I always knew this day would come. I’ve followed Dirk Nowitzki’s career for half of my life—first as a player, then as a remote enthusiast, later as a sportswriter, and finally as the author of this book. It’s April 9, 2019, and almost seven years have passed since I first wrote about Dirk Nowitzki, seven years that I’ve been watching him work.
Nowitzki and I have sat in countless hotel rooms and cars, on locker room benches, terraces, film sets, and in a pasture in the Slovenian Alps. We’ve also sat in doctor’s offices, coffee shops and arenas and dusty gyms. We’ve been in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Kranjska Gora, Warsaw, Randersacker, and Shanghai. We’ve talked about basketball and about everything else—our parents, the children, books, and our aging bones. We even worked out together once. I’ve witnessed a number of his milestones with my own eyes, and I’ve had the other ones described to me. I’ve watched when the bright lights were switched off and Dirk Nowitzki continued to do what he does: play basketball.
When he scored his 30,000th career point, I was sitting in the stands next to Holger Geschwindner—Dirk’s mentor, coach, and friend—and I was deeply moved. By his achievements and accomplishments, by the love Dirk has attracted. I was moved because I sat there and sensed what it must have cost Dirk to get to where he was. I sat there, knowing I would write about this moment. But I also knew my words would always be a step behind Dirk Nowitzki’s presence of mind, his absolute mastery of craft. Just like his helpless defenders, my sentences would always be a tenth of a second too late.
Nowitzki’s world is a black box, a closed system with its own language and way of thinking. His inner circle is reserved and discreet, but once you get to know his people, they stay with you for good. Dirk’s calendar was always packed, every year booked down to the last minute. Whenever he was unavailable, I talked to the people he cares about and to the countless others who care about him. I’ve tried to understand what makes him different from other basketball players, from every other athlete. What makes him unique.
I’ve never asked for an autograph, and we’ve never taken a selfie. But I’ve sat with Dirk at restaurant tables and ordered wine while he stuck with water. Together, we’ve been on planes, in cars, on walks. Once, in Oklahoma City, I even ended up in a fistfight because of Dirk. To understand the Nowitzki system, I’ve given up my journalistic independence. My daughters were born while I was researching this book, and whenever someone asks them what their father does for a living, their answer is: “Dirk Nowitzki.”
For years, I had imagined driving with Dirk to his final home game. I had sketched out the details of this scene over and over. We had often talked in cars. Whenever I pictured the day of this last game, I pictured Dirk Nowitzki and Holger Geschwindner sitting together in the front. I’d be in the back seat, in the blind spot, notebook on my knees. But on April 9, 2019, the two of them are driving alone. This moment isn’t meant to be observed. I’m taking a regular taxi to the arena.
The southbound traffic flows slowly, past all the familiar buildings and billboards, including one of Nowitzki. There’s the skyline of down- town Dallas in the distance, the snow-white arches over the Trinity River. The Reunion Tower. At some point, the car gets off the highway. I note the artificial waterfall above the street, the ad for Coors Light.
Approaching the American Airlines Center, I realize that this hope to go unobserved is exactly what has made Dirk Nowitzki so successful: he and Geschwindner never set out to fulfill the desires and aspirations of others—and today is no different.
The taxi passes under the battered bridge at the dip at North Houston Street, along Harry Hines Boulevard, then turns onto Olive Street. The American Airlines Center. The house that Dirk built. “Everything is exactly how it should be,” I note. “Sometimes doors have to stay closed, sometimes the back seat has to be empty.”
As I get out of the taxi, melancholy and ceremony hang in the spring air. The Dallas Mavericks’ season has been over for weeks—or for months, if we’re honest. Today, they’re playing their final home game, against the Phoenix Suns, the worst team in the league. There’s nothing at stake for either of these teams tonight, but three hours before tip-off, there are fans gathered on the plaza in front of the arena.
