomplishments, beginning more than a decade of consecutive all-star and All-NBA team selections. In that time, the Mavericks were consistently among the better teams in the league. But disappointment tempered much of the Nowitzki era.
There was the 2006 Finals when the Mavericks took a two games-to-none lead over the Miami Heat, only to lose the next four games. The following season, Nowitzki was named the league’s MVP and the team won a franchise-best 67 games. But they also suffered a shocking upset in the first round of the playoffs to the Golden State Warriors.
That was the first of three consecutive seasons in which the team lost in the opening round. With the early exits, Nowitzki was criticized by national media members, who said that he wasn’t an elite player or a leader — or worse, claimed he was soft.
But while Nowitzki — and by extension, the team — went through difficulties, coaches and teammates continued to support him. So too did Dallas.
“From my first year when I was really struggling … when I did get subbed in I used to get a standing ovation in year one,” Nowitzki said early into this season. “That made me think; this community here, these people, these fans really want me to succeed here. And I want to make everything possible to pay them back and make this work, to pay their loyalty back.”
Nowitzki and the Mavericks eventually broke through on the court, winning the 2010-11 NBA championship over LeBron James and the Heat. Off the court, he began a foundation that works with children who’ve suffered through illness, poverty, and abuse. When asked why Dallas loves Nowitzki, Cuban says, “His loyalty.”
In the five years after their championship season, the Mavericks lost in the first round of the playoffs four times. They missed the playoffs the other of those five years. Counting this season, the Mavericks have struggled three years straight. During these lean times, other teams inquired about Nowitzki’s availability. Yet when his contract expired in 2016, he re-signed with the team, again. Now, as a player clearly past his prime, who years ago could have perhaps contributed on a contender, Dallas cheers each dwindling minute of his career.
As the game against the Pacers winds down, with the Mavericks holding a four-point lead, Nowitzki, with a white towel draped around his neck and over his shoulder, sits on the bench and watches. With about two minutes left, Luka Doncic shoots a three-pointer from 30 feet away. The ball hardly touches the rim as it goes through the net. The crowd cheers and Nowitzki stands up, raising both his arms.
Doncic is this season’s revelation. He has sped up the Mavericks’ rebuilding process. When Doncic brings the ball up, Nowitzki will talk to him if they’re on the court together. Doncic nods back, implying he understands what Nowitzki, old enough to be his father, is telling him. There’s 40 years of basketball and life wisdom in Nowitzki’s words.
Unlike during Nowitzki’s early years, Dallas now has an entire infrastructure in place to help players like Doncic acclimate quickly to the NBA. And while it took Nowitzki some time to believe he belonged in the NBA, Doncic, signed to Real Madrid at 13 — the same age Nowitzki first picked up a basketball — knows he was born for the play the game.
Doncic plays with an arrogance that comes from prodigious talent. He passes the ball in a way that shows he sees things others can’t. Naturally charismatic, fans can’t pry their eyes off him when he’s on the floor. And on this late-February night, Doncic, in his last game as a teenager, seemingly controls everything the Mavericks do. It is what earned him the nickname “Wonder Boy” in his home country of Slovenia. In Dallas, it’s called Luka Magic.
With Mavericks up by six, Doncic has the ball again. He dribbles, feints a drive, then steps back to hit another 30-footer. The game ends with Doncic scoring seven of the Mavericks’ last 10 points. He assisted on the other three-pointer, too. The Mavericks win while Nowitzki watches from the bench. This is how athletes age when they play long enough. Eventually, they come to witness their own obsoletion.
And yet, Nowitzki is the best-case scenario for how an aging athlete should end their career. Unlike many before him, there’s no sense that he’s here for the proverbial wrong reasons. He’d certainly love to win another, but he’s not chasing rings. He doesn’t seem to have monetary motivations, either. He enjoys being around his young teammates — joking, laughing, and playing — even if his best current contribution is knowing how to gracefully let go.
This transition from the past to the future could have gone horribly wrong. Nowitzki could have ended his career in the jersey of a team he has no connection to. Teams have paid players younger than Nowitzki and told them to stay away. Instead, as soon as the game’s final buzzer sounds, Nowitzki is the first player off the bench and on to the court to congratulate Doncic and the rest of his young teammates.
The Mavericks will, again, miss the playoffs this year. But with Doncic’s emergence, their fans have a renewed sense of hope. Next year, with Kristaps Porzingis, acquired in a January trade, presumably healthy and playing, Dallas’ prospect could change quickly, but Nowitzki will almost assuredly not be around when the Mavericks are serious championship contenders again.
That Doncic will be great seems ordained. A few hours after the game, Doncic turns 20 years old, and he has already accomplished feats that no other NBA player have, accounting for four of the five triple-doubles ever recorded in the league by a teen.
That Doncic will always be there for Dallas, the way that Nowitzki was, is unknown. Doncic is urbane and speaks three languages. He represents the future, not just for Dallas but for the NBA as a global brand. And one could understand if he let that cloud him into thinking that even a city like Dallas isn’t big enough to reach his ambitions.
Nowitzki could be the last great player to play the entirety of his career in one city anywhere. Long past being a teenager, he may even may play another season. He grew old in Dallas. He has a key to the city so he calls Dallas home. And Dallas loves him because, among other things, through the struggles, he never left.
Thus, during the winter months of his career, fans continue to cheer for him the loudest. Entire families will wear their matching Nowitzki jerseys and shout for a player averaging a small fraction of his career marks. At every home game, faceless voices among the crowd yelling, “Let’s go, Dirk!”
“I will choke up,” Jahir Martinez says of that inevitable moment when Nowitzki walks away. He says he will tell his son, who will likely grow up cheering for Doncic and, at best, only faintly remember the cold night when Nowitzki shook his hand, of what the big German meant to him and many others. “I will get something choked up,” Martinez continues, “because [Dirk] delivered something that I can remember for the rest of my life.”