"Oh, come on, Dirk!"
The heckle came early in the first quarter during a Mavericks home game against the New Orleans Pelicans. I've heard that sentence, or a close facsimile of it, on many occasions since Dirk Nowitzki came to Dallas from Germany in 1999. But this instance stood out. Nowitzki had just ... honestly, I’m not sure what he did. Missed a jumper? Let his man score? It was so insignificant it doesn’t really matter. That’s not the point.
It stood out for two reasons. First, it was further evidence that even after all Nowitzki has done for basketball in Dallas -- rescued it from one of the worst decades by any single team in the long history of the league, for a start -- he still hasn’t earned unconditional love from Mavericks fans.
The second reason it stood out, the more important one? It happened in the first quarter of the Mavericks’ first preseason game of the year.
I've been thinking about that moment a lot as this season has progressed, as Nowitzki has recaptured the All-Star form that momentarily vanished last season. During an injury-plagued 2012-13 season, Nowitzki captained a travel team from the Island of Misfit Toys -- and even then he still almost willed the Mavs to a 13th straight trip to the playoffs. Nowitzki’s at a stage of his career when most felt like he would be reduced to a complementary piece.
Yet here he is, maybe not better than ever, but not far off, still capable of turning a half of basketball into a game of H-O-R-S-E with those wrong-foot fadeaway jumpers delivered from barely plausible angles. When he’s on, as he often is, his shot looks as it always has, like someone who’s never watched a basketball game stuck a Dirk Fathead on the wall in the dark.
Forget about this season. Step back from the wall so you can take in the entire painting. Nowitzki is a first-ballot Hall of Famer, and his No. 41 will be in the rafters of the American Airlines Center shortly after he stops wearing it. He will finish his career somewhere in the top 10 on the NBA’s all-time scoring list, likely nestled between Moses Malone and Shaquille O’Neal. He’s already, without question, the best European player in league history and in the conversation for its best foreign-born player. He’s won an NBA title and an MVP trophy and is one of the few players that can be identified by silhouette alone. He’s like a 7-foot Jerry West.
But still: “Oh, come on, Dirk!”
You hear it in bars and at games, impatiently spat out after any slight or even perceived miscue. Mavericks fans are reduced to the type of youth basketball coach you don’t want your kid to play for. This is what more than 26,000 points, an MVP trophy and a championship ring get you.
It’s not that Mavericks fans dislike Nowitzki. But I do believe -- apart from the team’s improbable run to the 2011 title -- they’ve rarely fully appreciated him.
Nowitzki doesn’t have the lightning-bolt athleticism that inspires awe. He dunks so rarely in games, each one is singled out. And he’s not the kind of charge-taking, floor-slapping player that fans rally behind; he’s white but he’s European, so he’s robbed of all the stereotypical grittiness of a Brian Cardinal type. He’s sort of the BMW of athletes: nothing flashy, just precise German engineering. Mid-range jumpers don't sell sneakers or jerseys or just about anything else.
But it’s not all Nowitzki. You have to take the longer view here, too. After the Mavericks set the template for building an expansion team into a perennial contender in the 1980s, the team spent the next decade in the doldrums, bottoming out when they won 11 and 13 games in back-to-back seasons (1992-93, and 1993-94). The franchise’s trio of supposed saviors -- Jamal Mashburn, Jim Jackson and Jason Kidd -- managed only to bring the soap-opera atmosphere of "Dallas" to the hardwood.
When Nowitzki finally arrived at the end of the decade, struggling mightily through his first season, he was seen as just another tall white guy who would let everyone down, and Mavs fans had seen enough of those -- Cherokee Parks, Eric Montross, Chris Anstey.
It hurt even more that the Mavs’ pratfall into becoming veterans of the lottery process coincided with the Dallas Cowboys’ return to America’s Team status. A generation of potential Mavs fans became front-running mercenaries, repping for the Bulls or Lakers or anyone other than the hometown team. Even though (under Mark Cuban) the Mavericks were reborn as a first-class organization, the seeds planted during the 1990s continue to sprout. I remember, a few years ago, a spirited “M! V! P!” chant breaking out during a Mavs-Lakers game at the AAC, spreading all across the arena.
It was for Kobe Bryant.
Nowitzki already had his own MVP trophy at that point, but he picked it up a few days after the 67-win Mavs were bounced out of the playoffs in the 2007 first round by the eighth-seeded Golden State Warriors. This came a year after the Mavs folded against the Miami Heat in the 2006 NBA Finals. Three series before the Mavericks’ first title, in 2011, a double-digit fourth-quarter collapse against the Trail Blazers was seen as evidence that Nowitzki just couldn’t get it done.
Mostly they just didn’t pay enough attention. They forgot about him after 2007, their already fragile trust doomed by two disastrous postseason finishes. Dallas sees itself as a city of winners, even when that isn’t true, and Dirk didn’t seem to conform. They didn’t realize he was building himself into one while they debated Cowboys draft picks and minor roster moves.
Even after Nowitzki proved himself worthy of induction into the pantheon of Dallas sports, he didn’t have time to enjoy it. The lockout happened, the Mavs’ front office started gearing up for free agents that never materialized, and Nowitzki hurt his knee, leading to his first extended absence. And now, after spending the bulk of his career as the avatar of a franchise that was very good but never great, he’s the face of a team pre-loaded with frustration, occasionally very good but never living up to what might have been had, say, Chris Paul or Dwight Howard come to town.
And so: “Oh, come on, Dirk!”
He’ll be gone one day -- maybe in a season or two, maybe three if we’re lucky. I hope the Mavericks figure out a succession plan by then, and continue on a path of perpetual respectability. But if I’m being honest, I have something else in mind:
I want them to be terrible for a little bit after Nowitzki retires. Just for a season. Just so everyone who doubted the singularity of his talent, who heckled him during preseason games, who didn’t realize that gods shoot mid-range jumpers, too -- just so all of them know exactly what they’re missing. And what they had all along.
Zac Crain is a senior editor at D Magazine.