John McEnroe pumped up Dirk Nowitzki
Madison Square Garden has always been one of Dallas Mavericks forward Dirk Nowitzki's favorite buildings, so there was never much doubt Wednesday night that he'd score the 13 points he needed to become just the 24th player in league history to top 22,000 points.
But Nowitzki was particularly psyched for his annual MSG stop once he scanned the courtside seats during pregame warm-ups and saw one of his childhood heroes: John McEnroe.
"I was like a little kid," Nowitzki said.
Nowitzki was so giddy after shaking McEnroe's hand before the opening tip that he admittedly skipped over to Mavs equipment manager Al Whitley to tell him what happened. Don't forget that handball and tennis were the 32-year-old's primary sports growing up in Germany before basketball took over.
Not surprisingly, Dirk wound up playing his best overall game since he sat for nearly three weeks with a sprained right knee, finishing with 29 points and 11 rebounds in the Mavs' 113-97 rout of the Knicks. It was Nowitzki's first double-digit rebounding performance in the 10 games of his comeback.
"Once he saw Johnny Mac," said one Mavs witness, "that game was a wrap."
Nowitzki, with 22,016 points and counting, now ranks fourth in league history in scoring among players born outside the 50 states, behind only Nigerian-born Hakeem Olajuwon (26,946 points), French-born Dominique Wilkins (26,668) and Jamaican-born Patrick Ewing (24,815). San Antonio's Tim Duncan, who was born in the Virgin Islands, is fifth with 21,294 points.
On an appearance on ESPN's "Rome Is Burning" earlier this week, Mavs owner Mark Cuban said Nowitzki is still operating at only 75 percent capacity as he continues to recover from the most serious injury of a career steeped in durability.
"This is the first time I think Dirk hasn't had a season progress according to his own physical and mental schedule," Cuban told host Jim Rome.
The Mavs had lost five of their six previous road games before arriving in New York but improved to 16-2 in their past 18 meetings with the Knicks.
Senior writer Marc Stein covers the NBA for ESPN.com.