Glenn James/NHL/Getty ImagesDirk Nowitzki, center, smiles at Stars legend Mike Modano during his jersey retirement ceremony in March. Nowitzki has built relationships with many metroplex athletes during his time in Dallas.
ESPN Dallas recently held court with Dirk Nowitzki. In this series, Nowitzki shares thoughts about his past, present and future.
Mortality and immortality often go hand in hand in the world of sports. Some say legendary athletes suffer two deaths — their natural one, and the earlier one when it’s time to call it a career. When athletes realize they are in the golden years of their careers, when they realize the end is far closer than the beginning, it can take a mental toll.
This year, Dirk Nowitzki has attended retirement ceremonies for metroplex legends Michael Young of the Texas Rangers and Mike Modano of the Dallas Stars. His presence there shows the relationships he has built with stars across sports during his time in Dallas. Those special and emotional ceremonies have crystallized the notion that while Nowitzki can still play at a high level, his end as an athlete is near.
“Me going all to the ceremonies makes it hard not to think about the ceremony that will be for me one day, which will be bittersweet,” Nowitzki said. “I know it’s going to come eventually. As long as I’m out there, I just want to have fun. That’s the main thing for me. I’m still having fun working out.”
That will be the ultimate test for him as the months and years go by. If he’s able to still enjoy the cardio workouts as he prepares for basketball activities late in the summer, then he’ll know that playing the game is still for him.
There’s one recent example that let Nowitzki know that the work can be challenging now but still be entertaining.
“Last year in September, I ran around the track with some of the young guys. I was doing that, looking like an idiot out there,” Nowitzki said with a laugh. “Those things, if they become work, then you’re in trouble. As long as I still have fun playing and competing, not having great pain, then that’s good.
“I still feel good and it’s still fun. I don’t have to take any meds or any anti-inflams to play. Once all of this goes away, it’s time to step aside.”
Knowing Nowitzki, he won’t waste an extra second when he realizes it’s time to stop. There are milestones within reach, such as reaching 30,000 points and climbing up the NBA’s all-time scoring list, but he won’t drag himself around the court only for those milestones.
As for those cardio workouts, they were for the younger players. Nowitzki was out there with Shane Larkin, Gal Mekel, Jae Crowder and Bernard James. It’s something Nowitzki clearly doesn’t need to do, but he was trying to send a message that would resonate with the potential next generation of the Mavs.
“It’s 16 years in and kids have grown up watching him. Kids who dream about playing basketball idolize him,” Mavs owner Mark Cuban said of Nowitzki as the regular season was coming to a close. “Not only is he an idol on the court, but it’s about everything he represents and does off the court.”
Cuban recognizes that while the end may be coming for Nowitzki, there’s still way too much he can give to the franchise.
“When [the media] talks about what we do for the future and I talk about not trading Dirk, it’s about keeping the backbone of our team culture,” Cuban said. “There have been a lot of guys who have been able to score a lot of points, but it’s the mental toughness, competitive edge.
“The type of person he is sets an example for basketball fans in North Texas and around the world but also for future Mavericks that come in the locker room. That’s important.”
Nowitzki has seen it all: pain and heartache, along with the rise and fall of the team. While he can still perform at a high level, the end is slowly coming. The one-footed fadeaways that hit nothing but net will start to rattle out. The scoring average will slowly drop. His average could drop to 10 points per game, but if Nowitzki had it his way they would be the final 10 points of the game.
Times are changing, but for a seasoned 36-year-old veteran, the driving forces are still the same as for the young man who came into the league.
“Winning drives me, playing efficiently drives me,” Nowitzki said. “I’m still as hungry as ever.”
With the twilight coming, moments of magic will begin to fade away, too. Sports mortality has a cruel way of doing that to a legend. However long Nowitzki decides to wear a uniform — one that says Dallas on it — those moments need to be remembered and enjoyed by the masses. They must be, because the odds suggest there’s probably never going to be another one quite like Nowitzki to come through here again.