The First Bucket

Dirk Nowitzki is in his 21st season with the same team – a first in the history of the NBA. Bobby Karalla describes the very first seconds of this record season.

Dallas Mavericks practices are fun. That in itself is a bit of a contradiction; NBA players don’t like to practice. Allen Iverson’s iconic quote erases any lingering doubt. But Dallas isn’t quite like the rest of the league, at least not for the last 21 years. No, around here, practice is full of laughs and taunts in between shooting games, and most of the noise comes from one person, claiming one victim after another on the hoop in the back of the gym. Dirk Nowitzki hasn’t won every game he’s ever played, but he’s never told a joke which hasn’t left everyone in earshot chuckling. His simple appreciation for the most mundane professional basketball task imaginable is contagious, his joy radiant. He’s just happy to be here.

For much of this year, however, practice has not been fun for Dirk Nowitzki. Instead of trading insults with Harrison Barnes or showing Luka Dončić what it means to be a European rookie, Dirk has been relegated to cardio. He hasn’t been shooting on the basket at the far end of the court. His basketball home has been the treadmill off to the side of the court, tucked behind the very same goals he should be swishing jumpers on, laughing while he does it.

It’s taken longer than expected for Nowitzki to return from ankle surgery in April. The procedure’s objective was to remove bone spurs from the joint, which would make movement far easier and less painful. However, his body has for so long operated under the restrictions set by those spurs, so the 40-year-old is retraining his ankle. He’s learning to run, jump, and cut all over again. It is a daunting task, but it’s one he has worked every day for eight months to achieve. »I’m tired of the treadmill,« he sighed after one December practice.

And, after all the rehab, running, stretching, and therapy Dallas could offer, on Dec. 13, the legendachieved his mission. After 254 days removed from NBA basketball, Nowitzki finally returned to the court, playing for six short minutes and scoring a bucket in Phoenix.

Three days later at American Airlines Center, he entered the game against the Sacramento Kings with 3:17 left in the first quarter to a thunderous standing ovation from Mavericks fans who waited longer to watch him play than they’d ever had to before. They cheered when he checked in, even as he nervously ran his fingers through his hair and took a few seconds longer than usual at the scorer’s table to make sure his jersey was tucked in just right. They buzzed with anticipation as he considered launching a 32-footer moments after taking the floor, but he passed up the shot in favor of making the better play. Photos of Nowitzki and Dončić on the floor together laughing about that moment quickly went viral. They roared when he hit a jumper, a reminder that even though Dallas loves Dončić, Smith, and the promise of future success, Mavericks fans were here to see Dirk. By the end of the night, his nerves turned to joy. Even in a Mavericks loss, everyone had something to smile about.

»It was good to be back in front of the home fans,« he said after the game. »I appreciate the warm welcome. This obviously took a lot longer than I was hoping, with the set back and the inflammation in the foot. I wish I was out there a long, long time ago but I’m glad I’m finally there and moving in the right direction.«

Finally. Basketball fans around the world would agree.

These are not things that millionaire superstars say.

Dirk’s return to basketball hasn’t been without complications. First, there is a fair amount of complexity in the physical limitations he is still playing under. In his first two games back, for example, he played one consecutive stint of minutes in the first half and did not play at all in the second half. Mavericks head coach Rick Carlisle said this could be the plan for him for the foreseeable future. Every athlete needs time to regain his stamina and endurance after an extended absence. Those problems are only magnified when a 21-year veteran works his way back into shape.

»It’s important to manage the expectations of this, and protect him,« Carlisle said.

Then, there are the basketball reasons. Nowitzki is renowned for his humility, and he’s hard on himself, sometimes even to a fault. In his place with the second unit has been Maxi Kleber. During the last few months, Maxi has established himself as one of the most effective rim protectors in the NBA, a promising development for him considering he’s due for a new contract next July. Kleber and center Dwight Powell have thrived playing next to J.J. Barea and Devin Harris, two of Nowitzki’s longest-tenured teammates.

