Commentary

Tears of a crown: Dirk Nowitzki rejoices

Originally Published: June 13, 2011
By Marc Stein | ESPN.com

MIAMI -- On the night he finally found vengeance, eternal validation and the highest measure of victory to wag in the face of anyone who had ever called him soft or mocked his cough, Dirk Nowitzki wasn't going to let the world see his tears.

So he left the scene of his greatest triumph before a single teammate or coach could grab him for a hug, faster than he's ever hurdled a scorer's table to bolt off the floor, determined to sneak back to the visitors' locker room.

To cry alone.

"I could already feel the tears coming," Nowitzki said in an AmericanAirlines Arena hallway, beaming now as he explained the mad dash at the final buzzer that superseded any urge he felt to dance on the court inside this house of old horrors … or maybe stick around to find out how it feels to get a congratulatory man hug from Dwyane Wade.

"I had to recover, bro."

The Dallas Mavericks had to drag Nowitzki back to the podium of champions Sunday night, up off the floor to hoist the two trophies of his dreams, all because he didn't want anyone to see him like this, whether they were in the building or watching on TV. He admittedly "cried like a baby" back in 2008 upon clinching Germany's qualification for the Olympics for the first time in his career, but Nowitzki confessed that he was literally shaking with shock in the immediate aftermath of the Mavs' 105-95 dismantling of the Miami Heat to win the 2011 NBA Finals.

[+] EnlargeDirk Nowitzki
Andrew D.Bernstein/NBAE/Getty ImagesDirk Nowitzki overcame cold shooting to score 10 of his 21 points in the fourth quarter.

"We're world champions," Nowitzki eventually said once he made it to the interview room, Finals MVP trophy and a champagne bottle in tow.

"It sounds unbelievable."

The dream finish Dirk struggled to take in fittingly became a reality in the wildest way for a team pretty much no one pegged to be here when the playoffs started, capping a surprise-filled two months in the NBA Tournament with one last upset. Dallas' starless band of ringless vets that Nowitzki carried so much further than expected -- this motley crew that even Mavs president of basketball operations Donnie Nelson likes to refer to as "The Castoffs" -- wound up carrying its very own Hakeem Olajuwon for three quarters.

Jason Kidd at 38. Tyson Chandler as the injury-prone-no-more defensive anchor. Shawn Marion reborn as a perimeter stopper with a bit of a post-up game. DeShawn Stevenson and Brian Cardinal emerging from oblivion to make big shots and dole out hard fouls off the bench. Jason Terry, Dallas' only other 2006 survivor besides Nowitzki, supplying 27 clutch points as the sixth man, playing like one of the legends from back home in Seattle: Downtown Freddie Brown.

Truth be told, Ian Mahinmi's jumper somehow looked truer than Dirk's for much of this bizarre Game 6. Order was not restored until the fourth quarter, when Nowitzki finally recovered from his 1-for-12 shooting nightmare in the first half to drop 10 of his 21 points, responding to Terry's cries of "Remember '06" with five game-sealing buckets in the final 7:22 to zap what was left of Miami's flagging spirit.

It was a farewell flurry that took Nowitzki's fourth-quarter total for the series to a heady 62 points … matching the combined total Wade and a passive-to-the-end LeBron James scored in the fourth. It was a clinching salvo that left even Nowitzki's famously stoic shot doctor with watery eyes when the ABC cameras found Holger Geschwindner in the stands.

"Tomorrow he gets a day off," Geschwindner said with a laugh once he got himself steady. "As promised."

Said Nowitzki: "It was weird. In the first half, I had so many good looks. I can't even explain it. I had some 3s top of the key. I had a wide-open 3 in the corner. I had some pull-ups. I had some one-legged fadeaways that I normally make."

Then speaking specifically about the unheralded Mavs who bailed him out, Nowitzki said: "I just think this is a win [for] team basketball. This is a win for playing as a team on both ends of the floor, sharing the ball, passing the ball. … I'm happy. We never looked at ourselves as soft. Not for one minute."

Dirk and his fellow former softies, truth be told, had more swagger than anyone knew. Keeping with a secret tradition that began in earnest before Game 4 of Dallas' second-round sweep of the Los Angeles Lakers, every Mavs player conspired to wear something black to work on Sunday, convinced that they would soon do to Wade's Heat precisely what Miami had done to Dallas in a Game 6 on the road five years before.

"Goin' to a funeral" was the Mavs' inside joke.

