During his final season, I asked Larry Bird what it felt like to be a white superstar in a predominantly black league — whether preconceived notions about his game, based on his complexion, ever motivated him.
“No,” he said in November 1991. “ ’Cause it don’t matter if you’re from Kuwait or from the city or from the country, if you’re white or black. You grow to be 6-9, you’re skilled, you compete and you love the game, you can play in this league.
“Shoot, there’s more stereotypes about foreign guys than there are white guys. They got it tougher than me.”
Go ahead, Google “Dirk Nowitzki” and “soft” and see how many matches appear.
Should Nowitzki power the Mavericks past Miami’s Big Three for Dallas’s first NBA title, the lazy among us will say and write, “Dirk Shed His Soft Label,” not even realizing he never deserved that label.
How is it that in the jingoistic, warped views of the game belonging to some — where you have to be black and from the ’hood to be genuinely considered a tough player — it was somehow okay to think the opposite of Nowitzki because, well, he’s white and he’s European and aren’t they all soft?
LeBron James and Dwyane Wade mocked Nowitzki’s sinus infection prior to Game 5 before the cameras. As my friend Frank Isola of the New York Daily News wrote, does that mean Dirk gets to show up before Game 6 and mock Wade limping and LeBron choking?
No European has ever been the best player on an NBA championship team. If Nowitzki finds a way to finish this in Miami on Sunday night or Tuesday night in Game 7, the barrier won’t completely fall. But maybe, just maybe, not every Euro with a dead-eye jump shot will have his heart questioned because of his nationality as much as his ethnicity.
“It’s a little bit like Jackie Robinson and what our country went through, obviously not as extreme,” said Donnie Nelson, the Mavericks general manager and the son of Don Nelson, who pioneered the use of international players in the NBA on his Golden State teams in the 1980s and early 1990s. “Yeah, there’s a little hazing that takes place. These guys had to earn their place.”
He added: “I think we’re so off base in this country. I’ve seen and heard guys over there stand in front of Russian tanks. The whole Kosovo thing. What some of those players went through [in war-torn regions].”
Peja Stojakovic, who’s been accused in these very playoffs of being softer than a down comforter, bristles at the perception.
“When you come over here, it doesn’t matter what you’re doing, it’s there,” the Mavericks’ veteran guard said. “We always make fun of each other. We say, ‘Oh, another European, another soft player.’ ”
For all those arcing rainbows that catch nothing but net, Nowitzki should be remembered in this series for the way he put his head down, lowered his shoulder and somehow got to the basket and finished difficult layups in the final seconds of Games 2 and 4 rallies with his off hand — the left hand with a torn tendon in his middle finger suffered in Game 1. Or the rebounds he corralled in the final moments with the Heat’s front line clawing at his arms — the epitome of desire and toughness.
“I don’t think it’s [reverse racism], but I do think it’s a foreign thing,” Donnie Nelson said. “Whether you’re an African, South American, the perception is, you’re coming to America to play our game. We’ll knock you down, defend you. We’ll show you how it’s done.”
Every international player concedes there is a learning curve in the NBA, where the best basketball players in the world ply their trade. Contemporary Euros also had help.
“Dirk is the latest and the best,” Nelson said, “but before Dirk, there were umpteen guys that built that bridge.”
Indeed, there was Arvydas Sabonis, the 7-foot-3 Lithuanian who was skilled as he was strong, a player whom Nelson says he would take before Nowitzki if both were in their primes.
There was Drazen Petrovic, the Croatian sensation long before Toni Kukoc, who tragically died in a car accident at the age of 29.
There was Vlade Divac. And Sarunas Marciulionis, who played for Don Nelson at Golden State and whom Donnie Nelson helped coach, as an assistant for Lithuania, to a bronze medal at the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona. (“I’d take that guy in a fight against anybody in the history of the NBA,” Donnie said.)
By first eyeing the walls of his office at the American Airlines Center in Dallas last Wednesday, full of mementos and pictures from his work with the Lithuanian team, and then looking at Nowitzki’s numbers and clutch play in the fourth quarter of these riveting Finals, the fruition of his father’s dream came into focus.
“This is the first time in memory that the true Alpha Dog is a European product,” Donnie says.
Does it matter? As misguided perceptions go, sure.
DeShawn Stevenson played his first ball on an inner-city playground in West Fresno, Calif., and came through the same AAU circuit that produced so many of the NBA’s players. He acknowledged he held on to the “soft Euro” stereotype for part of his career.
Asked whether Nowitzki will change everyone’s mind, Stevenson said: “People will change their mind about Dirk, that’s for sure. He was never soft that I saw. And if a European guy becomes MVP of the Finals, I mean, that would be huge. That’s worth something.”
Maybe it means the next Euro star with a 102-degree temperature on game night won’t have his illness mocked. Moreover, maybe Bird was right — that it doesn’t matter whether you’re from Kuwait, the country, the city, or even a hamlet like Wurzburg, Germany. Heart and hunger for the game, Nowitzki has shown, are not exclusive to just players from basketball’s birthplace.