- Tim MacMahon, ESPN Staff Writer
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DALLAS -- Dirk Nowitzki often wanders out to the American Airlines Center court to taunt the man who signs his paychecks.
Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban likes to jack up jump shots a couple of hours before home games begin. Cuban hears the same thing every time his superstar interrupts the owner's shooting session.
"I built this place!" Nowitzki hollers. "This is the house that Dirk built!"
It's pretty rare to catch Cuban at a loss for words. But the brash billionaire doesn't have much of a retort for Nowitzki's playful barbs.
"He has a point," Cuban said of Nowitzki, the face of the franchise and unofficial host for All-Star Weekend in Dallas.
Never mind that the arena opened for the 2001-02 season. Nowitzki, who arrived in Dallas three seasons before, has been the foundation for the Mavericks' journey from NBA laughingstock to one of the league's most consistent contenders. The nine-time All-Star has been the only constant on the roster during the Mavs' nine consecutive 50-win seasons, a feat accomplished by only four other teams in NBA history.
Nowitzki, a 7-footer with a finesse game that belies his mental toughness, has rewritten the Mavs' record book while making Dallas his second home. He forced folks to reconsider their perceptions of European basketball imports, proving that a big man with a perimeter-oriented game can be the centerpiece of a successful franchise.
"What did Staubach mean to the Cowboys?" Dallas coach Rick Carlisle said. "That's the territory you're getting in. Just in terms of name recognition, face of the franchise, all those kinds of things, he's the guy, without question. This franchise had a lot of lean years before he came along. The resurgence over the last several years is unmistakably tied to him and his game."
Not bad for a goofy guy from Germany who worried about whether he'd last his lockout-shortened rookie season.
To say Nowitzki arrived in Dallas with doubts would be a drastic understatement. He was a 19-year-old kid with a bad haircut and a silly earring -- his description -- who was scared out of his wits.
"It was tough," said Nowitzki, who had played the previous season for his hometown Wurzburg X-Rays in Germany's second division. "I kind of was hoping to make it. My out was I signed a three-year deal. If it all really goes bad, I can always go back to Europe and play."
Added Holger Geschwindner, Nowitzki's personal coach and mentor since childhood: "He came over as a schoolboy. Our thing was to survive 50 games."
Nowitzki managed to make it through his rookie season in 1998-99, although he was miserable. He drove a rental car that went from his apartment to the arena or airport and rarely anywhere else.
Don Nelson, the Mavs' coach at the time, unintentionally heaped pressure on Nowitzki by declaring him a preseason rookie of the year favorite. Boston's Paul Pierce, the player picked immediately after Nowitzki, ended up averaging more than twice as many points as a rookie, resulting in constant comparisons.
"He was one of the greatest young players I'd ever seen," Nelson said. "At 7-feet, the things that he could do. I was so excited when we drafted him."
The big kid from Germany showed glimpses late in the season -- a 29-point performance in a loss to the Phoenix Suns stands out in his mind as a confidence-building moment -- but couldn't wait to get home. He hopped on a flight to Germany on May 5, the day after the Mavs' season ended.
Things got much better for Nowitzki when he returned to Dallas. Steve Nash never let Nowitzki, who lived in the same apartment complex, far out of his sights, forcing the awkward foreigner to have a semblance of a social life. Nowitzki will also be forever grateful to Michael Finley, the Mavs star who also made it a priority to aid Nowitzki's transition to America and the NBA.
Nowitzki also looked like a legitimate, if unconventional, NBA starter. He more than doubled his scoring to 17.5 points per game, a key to the Mavs' winning 40 games, their most in a decade.
Nevertheless, the doubts about Nowitzki continued. The Mavs' front office still wasn't certain whether he could be a franchise cornerstone. Many fans dismissed him as soft.
"When I first got to the Mavs, there were a lot of people who thought he was just next in line on the list of big, foreign, white stiffs that they drafted," said Cuban, who took over the team midway through Nowitzki's second season. "I mean, there were people who talked about him in the same breath as Bruno Sundov."
A season later, the Mavs' 50-win streak started, with Nowitzki leading the team in scoring (21.8 points per game). By that time, Sundov had moved on to the second stop of his forgettable NBA career, which spanned five teams and seven seasons.
Nowitzki made his All-Star debut the following season. He also eliminated any doubt the Dallas decision-makers had about him with his performance in a playoff sweep of Kevin Garnett's Timberwolves. There were no more questions within the organization about Nowitzki's toughness and intensity after he averaged 33.3 points and 15.7 rebounds during the series.
Cuban, convinced that Nowitzki could be the centerpiece of a championship team, locked him up to a maximum contract that summer. It sent a clear message to the budding star.
"That was obviously the first step for him saying, 'This is going to be your team one day,'" Nowitzki said.
Nowitzki still considered himself the Mavs' third-most important player behind Finley and Nash. That changed gradually until Nowitzki had no choice.
Nash departed for Phoenix in the summer of 2004, when the Suns made Nowitzki's best friend and point guard an offer the Mavs wouldn't match. Finley left the following summer, when Cuban took advantage of a one-time NBA rule that allowed teams to release a player to avoid paying luxury tax on his salary.
There was no more Mavs' Big Three, as the trio had become known in Dallas. It was down to one.
The Dallas Mavericks were officially Dirk Nowitzki's team. He accepted the challenge, meaning more media responsibilities, more community interaction and ultimately responsibility for the franchise's success.
"You've got to be able to take games over," Nowitzki said. "You've got to be able to win games for the franchise.
"But it's definitely not only on the court for me. It's on and off the court."
After a dozen seasons in Dallas, Nowitzki has accomplished everything he wanted to, with one major exception: He doesn't have a ring. He carried the Mavs to the 2006 Finals, where they blew a 2-0 lead to the Miami Heat, and earned MVP honors the next season.
Nowitzki can opt out of his contract after this season, but he's made it clear he plans to finish his NBA career with the Mavericks. A championship wouldn't have the same meaning if he didn't deliver it to Dallas.
"Now, before I go home, I'll stay for like a month," Nowitzki said. "Usually, I stick around for a bit and see everybody because I don't have much time to enjoy everything during the season. I love it now. I definitely have found a new home."