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Examining NBA impact of international players: Dirk Nowitzki & Steve Nash

Widely considered 2 of the best foreign-born NBA players of all time, Dirk Nowitzki & Steve Nash were key to the Mavs' rising success.


Dirk Nowitzki (left) and Steve Nash helped lead Dallas to its 1st Western Conference finals appearance in 2003.

Six international players were named to the NBA 75th Anniversary Team roster. In Part 3 of our four-part series, we explore the careers of Dirk Nowitzki and Steve Nash.

A New Century: Dirk Nowitzki & Steve Nash

In 1998, The Milwaukee Bucks selected Dirk Nowitzki at the No. 9 overall pick and dealt the future star to the Dallas Mavericks in one of the most notable Draft-day trades in NBA history. The 7-footer from Germany became an international phenomenon for the league.

Though, it was not an easy transition for Dirk. Unlike other international names on the 75th anniversary team, he had no American college experience. It was a whirlwind of change for the young star.

“It was tough. You know, it was a lockout year, so I was playing in Germany because I hadn’t signed my contract yet. So I get a call from frickin’ Donnie [Nelson], in the middle of January, like “Come over, the season starts in two weeks.” Like, what?” Nowitzki said in Sports Illustrated’s Coming To America.

Mavericks coach Don Nelson knew it was difficult for Nowitzki to be so far from home.

“We did the best we could. I knew he was gonna get homesick and all the rest of it. Sure enough, three-quarters of the way through, he asked to go home. He was struggling, and our team was struggling. He goes, ‘Ohhhhh I vant to go home, I vant to go home,’” Nelson told Sports Illustrated.

But Nowitzki stuck it through and played his entire 21-year NBA career with one team, historically changing Dallas’ franchise forever. Of those 21 seasons, the Mavericks had 15 playoff appearances after only appearing in six of the previous 20 seasons before Nowitzki.

Canadian Steve Nash played a large part in the Mavericks’ rising success next to Nowitzki. The two also developed a life-changing friendship.

Steve Nash discusses his time in Dallas and playing alongside Dirk Nowitzki.

“We’d just get out of the hotel, not think about home all the time. Meeting [Nash’s] friends, because Steve went to college in the states. So he had people all over the U.S. Just getting out for dinners, movies, and getting to know people—[it helped] not just being at home, homesick all the time,” Nash told in S.I.’s Coming to America article.

Nash was born in South Africa but was raised in Victoria, B.C. He was recruited by only one U.S. college, Santa Clara University where he took hold of the basketball program in his first year, helping his team win the  NCAA championship in 1993. Despite never winning a title during his NBA career, the Canadian marked wins in plenty of other categories.

The Nash-Nowitzki duo helped snap Dallas’ 10-year playoff skid in the 2000-01 season.

“For me personally, that second year—Dirk started coming into his own, he and Steve were really starting to click—I think it was as much relief as satisfaction,” said Nelson in the Coming To America article.

Nash and Nowitzki missed their chance for an NBA Championship appearance in 2003, where the Mavs were matched up against the newly formed “Big 3” Spurs. Nash’s time with Dallas ended shortly after and he took his impact back to the Suns’ organization where he was drafted in 1996 as the No. 15 overall pick.

In his first season back in Phoenix, Nash led the Suns to 62 wins. Their success continued for several seasons, winning  54 or more games each year with the influence of Nash.

He helped lead Phoenix to the Western Conference finals three times (2005, 2006 & 2010) but was fell short each time, never reaching a championship appearance. Despite that adversity, Nash earned back-to-back MVP awards in 2005 and 2006. His playing career came to an end in 2015, landing 4th on the all-time assists list and achieving five-assist champion seasons. His roots in the NBA did not stop there, as Nash currently coaches the playoff-hopeful Brooklyn Nets.

He became the second Canadian to be enshrined in the Hall of Fame in 2018.

“I was never ever supposed to be here, that’s for sure, it’s incredible. It’s an incredible feeling to walk up those stairs,” Nash said during his Hall of Fame speech.

Take a look back at Steve Nash's illustrious career in the NBA.

Several years after the Nash-Nowitzki era, the Mavs found themselves at the 2011 NBA Finals battling the favored Miami Heat super team. Nowitzki led his team to their one and only championship within six games. He was rightfully named the Finals MVP, joining Hakeem Olajuwon, Tony Parker and Giannis Antetokounmpo as the only foreign players to claim the accolade.

In January 2022, Dirk’s No. 41 jersey was raised to the Dallas rafters. NBA Commissioner Adam Silver recognized him as a pioneer for international players, changing the narrative around them to one of a championship-caliber that generates culture. Many players refer to him as the greatest international player of all time, but Dirk sees his accomplishments differently.

“You will never hear me say that,” Nowitzki told the Washington Post when asked about his international G.O.A.T candidacy. “The people who paved the way for me, I will always consider them greater. If you say that I helped advance the game when my time came, then I will consider that enough of an honor. But I’m not going to call myself anything.”

Nowitzki currently sits sixth on the all-time scoring list with 31,560 points—the most by any foreign-born player with a gap of nearly 5,000 points. His signature one-legged fadeaway shot remains a revolutionary move for today’s league.