A Teammate’s Legacy

»There’s no timeline. You can start right away.« Dwight Powell shares what he learned from playing with Dirk Nowitzki about how to make a difference on and off the floor.

Something changed within the Dallas Mavericks during the last few years. Many things stayed the same, of course; Mark Cuban was still the owner, Rick Carlisle the coach, Donnie Nelson the chief decision-maker, and most importantly Dirk Nowitzki remained atop the roster sheet. But the faces around him changed as time passed, always getting younger while time began working against Dirk. The generational gap was so pronounced, in fact, that Nowitzki was more than twice Luka Dončić’s age when the Slovenian rookie took the NBA by storm.

The roster has changed so much that only a couple players remain from the Mavericks’ most recent playoff team in 2016. One of those players, J.J. Barea, teamed up with Nowitzki to win the 2011 championship. He’s experiencing the same temporal roller coaster as Dirk has in the last few seasons. Now 35, he’s the oldest player on the roster. The other, Dwight Powell, has been on an even wilder ride. 

Just 28 years old, Powell is already the second longest-tenured Maverick and suddenly one of the oldest players on the roster. He arrived in Dallas in 2014 as a 23-year-old rookie, a second-round draft pick who’d already been traded three times. Those players don’t usually receive many chances to succeed at this level before someone younger comes along to take their job. So Powell immediately got to work, and that caught the eye of a certain German superstar. The two quickly became friends, bonding over their relentless work ethic, often the first in the gym in the morning and the last to leave in the afternoon. They began sitting next to each other on the plane, and they were neighbors in the locker room until the end of Dirk’s career. Powell soaked up every ounce of wisdom and advice as he could.

Their partnership exists off the floor, as well. Powell has played in Nowitzki’s Heroes Celebrity Baseball Game for years, capturing the MVP once and putting together a strong case for the trophy once again in 2019. And this year, the second in a row, he’ll compete in the Pro Celebrity Tennis Classic

Powell grew up in Canada, the home of the prestigious Rogers Cup, but outside of Mario Tennis or the occasional game with his friends on the concrete courts of Toronto, he didn’t play the sport hardly at all. There’s not much of a connection, at least to the game. But there is to Dirk, and that’s why the 6-foot-10 big man is competing.

»Anything Dirk’s involved in, especially when it comes to community stuff, I try my best to support him just because he’s laid the foundation and set up the archetypal professional basketball player/leader in the community,« he said. »Any opportunity I can have where I can align myself with him in what he’s doing for the people around him and for the Dallas community, I definitely want to try and do. He does things the right away, and he always has.«

Powell has taken his responsibility essentially as Dirk’s pupil for all these years so seriously that he’s beginning to create a legacy of his own both on and off the floor. He’s already become one of the most successful late-second-round picks in recent NBA history, and he just earned a significant contract extension this summer. In the spring, he was one of 10 finalists league-wide for the NBA Cares Community Assist Award, in part because he raised more than $600,000 for the Dwight Powell Children and Family Support Fund, which provides guidance, education, and resources to help patients and their children cope with cancer. It takes a special commitment to the community for any athlete to achieve that level of success off the floor, but Powell says he learned from the best in Dirk.

»He’s been a big role model for me in that arena especially, not just on the court,« Powell said. »So even though he’s retired and he’s not necessarily playing basketball anymore, he’s still a major leader in this organization, and guys for generations to come will look to him for advice, and look to his legacy and look to things that he did on the court. But I think in a lot of ways, more importantly, they’re going to look to the way he carried himself off the court. Especially this year, fresh off of hanging them up, it’s important for as many of us as possible to soak up as much as we can of what he has left to teach us.«

Powell played in the tennis tournament for the first time last year. As has been the case with many of his Mavericks teammates, competing against world-class tennis professionals like Tommy Haas and Mark Knowles can be a little bit of a shock at first. Powell joked that he’s not sure how well Dirk himself will play after his relaxing summer (»He’s taken a lot of time off«), but he’s still in awe of the professional talent that will be on hand.

»Some of those pros you’ve seen play and you really realize how good they are when you see how fast the ball’s coming and how much movement it has on it,« he said. »It’s kind of a humbling experience to realize that there’s a whole other echelon in every sport that, even though you play as a kid and you have fun, there’s guys out there that have worked just as hard as you have at your own craft, and it’s fun to watch them go out there and school everybody.«

Powell won’t be the lone representative from the Mavs, however. J.J. Barea will return again to compete, as will Luka Dončić and Devin Harris, in addition of course to Nowitzki. The lineup is deep and star-studded.

As is the case with all his teammates, though, Powell’s competitive connection with Nowitzki moving forward will be limited strictly to these types of events. Alas, their days of flying from Los Angeles to Denver for the second night of a grueling back-to-back are over. Dirk’s work ethic might be the most important lesson to pass on to any athlete, at least as it relates to their career. But for players — for people — like Dwight Powell and so many of the Mavericks who called Nowitzki their teammate for so many years, success on the floor isn’t necessarily complete unless it comes with improving the lives of those who reside on the sidelines.

»Not everybody was afforded the opportunities that we were. Everyone’s worked hard to get to this position, but it takes a lot of luck, and I think it’s important we all recognize that we got lucky and there’s a lot of people that helped us along the way,« Powell said. »So any chance you get to try and find ways to give back, especially to this community who does such a great job of supporting us through good times and the bad — as you get older it becomes easier to realize those things but hopefully through the example and legacy Dirk has left, and through the things that J.J.’s left in his legacy and the things he’s done all over the world, we can set an example for these young guys coming in that you don’t have to wait until you’re 28, 29, 30 (years old). You don’t have to wait until your second contract. There’s no timeline. You can start right away.«

___ by Bobby Karalla.

Photos courtesy of Dallas Mavericks/NBA