Dirk Nowitzki hasn’t officially announced his retirement, but everything down to the finest details has been prepared for it. There are flags hanging from streetlamps, flags that have his face on them, flags displaying his life’s work in numbers and pictures: 2011 world cham- pion, sixth on the career scoring list, 14-time All-Star, and so on and so forth. The first player in league history to play for the same team for 21 years. His Dallas Mavericks. A huge, multi-story banner of Nowitzki is hanging on the front of the building, bearing today’s slogan at the bottom: “41.21.1.”
Dirk Nowitzki: Number 41 on his jersey.
21 years under his belt.
“The Great Nowitzki” is now available at local bookstores everywhere. Or order it online. 433 pages, with 32 photographs by Tobias Zielony, translated by Shane Anderson and published by W. W. Norton & Company.
Fans have come a long way to be here—from Germany and China and Argentina. They’re carrying hand-painted signs and wearing costumes. Some are here for their first and perhaps last time. Many in Dallas only know their city with Dirk in it, many have grown up with him, and only the older people remember what it was like before: Clinton was the president. There were no smartphones. Aerosmith’s “I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing” topped the charts. This arena didn’t even exist.
I survey the plaza in front of the arena. Fans line the streets waiting for Dirk’s arrival, but they don’t know what car he is in or which route he is taking—Victory Avenue? Olive Street? Almost everyone is wearing Dirk jerseys, Dirk T-shirts, both recent and vintage. They’ve painted signs of gratitude and respect; a few are bearing flowers. When his car finally turns the corner, people recognize him immediately and start to sing his song, a melancholic cheer, a jumble of emotions.
Dirk doesn’t stop. I watch the Range Rover roll slowly into the belly of the arena. Silver garage. Everything will be the same as it always is: Dirk will follow regulations and turn off the engine, like always. A bomb-sniffing dog will check the car, the security guard will silently stick out his fist to Dirk, and the old lady at the gate will blow him a kiss. That’s the way it’s always been, for all these years. “Thanks, my boy,” she’ll say, as if Dirk were her beloved grandson. “Thank you for winning tonight!”
Everything is ready to go. There’s a peculiar ceremonial air, at the press entrance, the security check, and the elevator to the catacombs. The lady operating the elevators is wearing a number 41 T-shirt. When Nowitzki and Geschwindner park the car, Mavericks communications guy Scott Tomlin and several hundred arena employees are waiting for Dirk. Security guards, food vendors, cleaners, technicians. Dirk has known many of these faces for years; their cheering touches him. Geschwindner remains in his seat and watches Dirk slowly work his way through the rows of people. High fives, fist bumps.
At the entrance to the loading dock, a blue carpet has been glued to the bare concrete floor so that Dirk can walk past the press and their cameras in befitting fashion. When he disappears into the locker room, it seems like he is in a good mood. What he doesn’t know is that right now, in a VIP box four levels above him, his childhood idols Charles Barkley, Larry Bird, and Scottie Pippen are raising their glasses to him. Shawn Kemp is also there. As is Detlef Schrempf, the greatest German basketball player of all time—before Dirk.
A difficult season lies behind Dirk; it would be more apt to say a torturous one. The recovery from the ankle surgery last April went well at first, and there was hope that it would heal quickly. But it didn’t. Instead, there were complications. An infection and a long and arduous recovery period. Dirk sat on the sidelines for the first 26 games of the season, watching the next generation take over, led by the über-talented Luka Dončić. He heard the cheers and watched Dončić follow in his footsteps. Dirk supported him. He worked obsessively on his body to be able to come back one more time. Dry needles were pierced into his damaged muscles every other day. Massages, hours and hours with his trainers and physios. It took an incredible effort to just get back on the court, but still, the foot didn’t heal properly. It was good enough for 6.6 points per game and almost 15 minutes of playing time, though. Dirk tried to consciously appreciate every day. Every flight. Every hotel. Every arena. Every stupid joke in the locker room.
From our conversations, I know that Dirk always had a different image of his retirement—namely, quietly and unnoticed. One year ago, in his hotel room in San Francisco, he told me he didn’t want a big production for his final game: “Just play and say, ‘That’s it,’” he had said. “‘Thank you.’ I’m done. My body’s done. I’ve given everything I had to give. It was a blast. But at the end of the day, I don’t want anyone to know about it beforehand.”
