For Dirk Nowitzki, the slate is clean
Funny how sports works. It's as if all those prior playoff failures never happened
So all is forgotten and forgiven? Is that the way it goes?
The answer is yes. This is how we live.
But does that mean that nothing from before matters now? That all of what went on, all that occurred before this -- the past five years of disappointment, underachieving, "choking," not coming through at playoff time and not living up to expectations -- means nothing?
Is that what winning does? Erase everything that sides with anything negative that happened in an athlete's career before the moment he or she lifts the trophy? Make us forget that, in Dirk's case, he was once LeBron James: a player who seemed to have everything but nothing of true substance to show for it?
A player of perennial and perpetual MVP-caliber potential who, when the games really seem to matter, fades like acid-washed jeans.
In the past five seasons, Nowitzki has been the DNA of teams that -- as Dirk said on "Pardon the Interruption" on Tuesday -- have had "a bunch of first-round exits," highlighted by being the only No. 1 seed to lose to an 8-seed in a seven-game playoff series in NBA history in 2007. In the Finals in 2006, Dirk and Dallas had a 2-0 lead, only to get swept away in the next four games. Until last week, he'd been unable to put a team -- his team -- on his back and shoulders and carry it past other teams some felt weren't in the Mavs' class.
That inability gave Dirk a label: soft and undependable. And going into these playoffs, that was one of the main reasons that so many didn't pick Dallas to be the last team standing. Historically, Dirk hadn't shown the fortitude necessary from a leader to get a team past the playoff opponents the Mavs met this year -- the young and hungry Portland Trailblazers, the defending-champion Lakers, the up-and-coming OKC Thunder. Until now, depending on Nowitzki to get a team through all three rounds was like banking on Peyton Manning to get the Colts to the promised land pre-2007.
Ah Manning. Ring. Finally.
Before we blanked out on Dirk's ride to his ring, Manning was the poster child for singular individual futility associated with performance in the postseason. Year after year, he not only fell short of winning a ring but also never seemed to play Games 17-19 the way he did in Games 1-16.
Then he (finally) won one, and all priors were expunged from his record.
That's the way it happens in sports: selective memory loss. Future Hall of Fame players who've had histories of epic underachievement, who haven't lived up to the hype (their own or the media's), win just once -- just once -- and the pattern of failing to come up Jordan/Brady/Jeter disappears from our consciousness and our conversations as though we all got caught staring at a Neuralyzer.
Dirk is not alone or being singled out here. He isn't any different from many who have come before him. He's just the last in a long line of sports icons whose careers have met the same fate, traveled the same path, survived the same nightmares.
As soon as they won one, all previous unforgivable performances were forgiven. The unforgettable forgotten.
Which essentially means that for players from Alex Ovechkin to Tony Romo to Donovan McNabb to Tracy McGrady, and entire teams such as the Chicago Cubs, there's still hope. There's still a chance that becoming (almost) famous for spending a career (or, in the Cubs' case, a few lifetimes) under the spotlight and not delivering when all is on the line will disappear if that ring is won.
If they pull a Nowitzki.
So LeBron (and all the others who currently share this conundrum): Don't stress. Your eraser day can still come. Just win one. Become a champion once, and history has proved that everything leading up to that moment -- for you, LeBron, that means this year's Finals, last year's Boston Celtics series, the Eastern conference finals two years ago, getting swept in your first Finals appearance -- will all be ghost.
I've been told several times that winning is the best deodorant in sports. That like Mitchum or Axe, winning covers up all the stink. I've discovered from watching people from Manning to Kevin Garnett to the Atlanta Braves that, like Safeguard or Dove, winning makes the fetor of losing disappear.
Winning a championship gets to the core of the problem and deletes it. In all sound minds and bodies and conversations of those who are in position to judge, it creates a vacuum of oblivion.
And after I witnessed how the disappointing playoff career of Dirk Nowitzki became meaningless in the immediate aftermath of Sunday night's championship, I learned that winning does even more than un-stink the air with fragrance.
It causes amnesia.
Scoop Jackson is a columnist for ESPN.com.