Dallas also was privately seething, from Nowitzki on down, about the video that circulated Friday showing Wade and James mocking Dirk's recent sinus infection. Maybe the Mavs made more out of the tape than they should have, given that there have obviously been more egregious disses in NBA history, but their angry reaction clearly stemmed from the fact that Wade was involved. The same Wade whose relationship with Nowitzki has been frosty ever since Wade followed up Miami's 2006 championship and the Mavs' complaints about the officiating by saying that Dallas lost because Dirk "wasn't the leader he's supposed to be in the closing moments."

The animus, as Mavs coach Rick Carlisle confirmed, was inherited and embraced by all of Nowitzki's teammates, no matter where they might have been five years ago.

"Our guys took it personally tonight," Carlisle said. "They were not going to be denied. Dirk and [Terry] have had to live for five years with what happened in 2006. And as of tonight, those demons are officially destroyed."

Conceded Wade: "I think he's played awesome, man. Obviously Dirk, [what happened] five years ago, it burned in him. He learned from that experience. ... Now that he's a champion, it goes without saying [what it means] for his career."

The list of NBA MVPs without a championship, for starters, is down to six: Charles Barkley, Karl Malone, Allen Iverson, Steve Nash, Derrick Rose … and LeBron. Nowitzki was the unquestioned best player of the 2011 playoffs, surviving both a torn tendon in his left middle finger and that sinus infection in this series, along with the oft-forgotten fact that the two guys forecast to be Dallas' most dynamic scorers not named Nowitzki -- Caron Butler and Roddy Beaubois -- didn't play at all in the postseason because of injuries.

Most of all, Dirk has banished the haunting memories of that night back in Dallas when Miami won it all on the Mavs' floor, after which he stayed in the Mavs' American Airlines Center locker room well past 5 a.m. with the likes of athletic trainer Casey Smith, equipment manager Al Whitley and public-relations official Scott Tomlin, drowning their sorrows in disbelief that their blown 2-0 lead was all the way gone. To celebrate the Mavs' revenge, Nowitzki and suddenly unmuzzled owner Mark Cuban led the Mavs, en masse, into the famed Club LIV at the Fontainebleau Hotel in Miami Beach in the wee hours of Monday morning, seizing the moment with the sort of un-Mav-like flash you associate with the vanquished Heat.

"The year he won MVP [in 2007]," Terry said, "doesn't even compare to what he did this year in the postseason."

Said Mavs legend Mark Aguirre, marveling earlier in the week about what Nowitzki has achieved in the go-to guy role Aguirre once occupied for this franchise: "Answer me this: If you switched Dirk with Wade or Dirk with LeBron, would the Mavs be in the Finals? No way."

Which might be the highest compliment you can pay him.

Kidd and Marion turned back the clock, round after round, with their D on Kobe Bryant, Kevin Durant and the Heat's superstar duo. Almost every single supporting-caster, from J.J. Barea to Peja Stojakovic, had a breakout moment or two in support of the highly underrated Chandler-led defense. Yet you still have to rewind to Olajuwon, with the 1994 Houston Rockets, to find the last one-star construction in the NBA that has proved to be so sturdy. So title-worthy.

With so many 30-somethings, Dallas obviously isn't built for the long term. Team sources have maintained for months that the Mavs, depending on how restrictive the next collective bargaining agreement is, still harbor hopes of getting in the free-agent mix for Dwight Howard, Chris Paul or Deron Williams in the summer of 2012, provided Cuban can figure out how to manufacture some salary-cap space for the first time in his ownership tenure.

For one glorious run, though, these Mavs had just enough with the title-hungry castoffs Cuban and Nelson put around Dirk. Just enough for Nowitzki to help to separate himself from two legendary power forwards who only know Finals heartache. In his seventh season of searching post-Steve Nash -- many of them marked by something resembling the "hammering," to use Nowitzki's word, coming LeBron's way now -- Dirk has made the championship breakthrough that eluded Barkley and Malone. Playing better than ever just a week before his 33rd birthday, Nowitzki tore through the tape at last with a string of performances that will linger far longer in the memory than his 9-for-27 shooting struggles in the season finale.

It's the "first time where the true alpha dog" on a championship team, as Nelson so aptly described it, came from Europe. From a little town in Bavaria called Wurzburg.

"Dirk gets executive of the year, coach of the year, man of the year," Nelson said. "He makes us all look smart."

Said Nowitzki with his eyes wide and dried: "Nobody can ever take this away from me. So that's really the best thing about this."


Marc Stein | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com
• Senior NBA writer for ESPN.com
• Began covering the NBA in 1993-94
• Also covered soccer, tennis and the Olympics

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