Always modest, Nowitzki said he doesn’t want his return to affect team chemistry, as at the time the Mavericks had won 13 of their previous 17 games. »The boys are playing well,« he said. »I don’t really know what else to say. Maxi’s playing well, Dwight’s playing well off the bench, so if I’m really out there or not, it doesn’t make that much of a difference right now.«

If I’m really out there or not, it doesn’t make that much of a difference right now. An eternal basketball legend who has scored more than 31,000 points in his career really spoke those words into a microphone. Nowitzki, who said he would consider coming off the bench as early as 2015, a year in which he was named to the All-Star team, never ceases to surprise. These are not things that millionaire superstars say. Even his coach could hardly believe it.

»This guy is the anomaly of superstar athletes in their late years. He just is. He just is,« Carlisle said. »Dirk has a great sense of self-awareness. He’s totally into the team. He loves the fact that the team’s having some success now, and the younger guys are doing better.«

None of Nowitzki’s teammates appear to share his concerns about team chemistry. In fact, his own selflessness has endeared him to 198 NBA teammates and countless others in Germany over the years. As he’s risen for the few jump shots since his return, the entire bench has risen with him. His teammates practically stormed the floor after he banked in a jump shot in Phoenix during his first game back. DeAndre Jordan, a Houston native and 10 years Nowitzki’s junior, holds a deep reverence for the German. Luka Dončić was born 23 days afterDirk made his NBA debut and has looked up to him for nearly his entire life. In those moments, when he’s launching jump shots against the Suns and Kings, all of his teammates become fans, too. These would otherwise be relatively ordinary NBA games in mid-December between teams which might or might not make the playoffs. But these games are far from meaningless. Dirk’s presence makes them special.

No denial, no deflection, only honesty.

Throughout his eight-month recovery, speculation that this would be Nowitzki’s final season intensified. He’s long said he only still plays the game because it’s fun, and it’s hard for anyone to appear like they’re having fun when they’re running on the treadmill for yet another day. Rehab isn’t easy for a rookie, let alone a player who’s logged nearly 1,500 NBA games. Dirk himself has never let on that this would be it, although he’s vaguely hinted toward it on more than one occasion. Regardless, an outpouring of support from his colleagues and dignitaries suggests that the world is preparing for the inevitable in case it arrives sooner than we all hope. No reasonable person wants Nowitzki to retire, but they must all act now, just in case. Vince Carter invited Dirk onto his podcast when the Hawks were in town. Nearly every rookie in the league has already gone on record to say how much they admire Dirk’s game and his legacy. The most significant local recognition, meanwhile, came in the form of a key which doesn’t open anything.

Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings presented Nowitzki with the key to the city of Dallas on Nov. 21, three weeks before the German would make his season debut. Rawlings has been mayor since 2011, and in his seven years he’s only awarded two other keys to recognize great citizens: one to golfer Jordan Spieth, and one to preservationist and author Virginia McAlester.

»It’s not something that I do on a regular basis,« Rawlings said. »It’s got to kind of be someone really that is a very, very special person. One of things where when they’re great, there’s no debate. And this guy is that.«

It was Dirk’s first time appearing in front of media in nearly two months, which made for an interesting press conference. In between Nowitzki laughing about his disbelief that the key to the city doesn’t exempt him from property taxes and that he and Rawlings got »lit« at a club one night a few years ago, Dirk spoke reverently about what the city and the people of Dallas have meant to him, even as he struggled during his first year in the U.S.

»They took me in with open arms and wanted me to succeed, wanted me to do well,« Nowitzki said. »And so I’ve tried everything in my career to pay that loyalty and that love back that I received here in year one, when things weren’t going the right way.«

»A kid came here that was skinny and didn’t really know much about life, and had only lived at home,« he added. »I grew into a man here.«

The key to the city is an American honor bestowed by a city upon great citizens. Needless to say, Texas is a proud state, and Texans are a proud people. Dirk, of course, is not from Dallas, or Texas, or even America. The very fact that he was even considered for such an honor speaks volumes of how much he has achieved here, and also how the city has embraced him.

»It’s his persona as much as anything. Everybody says that’s the type of guy I want to be,‹« Rawlings said. »We need role models. We need to deal with some of the tough issues that we’re facing. Obviously, he’s not only grown up to be a great man, but a great husband and a father, too.«

Rawlings’ term as mayor comes to an end in June, when he’ll leave office. That explains the rush to gift Dirk the key. This was the moment when Dirk explicitly broached the subject no one wants to admit is a real possibility.

