By: Elimelekh Perl | Opinions  | 

How Dirk Nowitzki Restored My Faith in Sports

Following professional sports has always been a hobby and a passion of mine. Growing up in Dallas, but with strong New York roots, the walls of my childhood bedroom were plastered with the reds and blues of the Texas Rangers, Dallas Mavericks and New York Giants. Fully invested, I would watch games, track stats and play fantasy. Some of my fondest memories include sweltering summer afternoons at The Ballpark (of blessed memory) and taunting my friends who rooted for the hometown Cowboys after a Big Blue victory.

Recently, however, my enthusiasm for the Great American Sports Machine has diminished.

The last decade has ushered in the era of superteams, max-contracts and forced trades. Take Deflategate, Mike Trout’s mega-deal and the Kawhi Leonard saga as just a few examples of drama-filled narratives that dominate headlines.  Paychecks, personalities and pomp seem to have grown more important than the game itself. ESPN has become indistinguishable from reality TV, resembling “Celebrity Wife Swap” around the trade deadline and “The Bachelor” during free-agency season. As I got older, I began to ponder the consistency of the values I believe in and my life’s component parts; along the way, sports’ toxic egotism and self-centric storylines begun to taint the naïve obsession of my youth.

This maturity brought with it some frightening perspective on the entertainment industry as a whole, with professional sports accompanying Hollywood in the upper echelon of extravagance and excess. When I was younger, a smashing box-office turnout or a lucrative sports contract represented empty figures, as I could never fully contextualize it with everyday dollars and cents. This changed when I arrived at college a year ago and was confronted for the first time with the daunting prospect of future employment. With it came a greater appreciation of real-world numbers like big-boy salaries. It hit me hard when I realized that even a realistically ambitious annual salary I might earn would be chump change compared to, say, the absurd $1,193,248 the Mets are still shelling out each year to Bobby Bonilla (who hasn’t played since 2001). Or the $357 million “Avengers: Endgame” raked in over a single weekend. Or the $14.8 billion of consumer spending in 2019 for the annual six-hour media blitz known as the Super Bowl.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m also human, and appreciate the valuable relaxation that commercial entertainment provides. Nevertheless, I’ll occasionally catch myself doubting how I can, with good conscience, support the culture and institutions which prioritize leisure to such a ridiculous degree. Imagine the impact a fraction of those billions could have if they were allocated to philanthropic pursuits, scientific advancement and other societal causes.

My unabashed love of sports slowly morphed into a guilty pleasure. I began to grow increasingly detached — I’d still watch the games and check the scores, but whether my team won or lost seemed to matter less. I realized that no matter the outcome of a given game, life moved on. Just a short time ago, the thought of dedicating my precious time to write a sports-related article would seem ridiculous.

But a few weeks ago, as the NBA regular season drew to a close, something happened that pushed aside my jaded disillusionment, bringing the wide-eyed fanatic I had been in high school back to life.

After the Dallas Mavericks’ final home game, forward Dirk Nowitzki confirmed what the basketball world has suspected the whole year — this season would be his last. I’m typically the stoic type, and, especially in light of my recent emotional divestment, rarely find myself moved by the sports world. But, as I watched Dirk swish his last flamingo-esque jumper — equal parts awkward and graceful — I found myself feeling nostalgic and even sad. Because for me, there is no Dallas Mavericks without Dirk Nowitzki.

I was born on June 10, 1998. Only 14 days later, Dirk was drafted 9th overall by the Milwaukee Bucks and promptly traded to the Mavs.

After moving to Dallas in 2003, I reached the age of sports consciousness just in time to witness Dirk’s gut-wrenching Finals loss to the Miami Heat in 2006 and his dominant MVP season in 2007. While not yet a dedicated superfan, I began to take notice.

In 2011, I was privileged to witness the Mavericks’ magical playoff run. An island of misfit role players fueled by Nowitzki’s sheer will, Dirk and Co. plowed through the Western Conference competition. Reaching basketball’s biggest stage, they prevailed over Lebron’s newly formed Big Three and settled their championship vendetta against the Heat. Dirk, awarded Finals’ MVP, delivered to the city of Dallas its long-awaited first NBA title.

My family and I moved to New York in 2014. With their championship roster long since dismantled, I watched from afar as the mediocrity-mired Mavs assembled a new team on an almost annual basis. Each offseason, they would cobble together an awkward collection of players whose tenure in Dallas rarely lasted beyond a year or two. But no matter how different the supporting cast looked from year to year, one constant kept their identity firmly grounded: a blond, gangly German with a sweet jump shot.

In anticipation of his retirement announcement, the Mavericks’ organization thanked Nowitzki with a promotional campaign. Consisting of merchandise and a tribute video, it centered around the numbers 41.21.1: forty-one, representing his jersey number; twenty-one, signifying the years of his illustrious NBA career; and one, highlighting that over those two-plus decades, he played for only a single team.

This campaign and the countless articles responding to the news of his retirement celebrate Dirk’s true legacy. They all acknowledge his personal accomplishments as a player and his revolutionary influence on the modern game of basketball. But their praise and appreciation focus more on Nowitzki as a person and his impact on the city of Dallas. Rarely does an athlete play for over 20 years, and even rarer do they sustain the level of excellence that Nowitzki has over such an extended period. But it is unprecedented for a player to do both for only one team.

From 1998 through 2019, Dirk has been the face and the heart of the Dallas Mavericks. Over that span, he never once considered leaving in pursuit of more rings. He never complained about his teammates, his coaches, or his contract. He has never been the subject of a scandal and is happily married with three children, all born and raised in Dallas. Throughout his career, he hosted numerous charitable fundraisers and youth basketball camps, wholeheartedly offering his goofy persona to the city and his fans. For 21 years, Dirk has been cementing his legacy not only as a basketball legend but as an upstanding and generous Dallas citizen. He found a way to be humbler than his seven-foot frame might suggest, all while his stature as a leader somehow stood even taller.

It feels strange to put in these terms, but Dirk has been a Maverick for pretty much my entire life. Next year’s NBA experience will be my first without his patented fadeaway and his competitive spirit. Reading through the outpouring of thanks his retirement has generated, I find myself among thousands of fans who, at the close of his incredible career, are reflecting on this incredible gift of continuity.

Nowitzki represents what sports can and should be all about. For two decades, Dirk tried his hardest to provide the city of Dallas and its residents with a culture of basketball excellence and a franchise that the city could rally around. Day in, day out, game in, game out, and year in, year out, Dirk proved that sports are more than a conduit for self-aggrandizement, and could unify a city under a common identity. His final moments as a Dallas Maverick, and the genuine, well-deserved love that NBA fans of all allegiances showered upon him, demonstrate the far-reaching impact of such hard-working, selfless commitment. Athletes and fans alike would be wise to take notice of Dirk Nowitzki’s incredible legacy and strive to live up to his example of tireless, unselfish dedication and deep communal loyalty.

So thank you, Dirk. Thank you for showing me, and the countless others you have inspired since the previous century, that not all professional athletes are lost to consumerism, vanity and self-importance. Thank you for proving that sports still have significant, real-world meaning and value left to offer.