Four years ago, Dirk Nowitzki was considered by a whole lot of people who make a living in and around professional basketball to be a player you simply couldn't count on. Couldn't hold a two-game lead when an NBA championship was within his reach in 2006. Couldn't, as the MVP and leader of the No. 1 seed, beat eighth-seeded Golden State the very next season. Dirk, the conclusion went, was a stereotypically soft European big man. Big talent, but no guts. Not tough enough. Not determined enough down the stretch. Would never break through against a team of ballers.
Now, of course, Dirk is on the verge of being a conquering hero, as if 2006 and 2007 didn't exist. Now, Dirk is clutch, a fourth-quarter stud, one of the best shooters ever, one of the all-time greats, a leader, a hard-rock who plays through injuries, a player whose determination is difficult to match, even a baller.
Probably, the rise and fall and rise again of Dirk Nowitzki's career ought to warn us off from rushing to judgment. It ought to serve as our great cautionary tale.
But it won't.
Because just as we collectively eat a huge plate of crow for judging Dirk wrongly, we're sprinting full speed to judge LeBron James in much the same way. We can barely even enjoy one of the closest and more entertaining Finals series ever played, for the need to decide LeBron's place in the universe based off something that happens when he's 26 years old. As we flip-flop on everything we believe about Dirk, is there no irony that the same people find it necessary to come to these conclusions about LeBron?
Dirk was 27 year old when he and the Mavericks lost to Miami in the 2006 Finals, 28 when he won the league MVP the next season; now it looks as if he's not going to retire as a bum. Even if Dallas loses these next two games in Miami, it seems Dirk at least will have elevated himself into the discussion of "best players to never win," along with the likes of Baylor, Barkley, Stockton, Malone and Ewing. By any sane account, there's a resilience, perseverance and sensibility about Dirk that have made him somewhere between sympathetic and admirable as a professional athlete.
LeBron, apparently, will have to wait his turn. Obviously, he hasn't played up to his own standard in the most recent games of this championship series, Games 4 and 5, much less the standard set by the standard-bearers, Michael Jordan, Earvin Johnson and Larry Bird. The notion that LeBron could still be a work in progress at 26 years old seems to have dawned on practically nobody. Why do people feel the need to project his legacy when at least half his career remains to be played? And why decide what he will "never" be if he fails this year, and even again next year, but wins four championships between 28 and 35? Chances are he'll be hailed as an all-time great anyway.
Sadly, it's the culture we live in, one in which ridiculous expectations have become the norm, particularly in a sports world where Monopoly salaries and ticket prices have led to a certain resentment from the patrons that can be quelled only with superhuman performances. Dirk himself gave voice to this Saturday in Miami when he told reporters inquiring about the difference between him now and in 2006, "If you lose, you get hammered. I got hammered the last 13 years; so hopefully if we win this year, I can make the hammering go away for just one year."
How damning of the culture is that. OK, maybe Dirk is overstating things a bit, but not much. LeBron was guilty of even worse hyperbole before Game 5 when he tweeted, "It's now or never & "
No, it actually wasn't. Game 5 never is "now or never" when the series is tied, but LeBron grew up in a world where the rush to judgment is standard fare. Sunday's Game 6, at least for Miami, is "now or never;" and Game 7, if there is one, will be, as well. But that only applies to the 2011 Finals. What, there's no next season for LeBron and the Heat? No 2014 or 2015? No, he didn't do himself and his team any favors by suggesting they'd win "not five, not six, not seven" NBA championships. But damn if anybody is going to convince me he is somehow unworthy if Miami loses Sunday night, which is what I'm starting to expect after picking the Heat to win before the Finals started.
Don't get me wrong. LeBron is a great and flawed player, like most great athletes. This fourth-quarter disengagement is baffling. I've had conversations with nine former players since Thursday night's Game 5, three of them Hall of Famers, and all say flat-out that they do not understand why LeBron has been so ineffective in back-to-back games in the fourth quarter, which is when great players separate themselves from the merely pretty good. One player, a veteran who has played in two NBA Finals, attended Game 5 in Dallas with the specific purpose of figuring out what the hell is going on with LeBron; and after the game, he was annoyed to be leaving with no clue.
One theory you hear is that LeBron is afraid of failure. Another is that he's physically exhausted (I'm down with this) from playing too many minutes. The absence of an apprenticeship at the college level (Bingo!) is the one advanced by all three Hall of Famers (11 championships), all three of whom played in the NCAA Final Four and two of whom left college early.
"Anybody who doesn't think you gain a tremendous amount by doing this on the biggest stage under the greatest pressure is a fool," one said.
Anyway, discussing what's going on with LeBron is not only fair but is also the exact reason people gravitate to sports. It's subjective, and so many things are possible. The juxtaposition of Dirk and LeBron, or the examination of their play in the Finals so far, is irresistible. But coming to the conclusion that LeBron is doomed to some ring of hellish failure is, well, stupid.
It's as dumb as judging John Elway on those three Super Bowl losses early in his career and leaving no room for the possibility that Elway might evolve into an even greater quarterback or one day have more worthy teammates. Nobody wants to remember this now; but six years into his career, the judgment was that Michael Jordan was never going to be anything more than a great scorer, that he lacked what it took to lead a team to a championship, that he could never be a great teammate because he was too impatient, too demanding.
How'd that reasoning work out in the long run?
Of course, we're a culture that doesn't consider the long run much anymore. The only thing that seems to matter is whether you're No. 1 on tonight's podcast or top plays. As somebody who is both old and old-school, it's increasingly ruining my enjoyment of sports.
Can we just watch Game 6, even with a critical eye, without assigning LeBron a place in basketball heaven or hell?
Dirk himself said it best Saturday. "I'm not trying to win for my legacy or anything other than being on the best team for that one year," he said.
That's what 13 years of getting hammered will do to a man.
Michael Wilbon is a featured columnist for ESPN.com and ESPNChicago.com. He is the longtime co-host of "Pardon the Interruption" on ESPN and appears on the "NBA Sunday Countdown" pregame show on ABC in addition to ESPN. Over the course of three decades with The Washington Post, Wilbon earned a reputation as one of the nation's most respected sports journalists. You can follow him on Twitter @RealMikeWilbon.