But now the big production is here. Everything is covered in tinsel. Signs hang on the doors of the arena, warning, “Tonight’s game will be using heavy amounts of pyro,” and there are dozens of cases filled with various kinds of fireworks down in the arena’s catacombs. There’s a gilded commemorative card on every seat, as well as a cardboard cutout of Dirk’s beaming face and a T-shirt with today’s slogan, “41.21.1.” For one last time, the merchandise stalls are almost exclusively selling Dirk-related memorabilia. Courtside seats for this game cost more than $10,000.
The Mavericks have had their hands full organizing these festivities, which include a laser show in addition to the pyrotechnics, and accommodating the unbelievably large media presence. Hordes of German journalists are here. This is their last trip to Dallas; editors won’t be sending them over anymore. They all have their own personal stories about Dirk, and each wants a few private seconds with him. He’s ours, we want to say our farewells. The same goes for the Americans, but the difference is that the Germans are more nostalgic and melancholic. “The German journalists are the most difficult,” Scott Tomlin laughs outside the Mavericks locker room. He presumably means me, but doesn’t want to say it.
As I step out of the tunnel and into the bright lights, I realize it’s my last time in this arena. Everything has been prepared. The hardwood shines bright and some of the younger Mavericks are already warming up. The documentary Der perfekte Wurf (The Perfect Shot) is playing on the jumbotron, the movie features Dirk’s father, mother, and sister. Donnie Nelson, the Mavericks’ general manager. Don Nelson, who drafted him. Barack Obama. Everyone talks about what Dirk means to them. And to the game. Steve Nash. Yao Ming. Kobe Bryant.
The fans, journalists, ushers, and security guards are all staring at the cube. Thousands of people, thousands of versions of Dirk. Nowitzki means something different to all of them. To the bulky steward with the Tourette tic behind the basket. To the TV host Jeff “Skin” Wade on the sidelines. To the 12-year-old girl and her grandfather in section 107, wearing their green vintage jerseys. And to me. We all think we know who Dirk is.
But it isn’t that simple.
For some people, Dirk is the nice boy next door; for others, he is the best European who ever touched a basketball. An innovator with a very unique way of thinking, a meticulous technician. The creation of a nutty professor. A free spirit. The reinvention of the power forward position and one of the main reasons for there being a major change in the way basketball is played. The kid from Bavaria. The superstar. To some, he is a financial asset; to others, he is their livelihood. A role model and a bitter rival. A shooter with a soft touch or a fierce competitor. A German workhorse and a Texan maverick.
7 p.m. The arena is popping when the players come out of the tunnel, as if it’s an NBA Finals game. People are on their feet, filming every shot Dirk takes during warm-ups. When he dunks, the audience cheers in a way that is normally reserved for the end of a game. The arena wants to belong to him tonight. The house that Dirk built. His history is all around him: his childhood teammate Robert Garrett is sitting across from the Mavericks bench. Dirk looks for his father and sister, searches for Geschwindner, his coach and friend. His wife, Jessica. The red logo of his hometown club, DJK Würzburg, is stitched on the shoes that were custom made for today.
The game begins, and everything runs through Dirk. I take notes. I could count the makes and misses—but then it hits me that this has nothing to do with basketball. It doesn’t matter that he scores the first ten points of the game or whether he does so with his fadeaway, his trailer three. It’s not about winning. It’s about Dirk Nowitzki and it’s about us. It’s personal.
Something catches him off guard in the second quarter. On the jumbotron, there’s a video showing scenes from his visits to a children’s hospital. Dirk has been making these visits for more than 15 years, but no journalist had ever accompanied him until last year. Dirk watches the video and can’t hold his tears back, even though there are still a few minutes left before halftime. Perhaps it’s the solemn tone, the narrator’s heartwarming voice. Perhaps he’s suddenly aware of how fortunate he has been over the years. Dirk Nowitzki is standing alone at center court, and when he’s no longer able to control his emotions, he lowers his eyes, hands holding his knees. The arena is struggling with his tears.
