Wednesday, November 24, 2010

What we're watching with Dirk

It sure seemed like just another ho-hum Tuesday when the night began. Back in Dallas for Thanksgiving, I headed for the American Airlines Center to take in a Mavericks game. The Pistons were in town, not exactly the team that dominated the Eastern Conference the middle of the last decade, but certainly not a slouch either.

Dallas started off hot with an 11-0 run, but an ugly second quarter resulted in Detroit working their way back to take the lead at the half, 42-38. And all the while, there was the main Mavs man, Dirk Nowitzki chipping away, bucket after bucket. Swish. Swish. Swish. His 17 first-half points weren't much to write home about for two reasons: one because mailing a letter all the way to Germany is expensive, and secondly because the Mavs were losing.

The Mavericks weren't able to cut into the deficit in the 3rd quarter either, trailing 63-56 heading into the final period. Hey, there's 82 of these games, and Mavs fans have become accustomed to ramping it up when the playoffs begin, keeping energy levels during regular season games in on the early side of New Year relatively "meh" so to speak. Dallas is trailing. Dirk is playing well. But the team just might not find the win column tonight. Most of the wine-and-cheese crowd at the "Double-A C" on Tuesday weren't going to lose a lot of sleep without a mad fourth quarter rally.

But Dirk continued to make these buckets and make it look effortless. His trademark fallaway-off-one-foot shot from near the elbow continued to fall just as it has for more than a decade in Dallas. The man who cause Dallas fans -- which were small in number and perhaps even smaller in faith -- to scratch their heads on draft day 1998 made them slowly start to believe in yet another comeback win in Big D. And row by row, with each bucket from the Big German, fans rose from their seats, believing that this could be a special night. Help from Caron Butler and Jason Terry certainly made a comeback opportunity possible, but all the while #41 continued to do what makes him so special.

Decibel levels climbed within the AAC, and the Mavericks chipped away at the Pistons lead until Dirk Nowitzki sank a pair of free throws as the Mavericks snuck ahead, 68-67. After a Pistons' 3-pointer, Dirk drew another trip to the line, two more free throws and things were tied up, 70-70. A quick trip down the court later, Jason Kidds slings the ball over to Dirk for the go ahead 3-pointer, and as soon as it left his hand, there was no more doubt in the building.

There were six minutes left on the clock, but by that point, it was essentially over. Detroit tried to keep it close down the stretch, but the Mavericks withstood the best efforts of their opponents. And when the dust finally settled, there was Dirk with 42 points, 12 rebounds and yet another impressive comeback win. Dallas 88, Detroit 84.

It's just another November win. It doesn't make a whole lot of difference in the overall scheme of things for this franchise, let alone for the 2010-11 season. But it's also the mark of what Dirk Nowitzki has been doing for a dozen years in Dallas that has made him the most special player in franchise history in what must be considered the makings of a hall of fame career.

The off-balance shot falling away. The flailing limbs on a take to the hoop. Heck, even the goofy videos on the jumbotron. It's all part of the quirkiness and Dirkiness that has been a staple in Dallas. People may still remember the Mavericks before Dirk. People might remember Don Carter's hat, Triple-J, Rolando Blackman, Derek Harper, and Reunion Arena. There might be some "good old day" feelings toward those early days of the Mavericks, be it fond memories of Moody Madness or the run to the Western Conference Finals against the Lakers in '87 when the Reunion Rowdies were at their finest.

But what this 7-foot phenom has done in Dallas is rewrite the franchise's history books. We don't know where this team will go after Nowitzki takes his final shot with the Mavs, whether or not that ends up being the final shot of his NBA career. Maybe this franchise, 20 years from now, will win a title without him and that will be the greatest Mavericks team ever, featuring players who are currently in kindergarden. But what can't be questioned is that this franchise is now talked about in pre-Dirk and post-Dirk terms.

Pre-Dirk, they were the little Mavericks, a team that at one point won 11 and 13 games in consecutive seasons. Yuck. Yes, they'd been to postseasons, but aside from a seven-game series against the Lakers, there weren't many highlights. Dirk changed all of that. He essentially erased those memories. At the very least he sent them to the back of the memory bank, piling ahead of those old memories countless jump shots, 3-pointers, dunks, drives and yes, even those goofy videos on the jumbotron.

Seriously, think back to what you thought of the Mavericks before Dirk arrived. More importantly, did you even think of the Mavericks? Did you look at them as a novelty, merely a way to witness Magic Johnson or Michael Jordan or Larry Bird or other superstars come through town to play our city's version of the Washington Generals? What did you think of the Mavs?

What do you think of them now?

One player changed the trajectory of this franchise. Obviously coaches, GMs, role players and a owner who appears to be equal parts fan and businessman helped the process. But it can all be traced back to #41.

There will at some point come a time when he no longer suits up for the Mavs. I hope it's not for a while, because as he displayed on Tuesday night against Detroit, he is still very much capable of dominating a game in the NBA. But when his time as a Maverick is done, with a ring or not, he will be looked back at as one of the greatest sports figures the DFW metropplex has ever seen. He'll be up there with Troy Aikman, Roger Staubach, Nolan Ryan. He's one ring away from immortality status as far as the rest of the NBA is concerned, but here in Dallas, let's hope his team's fans know better than that.

He's already achieved it.

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