Dirk Nowitzki has been in the NBA for the better part of two decades, but still has fun playing the game. (Jerome Miron/USA TODAY Sports)

DALLAS — After playing over 1,400 games and 50,000 minutes in the regular season and playoffs over the course of his 17-plus seasons in the NBA, it would be easy for Dirk Nowitzki to think it a chore to prepare for each game — let alone each season. But ask anyone who knows Nowitzki well to describe him and they all say the same thing: as he nears his 38th birthday, he still approaches the game the same way he did as a kid growing up Germany dreaming about the NBA.

“You can tell that he really loves the sport,” Mavericks guard Wesley Matthews said, before adding a playful jab. “You don’t make it around this long with the body that he has and be as effective and good as he is without love for the sport. He has that.”

“He’s like a five-year old with how excited he gets to get on the court and shoot and work, and I have tremendous respect for him” said Cavaliers forward Richard Jefferson, who spent last season playing alongside Nowitzki in Dallas. “He’s one of my all-time favorites.”

You’ll have trouble finding anyone in the NBA who would disagree with Jefferson’s assessment — including no lesser authority than LeBron James, who said Tuesday that Nowitzki was “amazing” and one of his favorite players ever, as well.

Nowitzki has spent the better part of the last two decades becoming not just the greatest European player of all-time, but one of the best players in the history of the sport, building a resume that includes a championship and Finals MVP in 2011, a league MVP award in 2007 and 13 All-Star Game appearances. More importantly, he’s redefined the power forward position, as now every team lusts after the kind of floor-spacing shooting Nowitzki has provided at that spot as a face-up power forward throughout his career.

He’s accomplished all of that while constantly smiling, and with a legendarily sarcastic sense of humor — one he often puts on display with his Twitter account, @swish41, which has close to 2 million followers. In recent years, he’s also repeatedly taken far less money than he could get on the open market in order to allow Mavericks owner Mark Cuban and the team’s front office to try and add as much talent as possible.

In every way, Nowitzki’s career has been an exemplary one, and he is a shoo-in to be a Hall of Famer as soon as he’s eligible. But ask the 7-foot German legend about his career, and the way he still finds ways to enjoy himself after all these years, his answer comes with a shrug.

Sure, this is fun. Why wouldn’t it be?

“I just enjoy it,” Nowitzki said after Tuesday’s 110-107 loss to James and the Cavaliers here at American Airlines Center. “I enjoy the competition. I try to have fun.

“Obviously, sometimes in the summer when you’re by yourself in the gym, you lift, you run … it gets hard sometimes. It gets hard sometimes, I’m not going to lie. But when I get back here in September, guys come back around and we work out together, we run the hills together, we go on the track … that’s easy. You can talk trash to somebody, and you’ve got other guys that push you. Once the game starts, it gets easy, but sometimes the summer workouts … that’s where it’s getting hard.”

The preparation may be getting harder for Nowitzki as he draws toward the end of his 30s, but try telling that to everyone around him as he continues to play at an All-Star level.

Monday, for example, Dallas raced out to a 23-7 lead in the first quarter, and there was Nowitzki getting things started for the Mavericks, burying a pair of mid-range jumpers before stepping behind the three-point line and draining another shot. After the game went to overtime, Nowitzki buried a pair of bombs from three-point range that, at least momentarily, made it look like the Mavericks might be able to snap Cleveland’s seven-game winning streak.

In the end, it wasn’t meant to be, as the Cavaliers got five points each from LeBron James, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love to eventually pull out the victory. But despite the loss, it was only the latest example of how Nowitzki, along with Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle, has been able to keep Dallas afloat and competitive in the Western Conference despite his advancing age and a constantly changing cast of characters around him.

“I heard this term many, many years ago from a fellow coach: ‘Don’t underestimate greatness at any age,'” Carlisle said. “Guys like Dirk, guys like Reggie Miller, that I’ve been with, guys like Jason Kidd, that I’ve been with, that have that high level of love and respect for the game, along with the crazy skill level which they’ve really worked to develop, along with a burning desire to be part of a winning team, these guys are wired differently.

“But Dirk works so hard at it, every day. This is seven-and-a-half years of me watching this, and you’ve just got to be careful not to take it for granted, because it is extremely special.”

That goes for how Nowitzki handles himself off the court, as well. If you look around the NBA, there are plenty of star players that are heavily focused on their outward appearance, and who spend their time trying to look as cool as possible at all times.

Then there is Nowitzki, who not only is known for always being ready to fire off a joke at anyone’s expense — including his own — but also is constantly willing to make himself look foolish on camera.

During Tuesday’s game alone, there was a video that played during the second quarter that featured Nowitzki imitating Donald Trump (all the way down to a ridiculous hair piece) as he fired off several one-liners taken from Trump’s presidential campaign while “Making Dallas Great!” Later in the game, there was a video of him singing a karaoke version of the Counting Crows hit “Mr. Jones” during one of the in-game contest segments on the video board — a video he shot while wearing another wig, this time sporting dreadlocks.

“I’ve always made a fool out of myself,” Nowitzki said with a smile. “[The Mavs] obviously know I’m a guy that loves to have fun and makes fun of himself and other people, so they utilize that. I love doing that stuff. It’s just having fun on and off the court. It’s what I enjoy still.”

And, he said, as long as he stays healthy and keeps enjoying it, he’s going to make his career last as long as he possibly can.

“I feel like if my body is still fine, I’m still enjoying the grind of it, I’m going to keep doing it as long as I can, you know?” Nowitzki said. “Everybody that’s out now, they say to ride it as long as you can. You’re going to miss it a lot once it’s over, so that’s what I’m doing. I’m trying to enjoy myself the last couple years. I’ll give it my all, and then I’ve got no regrets.”

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