Struggling to contain his emotions, Nowitzki drew laughter in telling the crowd, “I’m trying my yoga breathing, but it’s not really working that well.” He thanked Mavericks owner Mark Cuban and the whole organization, as well as the fans, saying, “I’ve put you guys on a hell of a ride, with a lot of ups and downs, and you guys always stuck with me and supported me, so I appreciate it.”
Nowitzki, who missed the first 26 games of the season with an ankle injury, said Tuesday it had been “a rough year for me, physically,” and thanked his teammates for their support. After scoring 30 points on 11-of-31 shooting in a 120-109 victory over Phoenix, he flashed a smile while thanking the Suns “for letting me have a few baskets tonight.”
Drafted straight out of Germany in 1998 as the ninth overall pick, then immediately traded from the Bucks to the Mavs for Robert “Tractor” Traylor, Nowitzki went on to etch his name in the NBA record books as the league’s greatest European player. His 31,540 points are sixth all-time, as are his 7,238 free throws, and he ranks third in games and minutes played, behind only Robert Parish and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
Perhaps just as significantly, Nowitzki’s playing style, as a seven-footer whose long-range shooting skills forced defenders far away from the basket, presaged the direction in which the league would head. From an unknown commodity who was plunged into American, let alone NBA, culture as a 20-year-old, he went on to become a 14-time all-star, a 2007 NBA MVP and a Finals MVP in 2011, when he led the Mavs to their only championship.
Telling Nowitzki on the arena floor that he couldn’t adequately describe how he felt about “what you’ve meant for this organization,” Cuban said, “I promise you that everything you taught us will continue on.”
“I promise you that you have a job for life, I don’t care what you do,” Cuban continued, to roars from fans. He also promised to retire Nowitzki’s number and put “the biggest, most bad-ass statue ever” outside the arena.
Charles Barkley was in attendance and also paid tribute to Nowitzki, calling him “the nicest man ever.” Barkley added, “It’s been an honor and a privilege to watch you — enjoy the rest of your life.”
Before the game, an extraordinary scene unfolded at the arena, as scores of Mavericks employees lined a parking garage to cheer the arrival of Nowitzki. That appeared to be the kind of thing that might happen for a legendary player’s final home game, but at the time his retirement was still a matter of speculation.
It would have been hard to know that, though, from the festivities leading into the contest, which the Mavs billed as a “41.21.1” event, referring to Nowitzki’s jersey number, as well as time spent in the NBA. The team stamped that “41.21.1” on fan clappers for those in attendance at the arena, as well as on shirts and commemorative tickets.
It wasn’t just the Mavericks who acted as if it were Nowitzki’s final go-round. He and Dwyane Wade — who did announce before the season that he was retiring this summer — were added by the NBA as special participants in February’s All-Star Game.
“The fans have shown me a lot of love already on the road, even though I obviously haven’t announced that this is going to be it,” Nowitzki said in February. “I want to see how my body feels the last couple of weeks. If I get to see any improvement, if it’s still fun, and I guess we’re going to make that decision later.”
After returning from his ankle injury, Nowitzki notched career lows this season in most major categories. However, his play had improved over the past month, with his scoring average increasing from 5.4 before March 8 to 9.1 since then, while his three-point percentage rose from .281 to .359.
Nowitzki could thus have had some reason to feel like he still has something left, and teammate Kristaps Porzingis, who was traded from the Knicks in February but has been out the entire season while recovering from knee surgery, reportedly lobbied for his childhood idol to return nest season so they could play together.
That tandem of sweet-shooting seven-footers from Europe won’t be happening, apparently, although Porzingis will presumably be more than able to content himself with playing alongside another star from that continent, Luke Doncic, who is a front-runner for NBA rookie of the year honors.
For Nowitzki, Wednesday’s game at the San Antonio Spurs will be his career finale, but he gave fans in Dallas one last performance for which to cheer, in the process surpassing Michael Jordan as the oldest player to score 30 points in an NBA game. As fate would have it, a similar Jordan mark fell during the contest when Phoenix’s Jamal Crawford scored 51 points at age 39, becoming the oldest player to top 50 in a game, but the night was all about the greatest player in Mavs history.