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Deconstructing Dirk Nowitzki's Inimitable Playing Genius

One unabashed fan meditates on his fanatical devotion to this iconic NBA great
by Louie Claudio | Oct 15, 2017
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February 2010 was a month of many firsts for me—it was the first time I waltzed into the American Airlines Center in Dallas, the first time I gazed at the massive LED screen atop the Dallas Cowboys Stadium, and rather strangely, the first time I literally set one foot into a locker room I had no business being in. While touring the stadium’s dugout, I managed to find an open, unattended door that was begging for attention. Naturally, I walked in; and in those precious seconds before I was rightfully accosted by an usher, I glimpsed upon Dirk Nowitzki preparing for the NBA All-Star Game practice session.

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I remember that All-Star experience vividly—not because of the dunk contest, nor the ultimately meaningless game played by East against West, but because that brief locker room incident was the closest I ever got to my NBA hero.

Many are touting the 2018 NBA season as Dirk’s last. Not much is left for him to accomplish in his storied 20-year career. Dirk has inspired countless Filipino players to shoot first and ask questions later. On the streets, you know that anyone wearing a number 41 jersey would most likely be a shooter. He has brought about a legion of NBA worshippers in Kristaps Porzingis and Kelly Olynyk who all want to be the next great 7-foot scorer.

Dirk leaves behind a complicated yet fulfilled legacy that has no doubt shaped the evolution of basketball as a whole—here are just some of the most memorable aspects of his unique career.

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Outside of his Wurzburg days, the earliest and most notable video footage of a fledgeling Dirk that can be found on Youtube is this gem that was shot at the 1997 Nike Hoop Heroes Tour in Berlin. Here, Scottie Pippen and Charles Barkley were first introduced to the lanky, sweet-shooting German, who seemed to defy the ground-and-pound stereotype often associated with 7-footers.

The following year, the 1998 Nike Hoops Summit gathered premiere high school talents from the USA and Europe in a tournament that saw Dirk dropping 33 points and 14 rebounds on NBA vets Rashard Lewis and Al Harrington, further solidifying the idea that Dirk truly belonged on the World Stage.


Dirk’s unorthodox ascent needed an equally unorthodox mentor. German mad scientist Holger Geschwinder utilized advanced notions of balance, ambidexterity, rhythm, and physics to optimize young Dirk’s shot and footwork, providing the foundation for what would be the most efficient shooting big man in basketball.

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To this day, Holger still runs a school for aspiring young athletes, aptly called the Institute of Applied Nonsense.


It can be said that Dirk’s legacy can be traced back to a single moment of sheer luck: being traded for the late Robert “Tractor” Traylor and landing right onto coach Don Nelson’s lap. Many traditional coaches in the early 2000s wouldn’t know what to do with a physically underdeveloped European forward with a weak back-to-the-basket game—but Dirk’s legendary work ethic and shooting stroke simply made the job of one of the greatest offensive innovators in NBA history that much easier to do.

Partnered with unpredictable guard Steve Nash and the ever-reliable Michael Finley, the trio became the NBA’s must-watch League Pass team even before League Pass ever came out. Nash’s dazzling playmaking lent itself well to Nelson’s high-octane offense. Dirk’s range and, yes, athleticism allowed for countless offensive combinations that would cause fits for the opposing defense.

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One particular outlier in Dirk’s career involved something truly deplorable—the silver “garbage bag” jerseys worn by the 2003 Mavericks. The jerseys looked so bad on national TV that the Mavs would dispose of them after only one game.

The lone good thing about this jersey was who got to wear them—an unholy mashup of Nash, Finley, Dirk, Antawn Jamison, and Antoine Walker, who started at center. They couldn’t defend to save their lives, but they did cook up one of the most prolific midrange offenses in NBA history.


Along with famous duos of Penny-Shaq and Yao-McGrady, the Nowitzki-Nash tandem would be among the upper echelon of What-Ifs in NBA history. How many championships would they have won together? How many MVPs would they share? How high would their 2K ratings be?

Dirk’s eventual divorce with Nash necessitated the development of stronger and more efficient back-to-the-basket moves in lieu of the pull-up jumpers from his youth. Without Nash’s passing, Dirk would be forced to create his own offense—slowly shoving his patented one-legged fadeaway into prominence, and virtually eliminating obvious gaps in his game.

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This newfound level of discipline helped Dirk earn his lone 50-40-90 (shooting percentages from the field, three-point area, and free-throw respectively) season in NBA; a feat only seven other players managed to reach.



Aside from the Texas Triangle teams, the Mavericks would only have one notable rival: the Miami Heat. Dirk’s lowest point came after the 2006 NBA Finals, which featured some of the most controversial officiating in NBA history. Dirk and his Mavs, despite dominating the Heat in the first two games, flamed out so spectacularly that it stretched across the following year, where, in his lone MVP season, Dirk’s top-seeded Mavs would lose to the OG “We Believe” Golden State Warriors team, punching a hole in their championship dreams (and Oracle Arena’s dugout walls).

After a self-imposed Australian exile, Dirk would return in need of a new supporting cast. This began with new coach Rick Carlisle—freshly removed from the Malice at the Palace era in Indiana. Carlisle would soon architect a flexible "flow" offense with Dirk as its primary instrument and Jason Kidd as its conductor.

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Once again having a pass-first guard by his side and complemented by extraordinary spacing provided by Tyson Chandler, Shawn Marion, JJ Barea, and Jason Terry, Dirk found the perfect underdog formula that would blindside the league and beat the following teams during its championship run:

Dirk’s dominance in that series is still best told through the story of how Serge Ibaka named his first son "Dirk"—a game in which Dirk effortlessly collected 48 points.

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Dirk’s twilight years would be characterized by three notable events after the championship: the Mavs’ decision to let go of Chandler in 2012 (effectively ending the championship dynasty even before it began), the Deandre Jordan snub, and the Rajon Rondo trade.

These moments would culminate in a carousel of basketball oddities consisting of Lamar Odom, Chris Kaman, OJ Mayo, Darren Collison, Monta Ellis, Jose Calderon, and Chandler Parsons all vying to be the Dirk’s seasonal sidekick—to mediocre results.

Little by little, Dirk’s support began to fade, leaving him and his jumpers alone for much of the final stretch of his career.


Some people wear their hearts on their sleeves. Dirk just happens to wear his on his head. The Wunderbomber’s variety of offensive moves can only be matched by the variety of hairstyles—some were noteworthy, while others were downright questionable—he has experimented with over the span of his career.

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All Hail #CavemanDirk.


For all the stability and positive culture the Mavs front office has provided, the sheer amount of social abuse they expose their players to is shocking—especially Dirk, whose wonderfully aloof attitude lends itself well to the Mavs’ inane media projects.


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The only thing left to look forward to for the 2017-18 season would be Dirk reaching fifth in the NBA All-time Scoring list. The magic number? 31,419—held by Wilt Chamberlain. To achieve this, Dirk must average 14.2 points a game in the regular season. Let’s all hope that a combination of health, luck, Carlisle’s basketball sorcery, and the rise of freshman phenom Dennis Smith, Jr. helps.

Even if Dirk accomplishes this feat, it won’t be long until Lebron James (currently at seventh with 28,787 points) eclipses him in the standings. But what else is there to prove for the big German?  What's important is when the curtain falls on his legendary career, amidst all adversity, Dirk Nowitzki will have cemented his status as a beacon for athletes on a quieter, more subdued road to excellence.

Enjoy the ride while you can, folks—it might take forever until someone else like Dirk comes along.

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