Dirk Nowitzki did not pass go, did not collect two hundred dollars, did not shake Miami’s hands and did not initially celebrate with his own team. By the time the final buzzer sounded, Dirk had already jumped the bench and bee-lined halfway down the hallway to the Dallas locker room. His hands palmed the back of his head and then lifted his jersey to his head, the word “Dallas” covering Dirk’s face at the same time Dirk’s hand covered the word “Dallas,” a city and a man quite literally becoming intertwined.
I would like to think Dirk broke down crying then. I would like to think he experienced a private moment of celebration, all by himself in the locker room, no teammates, no fans, no coaches, no opponents, nobody but Dirk and his thoughts, Dirk and his title. I would like to think there were a few moments when Dirk understood the magnity of what he had just done, not just winning a title but winning it during the NBA’s golden age of talent, winning it while the Kobe Bryants still hold power and the Derrick Roses and Kevin Durants want theirs, too.
Dirk had persevered through everything in Dallas—a tough rookie year; taunts of softness; being mocked after winning an MVP trophy; blowing an NBA Finals; being upset by an eighth seed in the first round; fading into a gray shade of irrelevance, winning 50+ games every season but never earning true playoff success and thus becoming overlooked playoff contenders. All those years shaped Dirk Nowitzki, all those years led to the NBA Finals series when he had finally become unstoppable, the NBA playoffs which he used he rewrite his legacy and vault himself back to the game’s forefront, back to the most lasting relevance a player can have, the type of relevance that etches itself into history books and remains in a sport’s lore forever, the type of relevance that results in an NBA Finals MVP, the Larry O’Brien Trophy and, because Dirk Nowitzki wanted them and who was going to tell him no, a few moments to himself in the Dallas locker room. No cameras, no people, just Dirk and his fulfilled dreams, just Dirk and thirteen years of heartbreak and perseverance, just Dirk and the championship that made every sprint and drill so goddamn worth it.
We suspect now that Dirk was always a winner, though he had never won. Even if he always possessed a winner’s mentality, thirteen years of bridesmaid finishes had hardened him. “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,” Dirk said. Without the work and time, without the failures, maybe Dirk would not have developed the unshakable confidence he exuded last night even after his jump shot uncharacteristically betrayed him. Dirk kept missing but he kept shooting, and ultimately the shots fell, just like he knew they would. When they did, Miami’s season went from the hospital to the grave. Dirk poured dirt on the coffin, playing the finishing role that years of losing and hard work had groomed him to seize. Jason Terry kept telling Dirk to remember ’06, and if Dirk wanted any extra motivation he could have remembered ’07, too, or really any other year of his career. Time supposedly heals wounds, but with the NBA Finals on the line, Dirk re-opened old wounds and re-visited past pain and suffering. He needed to. It helped him push through Miami, push past Lebron James and Dwyane Wade, and sign his name on the bottom of the Larry O’Brien trophy.
When Kevin Garnett won his first (and only, so far) NBA title, he lost his proverbial shit. Michelle Tafoya asked him about his feelings and Garnett could barely compose himself. He screamed, “Anything is possible” at the top of his lungs, shouted some gibberish, devolved into a fit of tears, shouted out his mother, finally spoke calmly and rationally, then asked the television audience, “Whatchu gonna say now? What can you say now?” The celebration was perfectly Garnett, an emotional medley befitting the NBA’s most emotional player, an outburst of joy that was at once spastic, real, raw and unfiltered.
That Dirk’s celebration did not mirror Garnett’s came as no surprise. The German has always been more guarded about his feelings. When Stuart Scott conducted the first interview with post-title Dirk, Dirk’s responses echoed with cliches. “I still really can’t believe it,” he said. “We worked so hard and so long for it. The team has been unbelievable, riding through ups and downs and always working together, and I still can’t even believe it.” He spoke in a monotone voice, barely a smile until Stuart Scott asked him one final question.
“NBA Finals champion—how does that sound?” he asked.
Finally, Dirk’s force field broke down and his attempts to shield his emotions stopped, if only briefly. A beam of light took hold of his face and a smile transformed it.
“Unbelievable,” he said through the overwhelming grin, and there was nothing cliche about it.
Dirk and his teammates had worked for their entire careers so that this one night might become reality. At different points in their careers, all had been forgotten, all had been discarded, all had been shades of gray. When the Mavericks traded for Jason Kidd, the consensus said they had made a mistake. He was old already, washed up, and Devin Harris was an up-and-coming stud. Last night, Kidd made a stepback three and provided his always-steady hand. Harris presumably watched from a couch somewhere in Utah. Jason Terry is too short for a scoring guard, and J.J. Barea much shorter. Deshawn Stevenson is a thug. Shawn Marion cannot succeed without Steve Nash. Tyson Chandler’s body betrayed him. Ian Mahinmi is a D-Leaguer. Brian Cardinal is Brian Cardinal. Somehow, the castoffs, retreads, washed-up vets and Dirk formed a team in the word’s truest sense, with Rick Carlisle, twice-fired yet always effective, coaching them to their fullest potential.
