— Arguably, Dirk Nowitzki is the greatest Dirk of all time. A case can be made for Dirk Bogarde, the British actor whose remarkable career thrived mostly in the 1950s, '60s and '70s and who was later knighted. But he has been out of the public eye since his death in 1999, known more for art-house fare than popular releases, and he really had no outside shot to speak of.
So, the Dallas Mavericks' forward has Dirk-dom largely to himself. Certainly he is proud of that reign, as well he should be. But there is a more celebrated crown he longs for, and I think we all know what it is. With that in mind, Bogarde might also finish second to Nowitzki in drama, because starting Tuesday night the latter faces a gripping challenge against his most notable source of torment.
In 2006, the Mavericks added "collapsible" to their list of features. They had a 2-0 lead in the NBA finals against the same Miami Heat franchise, and they wound up losing, 4-2. For Nowitzki especially, that series has become an albatross wrapped in a millstone inside a monkey on one's back. It didn't help the club's legacy that the following year the Mavs — the top-seeded team in the West — were shocked by the Golden State Warriors in the first round of the playoffs. Nowitzki, that season's MVP, went 2-for-13 for eight points in the clinching Game 6.
A lot has transpired since then. In the years that followed, the Mavs went first-round ouster again, second-round exit, first-round departure. All the while, Dirk polished his credentials as a soft, jump-shooting European 7-footer. It may not have been fair to pigeonhole him that way, since it takes a village to win a title — or at least a couple of extra reliable scorers and some defense. But as frontman for Mark Cuban's perennial underachievers, Nowitzki made the bulk of the money and therefore received the lion's share of the blame.
So why would these 2011 NBA finals be any different? Is Nowitzki destined to become that saddest of characters in sports, the superstar who just couldn't lead his team to a championship?
No one knows for sure, of course. That "Rapture" seer sounded pretty sure of himself in trying to predict the future, and that turned out to be a dud of an Armageddon. But there are clues why this time it might be different for Nowitzki and the Mavericks.
This time, he doesn't really care. Oh, he certainly wants to win with all his heart. But he doesn't seem to be concerned with the world's view of him anymore. He's over that. He's been beaten up, and has grown thicker armor as a result. He appears more light-hearted and relaxed, and oddly that has intensified his killer instinct.
He’s also smarter. He’s seen every type of defender and every type of defense. He could get that one-legged fall-away off while sinking in quicksand. He’ll turn 33 next month and is finishing his 13th NBA campaign. He’s playing at a high level of confidence, and his teammates are rising up to meet it.
Nowitzki also has extra help. The Mavs have Tyson Chandler patrolling the paint, Peja Stojakovic sniping from the perimeter, Shawn Marion scoring and rebounding, and J.J. Barea scurrying under defenders’ legs, in addition to stalwarts like Jason Kidd and Jason Terry. Under coach Rick Carlisle, the Mavs have a commitment to defense they haven't had before.
There is a groundswell of opinion behind the Heat. They’re making a furious effort to avenge the fact they’re not very well liked. LeBron James is the anti-Dirk: rather than remain loyal to one franchise for 13 years, he bailed for a warmer climate and an easier path after seven seasons in Cleveland, and now he’s irked that the world’s population hasn’t unanimously endorsed his position.
The Heat have three stars in LeBron, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, and therefore is the favorite to win the championship. While the Mavericks can’t match Miami’s wattage, the possibility exists that a number of their men can play like stars in the finals.
If, for instance, the Mavericks get dead-eye shooting performances from Nowitzki, Terry, Stojakovic and Kidd of the kind on display in the Western Conference semifinals against the Los Angeles Lakers — a shocking sweep of the two-time defending champs — then the James-Wade-Bosh triumvirate will be neutralized.
But it all starts with Nowitzki. The series will teeter on him and his outside shot. The Mavs’ fortunes will soar or sink depending on his steely determination that was forged from the crushing disappointment of 2006.
The NBA is so fluid, and the competition so fervent, that there are no sure things. Nowitzki is on the downside of his NBA arc. He and the Mavs may not get back here again for a while. He knows that. He’s seen teams come and go during his career. Longevity and losing turn young players drunk with idealism into sober, wise men. He’s acutely aware of the stakes, especially since people tend to remind him.
LeBron & Co. might lead the league in histrionics and hoopla, but Nowitzki has something deeper running. It’s the urgency that develops when everyone around you is pushing you to win a championship and solidify your place in history almost as hard as you’re pushing yourself.
It’s cool to be the most famous Dirk in history. It’s a lot more special when the reason is that you’ve accomplished something that no other Dirk — and relatively few others with any other name — have done.