Watching And Not Watching Dirk Nowitzki

In 2011, Dirk Nowitzki gave everyone who cares about the NBA something they did not dare expect. He, and those Mavericks, gave some people even more than that.
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Dirk Nowitzki has a 102 degree fever. He is wrung out, his body visibly flagging. During timeouts, his team huddles together but he slumps into a cocoon of towels and warmup shirts, retreating to this fort during stoppages and playing in a fugue state. He struggles. His characteristically accurate jumpers clank short off the rim. He withers against the physicality of his opponents, the burden of sickness is palpably, crushingly too much. Well, for a while.

With under a shot clock’s worth of time left in the game, Nowitzki surprises both his teammates and his opponents, knifing through and under a pair of defenders to seal a Mavericks win with a geometrically ambitious layup. For all the typical aesthetic soundness of the two teams involved, this game -- Game 4 of the 2011 NBA Finals -- was a brutal affair. Neither squad broke 90 points; LeBron James didn’t even score 10. It looked like a game between two teams approaching the limits of stamina, which it actually was. It looked a game swollen with significance and scaled up through absolute effort to the point that whatever team lost would be broken under the weight. This also turned out to be true and the Heat never recovered. It was, in retrospect, maybe Dirk Nowitzki’s opus: an ersatz masterpiece pulled from the depths of exhaustion, a performance big enough and great enough to sink a superteam.

***

The next afternoon, my cousin Anna died. She was 18, and had been diagnosed with Ewing’s Sarcoma two years prior. It’s a brutal disease, a bone cancer that afflicts children and almost always wins. She pushed it back into whatever craven genetic hole it hid in for over a year, and for that cruelly abrupt time it seemed... well, not okay, but less horrifying. I remember nervously fumbling for the phone every few months to hear the results of her latest scans. They came up clear for a while.

But all it took was that one scan that found a trace of a metastasized tumor in an inoperable area and that was it. Agonizing as those last few months were, she made them count as well as she possibly could have. She made friends with Andy Hull and Modest Mouse’s Isaac Brock, who wrote her a four-page letter.

She and her family lived in Dallas and had attended Mavericks games for years. They were there for most of Nowitzki’s formative years as a superstar and had thrown themselves headlong into Mavs fandom. During Anna’s last months, she met Tyson Chandler, Steve Nash, Dirk, and the rest of the gang. That wristband Chandler’s rocking in the title parade? It’s the same one I have with her name inscribed in it. Mark Cuban donated $75K to the 1 Million 4 Anna foundation that her parents set up to fund Ewing’s Sarcoma research. People talk about sports creating change in an abstract sense, but the Mavs had a measurable, direct impact on her life. That mattered.

Anna’s disease started to get greedy right as the 2011 playoffs started and things became desperate in a way they’d never been before. A pervasive helplessness swamped us, and the inevitable sunk in. You flail and look for something strong to hold to, and for me, in that moment, that was the Mavericks. My headspace was a toxic miasma of guilt and frustration, and the simplicity of basketball made sense in a concreate and very necessary way. She loved the Mavericks and if the Mavericks won, she would be happy, even if in a fleeting way. This is desperate logic, but it was better than nothing.

And so Dallas’ wacky march to the sun began. The gravity of Dirk Nowitzki held that 2011 squad together in a way that the presence of a superstar rarely does. Good teams orient themselves around a few elite players who don’t have overlapping skillsets or can ably play pass-the-mic on the perimeter. Dirk’s fellow Mavericks in the post-Nash years have all revolved around him like planets. He is the Higgs-Boson of Dallas; the laws of physics allow the Mavs to exist only because of his presence. Dallas’ second most important player that year, Tyson Chandler, did exactly everything Dirk didn’t do -- things like body dudes on the block, which liberated Dirk even further from the dreary obligations of his height. The team was a precise constellation of talent, and a delicate one. Everything held, somehow, through the playoffs.

The timing of this couldn’t have been better, and I allowed myself to believe in the biologically dubious line of thinking that if the Mavericks kept winning, everything else in Dallas would be less bleak. When the Mavs swept through the Lakers, it started to feel special for the first time. It’s silly in a sad way, but cold rationality was poison for me under the circumstances. I wanted to believe that winning would make my dying cousin happy. I think it did.

Anyway, this is no place for cold rationality. There was nothing cold or rational about Dirk Nowitzki scoring 48 points on 15 shots against the Thunder. If Game 4 of the Finals was Dirk’s most openly grandiose and grotesque salvo, Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals was his most virtuosic. The Mavericks erased the Thunder’s “Youth in Revolt” narrative in five games, and although they were all close, the outcome felt something like certain the whole series. It felt like destiny, and it felt good. I was consumed.

On June 12, the Dallas Mavericks won the Finals. That Year 1 Superfriendz squad in Miami was allegedly post-everything -- post-coach, post-big man, post-draft -- but they were overrun by a far more orthodox Dallas team. It was a Finals of past versus future, and the future was put to bed for another year. My family went to American Airlines Center in Dallas and watched Game 6 on the Jumbotron. They were there to count the final seconds of a bittersweet victory that Anna missed by just four days.

That Mavericks team did what it set out to do, and what I’d imagined they had to do and dreamed they might do, but it came too late. I took it as a tribute. The victory was painful in that sense, but it still closed the loop in the best way possible. The narrative to which I clung so hungrily achieved the happy ending I wrote for it, but not without cruelly deflecting away at the last moment.

That messiness doesn’t it make any less significant though. Cancer is savage, but the Mavericks helped all of us find ourselves again and see something brighter than we otherwise would have, and more quickly than we otherwise would have otherwise. In a truly terrible situation, Dallas’ championship was the most meaningful and uplifting collective experience for a family that desperately needed one. They were playing for their own reasons, of course, but also these were Anna’s Mavs, and they won.

***

Three years later, the Mavs are a much different and smaller team, but they’re still anchored around Dirk Nowitzki. He is older, less explosive but he hasn’t lost any of his idiosyncratic pragmatism. Time smoothes all wrinkles but Dirk is still and stubbornly about as jaunty and dangerous as he ever was. The team around him is a more homely iteration of those 2011 champions, Monta Ellis excepted, but they still make just as much sense.

The 2014 Mavericks are probably going to lose to the Spurs in the first round, and losing to the Spurs is like losing to time or entropy. Dirk overcame Miami and their prickly excellence, but even he can’t last forever. He made a moment, and those of us who remember it fondly will hold on to it tight, but moments pass on.

You know all this. But I think you should watch him. Watch him now. Watch him spin, whirl, and shoot. Watch him evade time, howl at the moon, and not go to sleep. Watch him not make sense, and achieve that strange harmony only he can reach. Watch him and make of him as much as you can, as much as you need or want. Do this while all this beauty is still here to watch.


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