Posted Feb 12 2010 2:26PM
DALLAS -- Dirk Nowitzki brought the All-Star Game to his adopted hometown. It's only right that he starts.
OK. So it might be a bit of a stretch to give Nowitzki all the credit for the NBA staging its annual showcase in the heart of football country. The All-Star Game was here back in 1986. The opening of the world's largest domed stadium 24 years later in nearby Arlington insured its return.
But what would basketball have meant to Dallas-Fort Worth without the most successful German in franchise history? (The Mavericks actually drafted a pair of Nowitzki's countrymen -- Detlef Schrempf and Uwe Blab -- in 1985). After the lost decade of the 1990s, would anyone here have cared about the NBA, much less the All-Star Game, if Nowitzki hadn't help made basketball relevant again?
"I still would have had it because I needed the money," Mavericks owner Mark Cuban said with a laugh, "and I wanted to showcase Dallas and North Texas, but there's no question that Dirk has had a huge impact on basketball here. Now people look at Dallas as an NBA city. Before it was an NBA outhouse."
The ever-humble superstar does, at least, acknowledge his contribution.
"If I'm a big part of that, that's great," Nowitzki said. "It's all come together. The turnaround and the new stadium is something that we kind of fell into. To me this is still Cowboys country and always will be, but definitely Mavericks games have been fun again."
Nowitzki, obviously, didn't do it alone. He's the first to credit Cuban, former coach Don Nelson and several teammates, starting with Steve Nash and Michael Finley, in leading the revival. Of all those, Nowitzki goes back the furthest. Drafted in 1998, he predates Cuban's purchase of the team in early 2000. Nowitzki is the only constant in the current nine-year run of 50-win seasons and playoff appearances.
He's become the franchise, even if that idea is somewhat uncomfortable and, in his mind, unhealthy.
"I don't like it, because to me it's a team sport," said Nowitzki, an All-Star the last nine years. "I don't always like the marketing in the U.S. -- it's Dirk against Kobe. In Germany it's not like that, it's Bayern Munich vs. Chelsea. It's not one-on-one. But that's how the league is marketed over here, it's about the stars. I'll always come from a team mentality, so from that standpoint I don't like it that much.
"But I understand it now and I've been here long enough. Sometimes doing the media gets old and [Jason] Kidd will say, 'C'mon and do it. You're the franchise.' I have to do this photo shoot here or at All-Star Weekend they're going to run me ragged, but those are the things that come with it. I've met so many great people over the years. Some things are great and others are work, but I have to admit most of the time it's fun."
Basketball wasn't always fun in North Texas. In terms of winning percentage, the Mavericks were the worst professional franchise in the big four sports during the '90s. Though Kidd saw the apathy firsthand during his first stint in Dallas (1994-96), he also saw the possibilities.
The Three J's -- Kidd, Jim Jackson and Jamal Mashburn -- gave Maverick fans a glimmer of what could be before fizzling out. The Nowitzki Era flipped the switch and left the light on.
"I knew back then with the Cowboys, how much this is a sports town and the sports fans love their teams," Kidd said. "The combination of Cuban, Dirk, Steve, Finley, Nellie brought back excitement. They started to build a great foundation.
"To finally see sellouts, not because another team came into town, but because of the talent and hard work a lot of people have done here. If it's going to work, you have to able to play. Dirk can play."
There were serious doubts at first. How could a franchise that needed a shot in the arm bring in a soft 7-foot Euro who shoots only jumpers, especially with All-American Paul Pierce still on the board? Former coach Don Nelson took that chance and immediately dubbed Nowitzki the Rookie of the Year favorite.
"You don't envision anybody as the MVP, but I envisioned him as an All-Star player," said Nelson, also the team's general manager when Nowitzki was drafted in 1998. "He was one of the greatest young players I'd ever seen. At 7-feet, the things that he could do."
A rocky rookie season during the lockout-shortened 1999 campaign wasn't easy on Nowitzki. An unsure 20-year-old started only 24 of 47 games, averaging just 8.2 points, and he wasn't sure if he would last in a new country on a terrible team. While many remember the boos back then, Nowitzki recalls a bond being formed.
"How the community embraced me in general has been amazing," he said. "My first year they didn't know me and still when I came in games they gave me standing ovations. They said they wanted to see me more.
