As the season ends, so does an era. Dirk rides off into the sunset after leaving the Mavs infinitely better than he found them.
After last night’s game against the San Antonio Spurs ended, the Mavs close the longest running chapter in the history of the franchise: the storied ride of #41, Dirk Nowitzki. He’s a Maverick for life and says he’s not going anywhere, but he won’t be lacing ‘em up to carry our team anymore. This is an emotional milestone for many MFFLs mostly because so many of us don’t remember the Mavs before Dirk. He’s been our sports rock, the patriarch of the Dallas sports landscape and the best possible example of humility through superstardom anyone could have asked for.
All of this culminated in the celebration thrown on Tuesday night to say thank you to the man, the myth and the legend that has touched all MFFLs and countless NBA fans around the globe. Dirk was honored by his teammates, his coach, his owner and even more astoundingly, his heroes. NBA legends Charles Barkley, Scottie Pippen, Larry Bird, Shawn Kemp, and Detlef Schrempf were in attendance and spoke about how much Dirk has affected THEM and the game they all love. Larry Legend put it rather succinctly by saying that Dirk “left the game better than you found it”, stating why all Mavs fans had tears welling up all night.
When Dirk came into the league back in 1998, the Dallas Mavericks hadn’t been to the playoffs since the previous decade. Statistically speaking, the Mavs were one of the least successful franchises in sports. It was a dark time. And after Dirk arrived, the team went on a magical run where the Mavs went to the playoffs for 12 straight years, including 2 finals appearances and their lone championship. In all, Dirk has been to the playoffs 15 times in his 21 seasons.
To put that in perspective, the FRANCHISE has only been to the playoffs 21 times in total, so Dirk is responsible for 71% of all postseason basketball this fan base has experienced. If that’s not turning a team around, I don’t know what is.
But after the championship in 2011, the Mavs struggled to put a team together around Dirk that could recapture the lightning in a bottle that got them to the NBA mountaintop, with the best teams seeing only first-round exits in 2014-2016. Dirk, realizing that his time remaining in the NBA was growing shorter, started taking 1-year deals for far below his market value just so the team could improve and try to make deeper playoff runs. At one point, it was estimated that Dirk had left as much as $194 million on the open market by staying with the Mavs and doing what was best for the team. We do not deserve this human. He is truly one of a kind.
This philosophical shift from “anything to make the playoffs” to “we need to become a better TEAM” made Dirk the face of a rebuilding team that found itself in the lottery these past 3 years. This man had only missed the playoffs 3 times in 18 years was willing to miss 3 playoffs in a row because that’s what his team needed of him to develop through the draft. In talking about this mentality shift at the time, Dirk essentially said that he could have left the team to go ring chasing, but this is his team and he wanted to see it in a good place before he left it. Which turned him into the face of a rebuild which he had no interest in doing only a few years ago.
This year, the Mavs have positioned themselves to have a young core for the future with not 1, but 2 All-Star caliber players that can carry the torch forward for him. Dirk spent the year with the young men that will potentially carry on his legacy of greatness in this franchise for many years. All year he has shown them what it takes to lead by example and how to earn the respect of your fan base and those of 29 other teams as well. In speaking about the team’s bright future as he leaves it, Dirk said,
“Luka and KP are two young guys that the sky’s the limit. You know, two guys you can build around. Two guys who should play off each other very well…I thought Dwight had an amazing season for us and he’ll be great. Hopefully keep Maxi and Do Do and some of the other guys. Brunson was a find this year. I can go on and on. So, I think we’re heading in the right direction.”
Even though his watch has ended, he has promised that he isn’t going anywhere. Cuban has promised him a job for life doing whatever he wants in the organization, so you know he will be around to shepherd these young men through their trials and tribulations with a joke and a side hug. He may stop being one of the boys like he’s used to, but he’s got more than enough experience to be a Holger to the new stars of his beloved team.
In his retirement celebration, Scottie Pippen summed up this entire article when he told Dirk, “You played the game the right way, man.” Dirk has played all facets of the game the right way in a league that can often be self-interested and cruel to fans, showing everyone over his 21 years that you can be great with hard work and heart. He has protected Mavs fans from the harsh realities that we see other fans go through as contracts and egos rip teams apart. Just by being the man he is. He has done what is right by the team, his teammates and his fans, giving all of us an example of how it can be.
Dirk Nowitzki has undoubtedly left the game, especially here in Dallas, better than he found it. Thanks for the memories, Dirk.
Featured Image: GETTY IMAGES - Chris Elise