Analysis: Fitting that Dirk will be celebrated on Christmas
Honors officially began in 2019 with Dirk Nowitzki Way, a street renamed Dallas to honor the greatest Mavericks player of all time. Then, in January, the Mavs retired his No. 41 jersey. Then, in September, Germany retired the No. 14 jersey he wore for his country.
Even after 30,000 points, he still doesn’t enjoy all the fuss.
“It was super surreal,” Nowitzki said, “and a little bit embarrassing for me.”
Merry Christmas Dirk. Here comes another celebration. Actually two of them.
On Wednesday, he will be announced by the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame as a nominee for the 2023 Anchor Class. And on Sunday, when the Mavs host the Los Angeles Lakers as part of the NBA’s Christmas Quintupleheader, Dirk Nowitzki’s statue will be unveiled at the American Airlines Arena.
It’ll be the ultimate Christmas present, and incredibly fitting that it comes on a day when a slew of international stars Nowitzki helped pave the way for – Joel Embiid of Philadelphia, Giannis Antetokounmpo of Milwaukee, Nikola Jokic of Denver and his colleague Luka Doncic – to be presented on the big day of the NBA.
“It was super fun to watch,” Nowitzki said when asked about the lasting influence international players have had on the game. “And besides, if I’ve inspired someone to pick up a basketball, or if I’ve motivated a guy to work harder or dream about the NBA, it’s obviously humbling to me…super humbling.” Of course that makes me proud.”
It’s not a new development. The last four MVPs – in reverse order Jokic, Jokic, Antetokounmpo, Antetokounmpo – come from Serbia and Greece. It seems reasonable to think that this season’s MVP will also be an international player, with Jokic, Doncic and Embiid likely among the first frontrunners.
On Tuesday, the NBA’s top five scorers come from five different countries – Embiid (Cameroon), Doncic (Slovenia), Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (Canada) from Oklahoma City, Antetokounmpo (Greece) and Kevin Durant (USA).
That was unthinkable just a few years ago. Over a 13-season span, from 2004/05 to 2016/17, only one international player cracked the top five – Nowitzki, who finished fourth twice during that stretch. Every second slot was occupied by an American.
That’s what former commissioner David Stern wanted – and why he prioritized the internationalization of the NBA.
“It was his vision to really make the NBA and basketball a global sport,” said commissioner Adam Silver ahead of a game between Miami and San Antonio in Mexico City last weekend. “I started in the league in 1992, just before the Barcelona Olympics and the Dream Team. We saw the impact that had. Now when I look back 30 years, 30 years of playing games in Mexico City, it’s really happening.”
It’s no coincidence that Doncic, Antetokounmpo, Jokic and Embiid are getting the Christmas game treatment. They are brands that have great global appeal, and the NBA has embraced increasing numbers of international viewers over the years.
Preceding them all was Nowitzki, a German boy in mop tops who wasn’t sure at first if he wanted to get into the NBA when he was drafted and ended up making the best possible decision for him and the Mavericks. He played three times at Christmas; Dallas went 2-1 in those games and Nowitzki averaged 27.3 points.
The Christmas lineup this year looks like this – first Philadelphia in New York, then the Lakers in Dallas, Milwaukee in Boston, Memphis at defending champions Golden State, then Phoenix in Denver in the nightcap. Some star power will be missing, with the Lakers without Anthony Davis and the Warriors without Stephen Curry. It is LeBron James’ 17th Christmas appearance and the first for the Grizzlies.
“These are the games everyone grew up with,” James said last year when asked about Christmas.
The NBA is doing its part to ensure “everyone” can watch – like the NBA Finals, the Christmas games will be broadcast to more than 200 countries and territories, with commentary in more than 50 languages.
German will of course also be there. The Nowitzki statue features his famous one-legged jumper, a game-changing shot. He was a unicorn when he came to the US; a 7-footer who could shoot, pass and dribble and wasn’t just a guy with his back to the basket. Well, these skills are not uncommon to see in tall men. They are fundamentally required.
Again it is so fitting that the statue comes at Christmas. His game was a gift. And in the way it has been imitated by so many over the past 20 years, it is a gift that keeps on being given.
“That will be there forever,” Nowitzki said. “I think the incredible thing is that that statue will be there and my kids will grow up with it. That’s what’s really astounding and amazing about it – that this piece truly is for eternity and will be there long, long after I’m gone.”
Tim Reynolds is a national basketball writer for The Associated Press. Write to him at treynolds(at)ap.org
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