At some point, he pulls himself together and finishes the game. When Luka Dončić makes a perfect pass to Dwight Powell out of a pick-and-roll and Powell passes to the cutting Dirk, who dunks, I ask myself whether we’ve just witnessed the final dunk of his career.
There’s a last time for everything.
After the game, the Mavericks lay it on thick. Team owner Mark Cuban has announced that it will be a special evening whether Dirk likes it or not. Coach Rick Carlisle says a couple of moving words, and then images of Dirk’s childhood idols flash on the screens. Dirk is watching from the bench, confused at first. Scottie Pippen? Charles Barkley? Larry Bird? Schrempf? Kemp? Why are they showing these superstars? What do these legends have to do with him?
A special task force has been assigned to this top-secret surprise for months. Dirk wasn’t allowed to know anything about it, and he’s apparently totally oblivious. Dirk had no idea they were coming. But when Barkley, Pippen, and Bird slowly walk onto the court one after another, it dawns on him. His teammate Devin Harris is sitting next to him and can barely contain his excitement. Dirk bites into his towel to hold back the tears. The legends are standing in spotlights, and time makes a loop: 15-year-old Dirk Nowitzki in his kid’s room in the small German city of Würzburg-Heidingsfeld, a poster of Pippen above his bed and one of Barkley on his closet door. And Dirk Nowitzki, 40 years old, now one of them.
Dirk stands up and throws his towel to the side as if he’s being called back into the game. He awkwardly hugs the legends, smiles, and stands beside them, listening to their farewell speeches.
“Man,” Pippen says. “You have been an inspiration to me.”
Then Dirk is all alone in the spotlight. We’re all watching him. The arena is dark; only the dim emergency lights sparkle. Dirk stands at center court. Someone hands him a microphone. And then Dirk Nowitzki says what everyone in the stadium knows he’s going to say but didn’t want to believe.
I take a look at all the pensive faces around me. A lot of them are crying, and whoever isn’t crying will start crying soon enough. They all have their Nowitzki stories, their Dirk moments, fans and foes alike. We have watched him fail—we’ve failed so often ourselves. Everyone here knows exactly where they were when he won the world championship in 2011. Dirk Nowitzki’s victory still feels like our vic- tory. To those of us in the stands, those sitting in front of their computer screens in Europe, and those leaning on bars in America, Dirk has been a faithful companion, an emotional constant. I have watched him play basketball for the last 25 years. We’ve grown up with him— he’s what’s left of our youth.
To this day, I cannot say whether I’ve understood Dirk Nowitzki. But when he stands at center court in his arena, in front of his people, his city, and picks up the microphone at the end of a long, brilliant career, I’m raising my beer. The arena is full of friends, relatives, companions. His sister, his father, his wife. The arena below us is dark blue; only Dirk has lights on him. We catch our breath.
“As you guys might expect,” Dirk Nowitzki says. “This was my last home game.”
The book in your hands is not the standard sports book. It’s not a training manual. It’s not an inspirational hagiography or a motivational lecture. This book is the improbable story of Dirk Nowitzki, a scrawny kid from Würzburg-Heidingsfeld, Germany, who became a superstar in Dallas, Texas. Who became a citizen of the world, an ambassador for a truly global game. Who played for the same team for 21 years and became a legend in his sport. The Great Nowitzki. A player who shaped and changed the game he loves. Who achieved this with an almost inexplicable level of dignity, and without ever betraying himself, his love for the game, or his respect for people.
It’s also my story. The story of someone who failed at basketball but never stopped loving it—loving what the game means. There are many like me. Everyone who watched Dirk Nowitzki for all these years, watching him as if he were an old teammate who went a step farther than them. Those who still ask themselves how someone can be so good at what they do, at the highest level, with unbelievable stamina and focus. And those who ask why we couldn’t.
I’ve observed Dirk Nowitzki and the people around him—my observations are totally subjective, with all the blind spots of the participant observer; I’ve become enmeshed and fragmented. This book is my quest to find the significance of Dirk Nowitzki, his singularity, his precision, his accuracy. His meaning to the world, to the game, and to me. This book is not a biography. This book is my attempt to make sense of Dirk Nowitzki.