»It’s always been a pleasure living here and representing the city. I might actually be done in June, too,« he said. »We’ll see. But my work is far from done here. This is my city. I grew into an adult and man here. The work that my foundation has been doing for a long, long time is something I want to continue to do. It’s gonna keep me busy, and hopefully we can help as many kids in need as we can. That for sure is something I can promise that I’m gonna keep doing way, way after my career.«

Nowitzki has rarely if ever before spoken in such straightforward terms about his life after basketball. His line about being done in June was said at least slightly in jest, to be fair, but Dirk also plainly stated that life will go on after his career is over. After basketball. On a night when his name would be etched into Dallas history, Nowitzki reminded us that basketball does not last forever. Keep in mind this was before anyone, him included, had a date in mind for his return to action.

One reporter asked him again if this would indeed be his final season. »I want to approach it as giving it all I got, and see what the body can still give me,« he said. No denial, no deflection, only honesty.

The key ceremony was all pomp and circumstance without any basketball. In other words, it was not the type of environment in which Nowitzki thrives. He even made a goofy face when Rawlings presented him with the physical key during halftime, before correcting his expression to a polite smile. Dirk spoke kind words into the microphone to the Mavericks fans, thanking them for their support over the years. All the while, his teammates warmed up for the second half just a few steps away. Surely, it was an awkward experience for Nowitzki, who would have almost certainly traded the key and every other honor he’s ever received for a healthy ankle so he could join them in layup lines. He even said it himself: Over the years, Dirk has preferred to communicate his graciousness to the people of Dallas by playing basketball better than we’ve ever seen it played before.

»Walk with me!«

Behind the scenes in recent weeks, Nowitzki’s demeanor has changed. As his approach neared, he traded his endless treadmill jogs for scrimmages with teammates. His exhausted, sweaty treadmill-stare was replaced with his usual grin, especially when he’d work in the post against Dončić. The 19-year-old Slovenian wonder boy, the heir apparent to Nowitzki’s throne who’s just half the German’s age, seems more excited when Dirk scores on him than when their roles are reversed. 

»He’s a legend,« Dončić said. »To be in the same locker room as him is something very special to me.«

Even Dirk’s sense of humor has returned. One game of 3-on-3 starring Nowitzki versus a few player development interns left the German making fun of himself as only he can. »I wasn’t the best player out there yet, so we’ve still got some work to do,« he said. Nowitzki often plays a 1-on-1 shooting game with teammates in which the two players alternate shots from the same spot around the 3-point arc. The first to five wins, then they move to the next spot. Nowitzki’s patented celebratory taunt is a bellowing »Walk with me!« to let everyone in the entire gym know who won. That roar had been missed for eight months, but it has returned. Following one practice in early December, Nowitzki made 24 out of 25 3-pointers, all the while trading hilarious insults with legendary foul-mouthed player development coach Mike Procopio.

Just three weeks after longing to play and openly contemplating life after basketball, Nowitzki is back on the floor. He’s smiling again, and everyone else is, too. He might only be playing six minutes for now, or eight, but those short stretches are must-watch basketball, bringing every fan to the edge of their seat. No one knows how much longer we’ll get to watch him, and I don’t think Dirk does, either, but that future mystery makes the present all the more enjoyable.

Rehab was torture. But for Nowitzki, the journey is the destination. Without that rehab, there would be no basketball. And basketball is fun. His body might not allow him to play 30 minutes in a game, but that does not really matter. All that matters today, right now, is that he’s able to play eight minutes against the Los Angeles Clippers on Dec. 20. And it matters that his teammates are happy he’s back. For the first time ever, the Mavericks can consistently win basketball games without Nowitzki. But for the 1,473rd time, his teammates were thrilled to see him on the floor.

And although he would never admit it, if his first bucket in Dallas didn’t do the trick, the standing ovation he received during his home debut must have made him feel like all of the treadmill work was worth it. Dirk Nowitzki is back. No one knows for how long, but that fact alone is something everyone can celebrate.

___ by Bobby Karalla.

Photo © Glenn James/NBAE via Getty Images