Terry had tattooed the Larry O’Brien trophy to his right biceps during a pre-season team get-together in October. It was meant as a message to his teammates, something that said, “This is what we’re fighting for, guys, and nothing less.” Getting a tattoo of a trophy you never won might be considered crazy, but then again, Jason Terry’s a little loco. He’s a backup guard who does not believe anyone can stop him. He’s a sixth man who considers himself an All-Star. He’s a one-dimensional scorer who talked crap to the world’s most talented basketball player after Game 3, then proceeded to outplay the world’s most talented basketball player in the three remaining games. Terry’s the type of person who would go bowling for the first time in his life and honestly predict a perfect 300. He could go golfing for the first time in his life and expect to shoot a 59. So for him to expect to win an NBA championship, even after falling short his whole career, isn’t shocking. What’s shocking is that he actually won one.
When the Mavericks accepted the franchise’s first Larry O’Brien trophy, David Stern handed it to the Mavericks’ founder and original owner, Donald Carter. Though one of my friends was pissed Stern didn’t hand the trophy to his most outspoken and controversial owner (imagine the awkwardness), Cuban’s gesture should melt hearts. Cuban had spent the last 11 years building a champion, throwing money at Erick Dampier, Brendan Haywood and anyone else he thought would help Dallas win a title, and finally he accomplished his championship aspirations. When the moment finally came and Cuban could accept his trophy, he understood it didn’t belong solely to him and his team. The trophy was for Carter, too, just as it was for Dallas’s fans, just as it was for all the NBA aficionados who wanted the Miami Heat to die a slow, painful death.
Maybe it wasn’t really a slow, painful death, but it was close. When the final minute ticked down and Miami declined the option to foul and prolong the game, they effectively waved the white flag. The Heat had fought so much this season—public opinion, each other’s insecurities, an inability to finish games, the Boston Celtics and Chicago Bulls—but they could not beat the Dallas Mavericks. Not when Dirk was the best player on the floor and Dirk-Terry the best duo. Not when Lebron James lost himself at the most important times. Not when Dwyane Wade got stripped by Jason Terry at mid-court and everything the Heat built all season crumbled as quickly as their 15-point, fourth-quarter lead in Game 2.
Now James rests in a spot Nowitzki knows too well, underneath the scorn of the basketball world, a loser who passively threw away the NBA Finals, a runner-up who could not seize the moment and convert the most crucial plays. The word “soft” will follow James around until he wins a title and does so impressively—James earned the description by playing hot-potato when his team needed a playmaker. We don’t, or at least shouldn’t, expect James to become Michael Jordan. We shouldn’t expect him to share Jordan’s mentality, the mentality that led Jordan to kill rather than to maim. James isn’t wired like that. But asking James to make his presence felt at all times should not be too much to ask from the world’s most talented basketball player. He does not need to score all the time, but why did he not make plays? Why did he not drive into the teeth of Dallas’s defense and find open teammates? Why did he become a role player when his team needed a star? Why did he camouflage himself when the Heat needed him to stand out? What faults keep him from winning, year after year, even with a supporting cast that was finally worthy?
Today, as James pointed out, we mere mortals will return to our lives and all our problems will still exist.
“All the people that were rooting me on to fail, at the end of the day they have to wake up tomorrow and have the same life they had before,” James said. “They have the same personal problems they had today. I’m going to continue to live the way I want to live and continue to do the things that I want with me and my family and be happy with that.”
But he will not have an NBA championship, and he can blame himself for that. Just as he should credit the Dallas Mavericks, a bunch of castoffs, retreads and veterans desperate to erase careers worth of playoff failure.
“How often do we have to hear about the LeBron James’ Reality Show?” asked Carlisle. “When are people going to talk about the purity of the game and what these guys accomplished?”
As Adrian Wojnarowski wrote, people will now talk about these Mavericks forever. Like Jason Terry’s Larry O’Brien Trophy tattoo, the Mavericks are permanently inked in NBA history, led by a seven-foot German power forward who molded his own role, the likes of which we never saw before and might never see again. When the clock ticked down, Dirk headed straight for the locker room. We can only imagine what he felt while sitting alone in that locker room, looking back at 13 years of drills and sprints and heartache and perseverance, looking forward to a lifetime of living as a champion.