From the moment Dirk Nowitzki squared himself up to the basket, just as he had countless times before, there was little doubt about what was going to happen next. Like so many defenders in the past, Los Angeles Lakers forward Larry Nance Jr. knew exactly what the future Hall of Famer standing in front of him was about to do.
“That’s a 7-footer. Leaning back. That can shoot,” Nance would tell reporters later.
It was all too predictable, and all too fitting, that Nowitzki — the Dallas Mavericks legend, surefire first ballot Hall of Famer and the greatest European player in the history of the game — would become the sixth player in league history to reach 30,000 points by taking, and making, the shot that will be the one immortalized in the statue that will eventually stand outside American Airlines Arena in Dallas: a one-legged fadeaway jumper that softly settled into the bottom of the net.
It was equally predictable that, as the sellout crowd inside his hometown arena went crazy — led by owner Mark Cuban, who looked to be as excited as he was on his wedding day and when his children were born, combined — Nowitzki casually jogged back down to the other end of the court and went about his job.
It wasn’t quite as predictable that Nowitzki would get the 20 points he needed to hit the milestone — he finished with 25 in a Mavericks rout of the hopeless Lakers — in less than 10 minutes of game action, as he rattled off 18 quick first-quarter points before making his one-legged baseline jumper to officially gain entry to the 30,000 point club.
Even as he approaches his 39th birthday, and in the midst of his 19th season, Nowitzki apparently still has a flair for the dramatic.
“We all witnessed one of the most amazing accomplishments in the history of sports,” Mavericks Coach Rick Carlisle told reporters afterward. “For me, this was a microcosm of one of the greatest careers in the history of the game: meticulous preparation, total commitment, unbelievable competitive spirit and a real flair for the moment.
“Watching Dirk the last couple of days, there was no doubt this was going to happen tonight.”
For anyone who saw Nowitzki come into the league as a skinny 7-footer from Germany, taken one spot ahead of fellow future Hall of Famer Paul Pierce after the Mavericks acquired the lanky shooter in a draft night trade back in 1998, the idea of him growing into one of the greatest players the sport has ever seen — not to mention a trail blazer and trendsetter in terms of how the game is played — would’ve been unimaginable.
But it’s a credit to his relentless dedication to the game, and to his craft, that Nowitzki has been able to turn himself into a living legend, one who became the NBA’s MVP in 2007 and single-handedly lifted the Mavericks past LeBron James and the Miami Heat to one of the more unlikely championships in recent memory in 2011.
As the greatest players of his generation have slowly begun to fade away — first Kobe Bryant, then Tim Duncan, then Kevin Garnett — Nowitzki has often been lost in their shadows. Bryant had the bright lights of Los Angeles behind him, Duncan was the face of the nonstop winning in San Antonio, Garnett the unpredictable personality who now has his own set on TNT’s “Inside The NBA.”
Nowitzki, though, deserves to be listed alongside them. In many ways, he is the face of the way the NBA has evolved over the past two decades. Before Nowitzki came along, power forwards were thought to be back-to-the-basket players, with the best ones able to space the floor out to 18 feet or so, like another member of the 30,000-points club, Karl Malone.
That all changed, though, once Nowitzki arrived on the scene as a 20-year-old in 1998, after the Mavericks landed him in a trade with the Milwaukee Bucks. After some early fits and starts, Nowitzki became the player that every team now hopes to find in their starting power forward: someone capable of spacing the floor beyond the three-point arc, giving teams the option of having a stretch four to play next to their center and open up more room for their guards to get into the lane to either create and score.
It’s a principle that has driven the NBA’s offensive productivity through the roof over the past two decades, and it all started with Nowitzki in Dallas. And that’s not to even mention his one-legged fadeaway, the shot with which Nowitzki has grown synonymous and one so ruthlessly efficient and effective, given his combination of size and skill, that players from across the league have been adding it to their own arsenals for years.
It’s also how, along with the wizardry of Carlisle, Nowitzki has been able to repeatedly drag woeful supporting casts to competitive seasons and playoff appearances the past several years in the Western Conference, as the team’s front office has whiffed time and again in its goal to surround him with players capable of allowing him to compete for championships again.
But while that’s obviously been a source of frustration for Nowitzki, he’s never once complained, never taken shots at anyone, never asked to be traded. He’s simply gone out and done his job day after day, making basket after basket, continuing to carry a franchise on his shoulders without for a second complaining about the potential strain such a burden might place on him.
That’s why Nowitzki is so beloved, whether by fellow players, by the media or fans. What’s not to like about someone who spends his career from start to finish with one team, who carries it to its first championship, who does whatever is asked of him without complaint?
He’s been a model teammate and a model competitor. That, combined with being an exceptional and unique talent, has allowed Nowitzki to reach the most rarefied air in NBA history.
“Obviously every milestone makes you reflect a little bit, reflect on people who helped you, who have been with you all this way, from the coaches to Cuban and all the teammates I had and fans who went with me through thick and thin,” Nowitzki told reporters.
“It’s been an amazing ride, and hopefully a couple more baskets coming, and then it’s time to ride off into the sunset.”
Here’s hoping that ride doesn’t take place anytime soon, as the sport that has been forever changed by him won’t be nearly the same without him.