The day the Dallas Mavericks were set to meet with Deron Williams in the summer of 2012, I was walking to work in New York and noticed someone who resembled Rick Carlisle on the other side of the street. I quickly crossed, and sure enough, it was him -- the master architect of the devastating zone defense and steward of the analytics-based roster that led the Mavs to their first NBA title just a year prior.
My incredulity was met with sudden anxiety. I’d never met a Mavs player or coach before, other than the time Popeye Jones was signing autographs at my local Oshman’s. I held it together enough to approach, extend my hand and come up with the only words that came to mind: profusely thanking him and blubbering about how much the championship meant to the city. That title and team still loomed so large that, in the moment, I completely forgot that he was likely on his way to meet with Williams, then the most coveted player on the free-agent market.
It was only after Carlisle walked away that I realized he hadn’t uttered a single word -- only a blank face until this bumbling idiot shut up so he could go negotiate the future of his franchise. Carlisle wasn’t eager to reminisce, but that certainly hasn’t been the case for fans.
The 2011 title run is about as storybook as it gets in the sports world. After what a majority of Dallasites perceive as being wrongfully stripped of the 2006 title by constant, dubious Dwyane Wade trips to the free-throw line -- the most popular signing requests during Bill Simmons’ 2010 book tour stop in Dallas were "2006 was rigged" and "Eff You Salvatore” -- and then a 2007 title run nipped in the bud after the No. 1 seed Mavs drew a first-round matchup with the only team with which they’d struggled that season, the franchise regressed to first- or second-round exits from 2008-10. While still winning 50 games every season, the title window appeared shut. Dirk Nowitzki admitted years later that he’d even mulled the idea of leaving Dallas to pursue his ultimate goal of winning a ring.
But in 2010-11, a ragtag group of castoffs -- down arguably their second-best player after a season-ending injury -- charged through the West and then vanquished the very team that stole Dallas’ title five years prior.
Nowitzki also rid himself of demons, playing through injury and illness to spearhead two double-digit fourth-quarter comebacks to defeat the heavily favored Heat and cement his legacy as an all-time great. It was the kind of performance that spurred an FSN special called “Wurzburg to Worldwide: How Dirk Became DIRK!” and a German documentary called "Nowitzki: Der Perfekte Wurf," which translates to "Nowitzki: The Perfect Shot."
It was the perfect ending. Only it wasn’t the end.
The next three seasons were middling at best, but the city hasn’t taken the shortcomings as hard as it once did before Dirk’s finger bore a ring. It’s not that fans are apathetic; the games just don’t have the same gut-wrenching, life-or-death feel to them anymore. Concern arose at the start of last season that the Mavs’ record sellout streak could be in jeopardy. Nowitzki even admitted to becoming too comfortable with sustained success. “I think we kind of took 50 wins for granted a little bit here,” he said. “The fans did and we did, and we just had a good team every year, and we felt 50 wins was easy.”
Instead, many Mavs fans have largely settled for basking in the glow of the championship and celebrating the various milestones Dirk continues to rack up. (He recently passed Hakeem Olajuwon for No. 9 on the all-time scoring list and became the highest internationally born scorer. Even more recently, it was 27,000 points.) With a patchwork roster around Nowitzki’s All-Star play, the Mavs were a classic case for a team that should blow it all up, trade its aging asset for draft picks or prospects and rebuild.
Dirk is different to us, though. He came to Texas as a dorky, techno-music-loving German kid who struggled with English and whom many wrote off as too “soft” to ever make it in the American game. But over 16-plus seasons, he revolutionized the game and became the face of a franchise and an all-time great. And unlike, say, the Celtics, who last offseason traded away two franchise luminaries, Dallas doesn’t have a single other Hall of Fame player that it can call its own. That means you follow him into potentially years of NBA purgatory if it means keeping him from wearing another team’s jersey.
Or, in the case of this season, you graciously thank him for leaving perhaps the most money on the table in NBA history -- $72 million -- to make the most out of his final years. With the addition of Chandler Parsons on a three-year, $46 million deal -- as Dirk quipped early this season, “I told him [Parsons] every dinner on the road this year is on him, because it's my money anyway.” -- and Tyson Chandler, and the growth of Monta Ellis and Brandan Wright, the 2014-15 Mavs are playing at a historic offensive clip. They’re currently 16-7, good for seventh in the West, and have the best shot of a post-championship era team of making it back to the Finals.
The returns of Chandler and J.J. Barea -- two critical parts of the Mavs’ title run -- bring an air of nostalgia to the franchise that already relishes in playing the “remember when” game. And the rest of the team, much like in 2011, is rounded out by a cohesive collection of mostly one-dimensional journeymen and younger players, many of whom grew up watching Nowitzki (or in Parsons’ case, wore his jersey while playing pickup in the park).
And of course there’s still Dirk, whose stature as one of the deadly offensive weapons in the league at age 36 is nothing short of incredible, especially with Kobe Bryant and Kevin Garnett having become shells of their former selves, and Tim Duncan now bearing a significantly reduced offensive burden. Much of this consistency is because of Dirk’s style of play and his trademark one-legged fadeaway that won’t degenerate as the miles pile up. The resiliency is nonetheless impressive (Nowitzki came back from a surgery-derailed 2012-13 season to finish just a few missed shots from a 50/40/90 shooting line in 2013-14).
Winning another title would certainly be exhilarating, not only to solidify Dirk’s recognition as a top-10 all-time player, but also the legacies of Devin Harris, who missed out on a deserved ring in 2006 and whose trade for Jason Kidd in 2008 paved the way to the Mavs’ eventual championship, and Carlisle as an all-time great coach.
It won’t ever mean quite as much as it did in 2011, and that’s OK. The Mavs will have their own BC (before championship) and AD (after Dirk) historical eras, but for maybe the first time, we’re basking in the in-between period.
Jim Pagels is a regular contributor to Forbes and has written for FiveThirtyEight, Bloomberg and Deadspin. Follow him on Twitter, @jimpagels.