The Dallas Mavericks were on the road facing the Seattle Supersonics to start the lockout-shortened 1998-1999 NBA season. At the time, Dallas remained mired in the futility that came to encapsulate the team during the ‘90s, but that game would mark the first of many of a historic career. With 10 minutes remaining in the third quarter, a tall, skinny blond rookie from Wurzburg, Germany stepped to the free throw line and sunk both foul shots. Dirk Nowitzki had arrived in the NBA.
That was 19 seasons, and countless hairstyles, ago. Now, Nowitzki joins the ranks of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Karl Malone, Kobe Bryant, Michael Jordan, and Wilt Chamberlain as the only players in NBA history to score 30,000 points for their career. When the Mavericks traded Robert “Tractor” Traylor to the Milwaukee Bucks for Nowitzki on draft night, no one expected his career to turn out like this. However, early in his career, he was drawing favorable comparisons to a legend.
“Early on, my recollection is there were a lot of comparisons to [Larry] Bird because they’re both great shooters, they both have blond hair, and there were some physical similarities, although Dirk is quite a bit taller than Larry,” Mavs’ head coach Rick Carlisle reminisced recently.
“I remember I was doing TV for the Sonics one year,” Carlisle continued. “It was Dirk’s maybe second or third year. In one of our opens, we were talking about some of the comparisons and my comment at the time was ‘We’ll see how this plays out over time. This kid’s got some terrific tools.’”
“And it was right around the time he was starting to show signs of taking the first quantum leap. You know, that’s 16-17 years ago now. Today, we’re in a different millennium and his accomplishments are gigantic, extraordinary.”
Photos: Dirk Nowitzki through the years
Taking his career into perspective, it’s easy to forget where Nowitzki came from to make it this far in the league. Mavericks’ owner Mark Cuban, though, still thinks fondly about the first time he met the player that would become the face of his franchise.
“[It was] the night before I announced I bought the team at the Stark Club,” Cuban remembered. “He and [Steve] Nash were there and I went up and tried to buy them a beer and I was dressed like a freak show. I have a picture of it, not of him, but of what me and my buddies were wearing. I was walking around with a bottle of champagne, and I was like, ‘Can I buy you a beer? I think I’m going to be seeing you tomorrow.’ And he said, ‘No, that’s OK.’ And Nash just liked rolled his eyes and they walked away. Then they saw me the next day and everybody was like ‘Who the f*** is this guy?’”
Cuban has a lot of anecdotes about Nowitzki. That’s to be expected since they have spent almost their entire basketball careers together. All the while Cuban knew that Nowitzki was going to be something special when the team faced the Minnesota Timberwolves in the first round of the 2001-02 playoffs. The Mavericks swept the Wolves as Nowitzki averaged 33.3 points and 15.7 rebounds on 52.6 percent shooting on field goals and a whopping 72.7 percent on 3-pointers.
“That’s when he blossomed,” Cuban said.
Since that season, Nowitzki has averaged 22.6 points, been an All-Star 12 times, been named league MVP, won a championship, and been awarded Finals MVP to go along with countless other accolades -- all the while transforming the way the game is played. Then on Tuesday, March 7, 2017, he hit yet another milestone. One that few players have ever reached and the vast majority will never attain.
After an 18-point barrage in the first quarter against the Los Angeles Lakers, Nowitzki entered the second quarter two points shy of 30,000. With 10:58 remaining, Devin Harris got him the ball on the right baseline. The crowd stood, cellphones in hand recording the moment, as Nowitzki rose over Larry Nance Jr. and swished home one of the most historic shots in his storied career.
“It felt amazing, you know,” Nowitzki said after the game. “Leading up to it, obviously, every basket I felt the buzz in the crowd. Then coming out in the second quarter, I was sitting on 18, and the first play was called I just remember walking out and everybody already got up so I got a little nervous and hoisted an air-ball, but was able to regroup and make the next shot.
“It’s sort of surreal. 30,000 is amazing. A lot of points, obviously. Every milestone makes you reflect a little bit. Reflect on people who helped you, who’s been with you all this way from all the coaches and Cuban, all the teammates I had, the fans who’ve been with me through thick and thin. It’s been an amazing ride and hopefully a couple more baskets are coming and then it’s time to ride off into the sunset.”
It was a storybook moment and one that will go down in the annals of NBA history. He’s not done yet, but if he were, it would be a fitting end to one of the most prolific careers the league has ever seen. Not one to revel in the spotlight, Nowitzki acknowledged the relationship he forged with Cuban in order to have the career he has and to do it all for one team.
“I owe a lot, obviously, to Mark, who believed in me early,” Nowitzki said. “When he bought the team and made me his franchise player when I was 24, I think, and stuck with me ever since. When a lot of people said, ‘You can’t win with him. You can’t win with him,’ he believed in me and I stayed loyal to him and the rest is history. So, I’m very thankful for him for giving me that opportunity.”
Not even Cuban knew how well everything would work out. Who would have thought that a blond kid with a bowl cut from Wurzburg, Germany would have such an impact in a league seemingly as foreign to him as he was to it?
“I don’t think anybody foresaw this except maybe Holger [Gerschwinder] but I’m glad that he did,” Mark Cuban said of Nowitzki’s career. “I mean, it’s just incredible, unbelievable.”
Those adjectives will follow Nowitzki into the history books.