Now would be the time, even if the league and the nation were not in the midst of a COVID surge that dulls reality and renders watching basketball something like a chore or a trip to a theme park where a kid was recently decapitated by a Batman-themed rollercoaster, to honor an all-timer. It’s early January, when most folks are blearily recovering from the holidays, sobering up and swearing off social interactions. The NBA season is no longer new. Teams need mechanisms that get butts in arena seats, and a bobblehead of your seventh man isn’t quite going to cut it. So you thumb through the rolodex in search of club legends and usually end up stretching that term to its breaking point. Does, uh, Michael Redd want to swing by and say a few words? A roomful of marketing folks shrug.
But a Dirk Nowitzki jersey retirement is a real thing, commemorating one of the best players of his generation and the best Dallas Maverick by a mile. Mark Cuban and company are going to hoist the German forward’s 41 into the rafters on Wednesday night and let him riff and possibly weep at halfcourt. You wouldn’t expect any of this to be terribly interesting, even though Dirk is a pretty good talker, but it is a significant event and more than that, an excuse to fondly take measure of Dirk’s estimable career. Dallas media has been awash in sentiment over the past week, former teammates recounting their time with Dirk and writers rhapsodizing about his finest performances. I wrote before the holiday break that one of the few things that has brought me comfort amid the NBA’s latest pandemic-induced crisis has been remembering old players. When the present feels inhospitable, we retreat into the past. Doing this with Perry Jones III is pleasant, but also a little bit pathetic. Dirk is now and forever well worth talking about.
My favorite game of his is that first tilt against Oklahoma City in 2011, the Western Finals the Mavs won en route to their upset of the Heat in The Finals. Dirk went for 48 points, going 12-for-15 from the field and 24-for-24 from the free throw line. I remember watching the second half of that game, some point toward the end of the third quarter when I sort of asked my girlfriend but was really asking the universe: so he’s just not gonna miss from the line, huh? What I didn’t remember, and was delighted to discover while revisiting the highlights and the game’s Basketball Reference page, is that OKC started to foul him relentlessly after he proved unguardable.
In the opening period, he spun around and faded away from Serge Ibaka so many times that Ibaka started reaching, getting so close to Dirk’s chest that all he had to do was initiate his shooting motion to create a foul. If Ibaka couldn’t hang, then Nick Collison (four fouls, two on Dirk) definitely couldn’t and all Thabo Sefolosha could do was lean on Dirk as he backed him down and drained jumpers over him. It’s not anybody’s strategy to send a career 88 percent free throw shooter to the line 24 times, but the Thunder didn’t do it on purpose. They just kept getting beaten and whacking him on the arm. And if he wasn’t going to miss with Ibaka’s elbow in his back, he wasn’t going to miss with the action paused and nobody standing near him, a packed arena cheering him on.
We talk about inevitability with great players, how LeBron is simply going to come up big when it matters and there’s nothing anyone can do about it, but this was something else, more like what you might see in billiards or golf, sports where the action stands still and near-perfection is possible. Basketball players have historic games and screw up plenty. For 48 minutes, Dirk basically didn’t. He caught the ball at the elbow and scored—or got fouled, and then scored. 36 of the 39 times he shot the ball, it went in. It had an air of unreality at the time. It still does.
He was a little bit old, then, on the verge of turning 33. Lither and bouncier versions of Dirk Nowitzki had eroded and he was finally at that point aging greats get to, where he knew everything he was going to know about basketball but was still athletic enough to apply that abundant knowledge. This is the Dirk that comes to mind when I hear his name.
What’s nice about these moments when we collectively take stock—jersey retirements, Hall of Fame inductions, etc.—is each person talking about their peculiar attachments, which parts of a player’s career endure most strongly for them. And it’s not really an argument or critical debate so much as the shared construction of a mosaic. Ah, yeah, that was a good game too; I’d forgotten about that one. Dirk Nowitzki played 21 years. You could spend a lifetime dissecting a tenure that vast. It’s spirit-salving, especially when everybody’s down, to spend at least a few days on it.