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Europe’s Michael Jordan: How Dirk Nowitzki’s talents transcended an ocean, opened doors for others

Europe’s Michael Jordan: How Dirk Nowitzki’s talents transcended an ocean, opened doors for others
Sports
He didn’t want it to be this way, but Dirk Nowitzki’s 21st NBA season quickly evolved into a long, heartfelt public goodbye.

Tributes poured in, as did thoughtful opinions about Nowitzki’s legacy. His career was widely eulogized, often in past tense. Reporters and fans live-tweeted the funeral, even though, clearly, Nowitzki’s career wasn’t yet dead.

Dallas Mavericks Dirk Nowitzki greeted fans after the team s NBA basketball game against the San Antonio Spurs. This was Nowitzki s last NBA game before retiring after 21 seasons with the Mavericks.  (Darren Abate / AP)

True to his personality, Nowitzki not only never complained, but he often spoke during his career’s wake, usually with humour.

“The whole farewell thing just happened on the fly,” he said. “The fans must have been thinking, ‘The way he’s moving, there’s no chance he’s coming back.’ That had to be their mind-set.”

The byproduct is that when Nowitzki’s career did in fact end a few days ago, gloriously, with a 30-point outburst in his home finale, followed the next night by a 20/10 in San Antonio, Nowitzki’s legacy was well-defined, though exactly where he ranks among basketball’s greats will remain subjective opinion.

Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle said he believes Nowitzki is one of the top 12 players in NBA history. Others say top 20. Still others, top 25 or 30.

Dallas Mavericks’ Dirk Nowitzki joins NBA 30,000-point club

Nowitzki’s also been called the best white basketball player ever, though Larry Bird fans certainly would argue otherwise.

Two aspects of Nowitzki’s legacy, however, are not debatable. One, he revolutionized the power forward position, as one of the first and certainly the archetypal example of the stretch-4.

And there’s this:

“He is the Michael Jordan of Europe,” Sacramento Kings vice president of basketball operations Vlade Divac told The News.

In case Divac, voted this month into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, wasn’t making himself crystal clear to fans who aren’t of the opinion that Jordan is the greatest American basketball player, he elaborated:

“The way he played, the way he represented and the way he accomplished stuff, definitely, absolutely, Dirk is the best European player ever. Period.”

Serbia’s Divac was selected by the Lakers with the No. 26 pick of the 1989 draft. He made the NBA’s All-Rookie team that season and, eventually, was a 2001 All-Star while starring at Sacramento.

His entry into the NBA came in the early days of European-player migration, most notably Drazen Petrovic (1989); Toni Kukoc (1990); and 7-3 Arvydas Sabonis (1995), who after a stellar international career didn’t start his NBA career in Portland until age 30.

“Everybody we’re talking about in the ‘90s, me and a few other guys, opened the door for Europeans,” Divac said. “And I clearly can say, thanks to Dirk, those doors don’t exist anymore.

“If we opened them a little bit, he took them off.”

Nowitzki’s rookie season of 1998-99 didn’t go smoothly, but as other European stars filtered into the NBA —Tony Parker (2001), Pau Gasol (2001) and Marc Gasol (2007) —Nowitzki became a dominant force, helping dispel the soft label that ignorantly was attached to he and other Euro players.

Nowitzki became the first European to win the NBA’s Most Valuable Player award, in 2006-2007. In 2011, he joined Spain’s Parker (2007) as the only Europeans to win NBA Finals MVP.

In 2007, Nowitzki became the first European to start an NBA All-Star Game, and his 14 appearances dwarf the next-highest European’s total, five, by Parker.

“He helped establish the fact there were a lot of great players all over the world,” Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said of Nowitzki.

Nowitzki came into the NBA at 7-0, 230 pounds. He primarily played small forward his first three seasons, but he gradually muscled to 245 pounds, moved to power forward and transformed himself into, eventually, the No. 5 defensive rebounder (10,021) in NBA history.

Former Mavericks coach and general manager Don Nelson widely is credited for creating what became the stretch-4 position by devising an offence with quick ball movement and floor spacing that accentuated Nowitzki’s rare outside-inside abilities.

“He was one of those guys that had to be dealt with because we had never really seen anything like that —somebody that was 7 feet tall and out on the court shooting the shots he shot,” Popovich said.

“He made everybody change, and the league had to respond, because guarding him was different than guarding anybody else at that size. He made a lot of young kids want to do the same thing he did. All of a sudden, we have all the stretch-4s and that sort of thing. He was paramount in that change.”

Nowitzki says the time and place of his entry into the NBA could not have been more ideal.

“The game was changing, the league wanted a little more scoring, they wanted a little more movement,” he said. “In the ‘90s there was a lot of weightlifting in the 4s and 5s, and there was a lot of fouling going on. I think the league wanted a change, and I came in at the right time.

“They put in the back-down rule. They put in the zone. They just basically forced the teams to do a little more movement, more pick-and-roll. All the guys now can shoot and spread the floor.

“It was just perfect for me, for my skill-set. It was perfect for me to play obviously under Nellie my first couple of years. He was probably the only guy at the time that wanted a 7-footer dribbling up the ball and shooting, so I’m really thankful that I came here to this situation, to this city.”

Now the NBA is a place in which Greece’s Giannis Antetokounmpo is this season’s MVP co-favourite —along with Houston’s James Harden —with a chance to join Nowitzki as the only Euros to win the award.

It’s a league in which 7-footers of all nationalities are launching 3-pointers, with efficiency.

In the wake of Nowitzki’s retirement, Bleacher Report’s Andy Bailey noted that when Dirk entered the NBA in the lockout-delayed 1998-99 season, only 40 7-footers in league history had ever made a 3-pointer. Those 40 players had made a combined 507 treys.

In his 21 seasons, Nowitzki made 1,982 3-pointers, the 11th-highest total in NBA history. Again, as noted by Bailey, 81 other 7-footers since 1998 have attempted 3-pointers, making a combined 7,253 of them.

That’s only part of Nowitzki’s basketball legacy, a powerful one at that.

Nowitzki, however, summarized his career in more modest terms when asked how he would like to be remembered as a player.

“I don’t know,” he said. “A big guy who can shoot, spread the floor, always try to play hard, give everything for this team, for the franchise, and try to win.

“And, try to play the right way and try to lead by example, try to make a difference in the community. That about sums it up. Always be respectful to teammates, not always to officials ... I tried. Just always play hard and try to represent the right way.”

He tried, all right. And he represented admirably.

At career’s end, the Michael Jordan of Europe and No. 6 scorer in NBA history leaves a transformative legacy that resonates on its own.
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