It’s Dirk Week here at The Sports Fan Journal. For no reason in particular, we thought we should take some time to show our appreciation for one of the NBA’s most underappreciated superstars. At some point in his next four games, Dirk will join one of the most exclusive clubs in all of sports, the 30,000-point club, cementing him as one of the greatest players in league history. It’s not just Dirk’s game that we love, it’s everything about his storied career on and off the floor. So this week, we’ll remember the ups, the downs and everything in-between. Happy Dirk Week, y’all.
Monday: An Open Letter Apology To Dirk Nowitzki
Tuesday: June 2, 2011 – The Night Dirk Won Me Over
Wednesday: An Appreciation of the One-Legged Fadeaway
Thursday: Dwyane Wade and Being Assertive Enough
Friday: Dirk Is Bad At Soccer, Good At Life
Saturday Sunday Monday: We Grew As Hoops Fans As Dirk Grew With Us
Maybe Dirk Nowitzki wasn’t supposed to reach these peaks. It’s possible that he exceeded his potential and returned on an investment the Mavericks could have never predicted. It’s also possible that we set the bar too low for a German hoops engineer with the ability to mechanically pick apart opposing defenses. It’s impossible to know for sure whether Dirk exceeded his capabilities or if we expected too little out of him, but we’re better off as basketball fans because of his passage through the NBA. There were peaks and valleys, sometimes simultaneous, but there was a transformation between his first year and where he is today that happened not only in his game but the way we consume it as lovers of hoops.
Nowitzki’s career is an ideological metamorphosis, not necessarily of his individual game, but of the way he’s viewed by us. In the early years of his career, Dirk’s on-court European aesthetic was considered to be a grubby caterpillar begging to get squashed under the steel-toed boot of American sensibilities. Instead, Nowitzki was hardened by the cocoon of several grueling NBA seasons and became the league’s butterfly—so unique in the way he exists in his environment that even the most misanthropic hoops fans appreciate what he’s delivered to the game. We don’t see Nowitzki in the same way that we did even five years ago—and it’s a shift in understanding we don’t experience with American players on such a large scale.
Nowitzki’s career is an interesting case when you consider this: What we believed about LeBron James at 17 isn’t too far removed from what we think about him now—and this sentiment applies to most American ball players at large. The biggest shifts in a collective belief system about individual domestic stars only come about in dramatic fashion. Legal issues lead to ethical discussions about our relationship with said player off the court, and this recent paradigm shift in the way we value analytics and efficiency can change the way we may view a legacy on the court—a guy like Kobe Bryant comes to mind in both instances. Other than these external circumstances, there usually isn’t a transfiguring of perspective like we’ve had with Nowitzki. So much of this change would not have happened if he didn’t win.
Dirk’s success is enigmatic. Despite his coming of age during a time when hoop culture was at its most xenophobic, he exists as the face of an organization in what is arguably the most American city. Re-watching young Nowitzki is painful. The weight of a franchise was put on the shoulders of a kid who had yet to grow into his body. This new world expected so much right away; fans didn’t understand the value in the potential of a German expatriate—and now the values derived from what he learned back home are ubiquitous in today’s game. He’s become Dallas’ peninsula in the sense that his game is uniquely his own, yet still objectively embodied by his organization. Dirk’s rise coincided with an era of individualism among stars. In a sea that hosted myriad islands, Nowitzki always remained a part of a collective whole.
What makes the NBA unique is that it offers a platform for its greatest artist to solve athletic problems with creative solutions. The best of those artists often leave an indelible mark that inspires awe in the present and nostalgia in the future. They’re able to stand out among their peers because they offer the game something it hasn’t seen before. They become the archetypes for future generations to emulate— or become extensions of existing models with new offerings. For some, they change the fundamental way we think about the game. They become the league’s tailor, custom-fitting the culture to better suit the changing times. Over the course of the last 18 years, Dirk Nowitzki has done just that. While it is important that we celebrate when he eclipses the 30,000-point mark, his legacy is much more than his ability to get buckets. His career is ostensibly about changing not only the game on the floor but how the collective conscious of NBA fans and media viewed foreign—specifically European—ball players.
There are many who will view Nowitzki as the greatest European-born ball player, but reducing his career to a comparison based on geographical origins completely ignores how great he’s truly been, especially when you consider that he and Pau Gasol are the top two NBA scorers out of Europe, and he’s outscored Gasol by more than 10,000 points. There is a legion of NBA bigs in the league right now who did not exist before Nowitzki pioneered a new archetype, and he did it while contributing a signature shot that is utterly unforgettable. There’s a kind of aspiration that comes with watching Nowitzki score that’s paralleled by listening to Chance the Rapper—it leaves you feeling better than you were before listening. And this is what Nowitzki did for all of us during his career. He gave us indelible moments on the hardwood and helped changed the way we saw foreign-born athletes playing American sports.
Phillip Barnett featuring Phillip Barnett.