Mentally soft? Hardly.
Where the hell’s he going?
A man of German descent hurdles a wall, and one’s mind might turn to 1961 to that moment in time when the world’s two great superpowers, split between capitalism and communism, had a standoff in a German city where its people were still paying penance for their nation’s crimes and the whole of the world looked on, seeing that life was now forever changed.
But, no, this was not 1961, and this man was not hurdling the Berlin Wall. This was not the apex of what would be known as the Cold War. This had nothing to do with politics or power or ideology. No, this scene took place 51 years later in a gymnasium in southern Florida.
The game was not over. There were, as I could best tell, still five seconds remaining, but the Dallas Mavericks were certain of victory, having done the unthinkable, beating the seemingly indestructible Miami Heat. That the buzzer hadn’t sounded didn’t seem to matter to a certain 7’0" German who took to hurdling over a low-lying wall of sorts—OK, fine, a row of press tables—and bounding down the tunnel to his locker room.
This scene elicited a similar response from the press, the fans at the game and those sitting at home:
Where the hell’s he going?
From the first sight of Dirk Nowitzki as a bleach blonde, rail-thin basketball player acquired by the Dallas Mavericks on a draft-day trade in 1998, his unique qualities were obvious. At 7’0", he was more shooting guard than center. As a newly-minted American, he was reserved and awkward. And his basketball style, it turned out, was ahead of its time.
It took some time for him to find his game, but once he did, it defied classification. His shooting touch confounded his defenders. His offensive style left opposing coaches at a loss. And his game’s continued maturation (yes, that’s right, even a little bit of defense) kept him improving as other “stars” faded to the background.
Time and again, however, despite his illustrious play and his personal accolades, Nowitzki was branded with the worst moniker any athlete could hope for: mentally soft.
So, entering the NBA Finals in 2012 against the high-powered Miami Heat, Nowitzki’s detractors were ready to bury him once again. He was, they thought, forever to be known as “a talent,” but not “a winner,” good, but not a champion.
Yet, by the end of that championship series, Dirk Nowitzki and the Dallas Mavericks found themselves mere seconds away from victory and their first NBA title in Game 6 in Miami. Dirk Nowitzki was about to prove all his critics wrong.
We demand much of our athletes. We demand that they live up to their exorbitant paychecks. We demand that they perform with excellence on the court every time out. We demand that they mind their p’s & q’s in their personal life. But, most importantly, we demand that they climb to the height of their profession and reward us, their fans, with the championship trophy. When they’ve accomplished this, then we feel satisfied.
I don’t begrudge Michael Jordan’s moment falling to the floor, clutching a basketball at mid-court after winning his umpteenth title. In football, I don’t object to Drew Brees for parading around the field, child in tow, after leading his Saints to the championship. I don’t discount anyone who scales the heights of their profession and celebrates as they see fit.
But in a sport where demonstrative behavior is all too common, where a run-of-the-mill dunk can call for all sorts of preening (only to be outdone by the self congratulation, perhaps, of a receiver in the NFL who catches a pass for more than six yards), where pre-game rituals are done for crowd amusement and where any and all foul calls are argued as if the player is auditioning for his own show on the E! Network – it’s nice to see one man take the road less traveled.
As Nowitzki awkwardly jumped over the press row tables and made his way down the tunnel to the locker room, the question of where he was going and what he was doing was inescapable. But there was little doubt that Dirk knew exactly what he was doing. He knew exactly what he needed. And that, maybe, he was making some demands of us. He was demanding privacy.
There was a time when men didn’t cry in public, when emotions were left behind closed doors. There was a time when the concepts of privacy and intimacy were not seen as out-of-this-world. While it might seem anachronistic today, Dirk saw it as his only option. Or maybe he simply took to heart the words of Tom Hanks’ character from A League of Our Own with his dictum, “there’s no crying in baseball.”
Either way, it was nice to see a man at the height of his profession take time for himself away from the lights and the cameras and the fans. Simply put, it’s nice to see something original.
Word has it that Nowitzki had to be persuaded to come back from the locker room to accept the Larry O’Brien trophy with the rest of his team. So overcome with emotion, he was afraid he might not be able to keep it together.
Speaking as a lifelong Mavs fan, I’m glad he did us the honor.