"From Day 1 I've felt like a son here in Dallas. I showed up with my bowl haircut the first time. I can't really explain why we've fit together. Maybe I came at the right time when they were waiting for somebody and we've meshed for the last 12 years."
That connection between Nowitzki and the fans came full circle again last summer. After dealing with an emotionally draining and public split from his former fiancée, many of the same people who chanted his name more than a decade earlier touched his heart.
Following Dallas' second-round loss to Denver, Nowitzki took a two-week family vacation followed by a month of decompressing with family and friends back in Germany. Whenever he flipped open his laptop or the mailbox, he found support.
"How the fans responded was great. What I went through wasn't great," he said. "All the letters I got from people telling me their stories, people I've never seen or met, telling me about their lives and what they went through and their love lives and what happened in their marriages.
"I had a lot of time there to digest everything and read e-mails on my Web site or letters, and it was pretty special. It was pretty special how people reacted to that and tried to help me however they could. The people in my life were amazing, too. I must have done something right."
Nowitzki never dreamed what kind of impact he would eventually have on people's lives. He couldn't have.
"When I was 13 or 14, I was such a big fan of the NBA," he said. "I would get up at 2:30 in the morning every year and watch the All-Star Game live, watch the Finals every night. That's the moments you dream of being in and everything else just came with it.
"The other day after a game this cute little girl, she must have been about 7, jumped in my arms like we've known each other for years. The hospital visits we make every year at Christmas and to see the kids smile -- that's not the moments you dream about but that makes it even more special."
Nowitzki has rewritten the franchise's record books. Already the Mavericks' all-time leading scorer, he recently became the first European player in NBA history to surpass 20,000 career points. Nowitzki has averaged 22.9 points and 8.5 rebounds for this career. The 2007 MVP led the Mavericks to their only Finals appearance in 2006, though the loss to Miami continues to haunt him.
Nowitzki wonders what could have been. Not just against the Heat, but with changes made by the front office made along the way. Of the many second-guesses over the past decade, the Nowitzki-Nash question has the most mileage. Many have argued that the two close friends needed to separate in order to each reach their full potential.
"It's kind of hard to say because we both just started our prime when he left," Nowitzki said. "It would have been interesting to see what could have happened. That's a tough question. I think in our prime we would have been fine together. I don't know if we would have won the MVPs, but maybe it could have led to something else. I'd obviously trade my MVP for a title right now."
What he gets this weekend is the MVP treatment. Nowitzki won't dance as Shaquille O'Neal did last year in Phoenix, but he'll still be the center of attention Sunday for a crowd approaching 100,000 at Cowboys Stadium. Kobe Bryant's ankle injury opened a spot in the Western Conference starting lineup and coach George Karl immediately tabbed Nowitzki.
"Nowadays the All-Star Game has changed," Nowitzki said. "When I used to watch it as a kid, those guys were going at it. MJ and Magic [Johnson] were trying to win, [Charles] Barkley was banging with [Karl] Malone. Since I've been a part, the first three quarters are a bunch of lobs and running around, and in the fourth quarter guys do want to win, but it's about the fans.
"This one is going to be special. I haven't been to the stadium yet, I've just seen some of the Cowboys games on TV. It's going to be awesome walking out there and being part of that spectacle."
Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle predicted weeks ago that Nowitzki, who's never been voted an All-Star starter by fans, would somehow get a starting nod. Prepare for the ovation.
"People in the Metroplex area will give Dirk his due for the impact he's had here on the sports landscape and in the community," Carlisle said. "Nationally there is never going to be the level of awareness that there probably should be. But those of us that know and have lived with Dirk over a long period of time know who special he is, know what a great player he is and what an important person he is to the sports scene here in Dallas. I don't think it's a stretch to say to if he hadn't been here all these years, the All-Star Game wouldn't be in Cowboys Stadium."
Nowitzki agrees ... kind of.
"You've got to be lucky to make it in this league," he said. "A lot of factors play into it. You have to have talent, but you also have to get lucky to be in the right situation. You have to be in the right time. If I had come to a playoff team, I might have spent my first three years on the bench and who knows if I would have ever made it. Maybe I would have said, 'Screw it and I'm going back to Europe because I want to play.' Who knows?"
And who knows where this All-Star weekend would have been?
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