Two basketball legends stand side by side, each holding the sweat-soaked jersey of the other, both men beaming before a phalanx of clicking cameras.
The taller one, a lithe 7-footer raised in Wurzburg, Germany, leans into the frame with a toothy half-smile. The less tall one, a sleek scorer from suburban Chicago, grins tightly.
In Dirk Nowitzki's fingers, a white Miami Heat jersey with a red 3. In Dwyane Wade's hands, a charcoal Dallas Mavericks jersey with a blue 41. Their cheerful jersey swap, after a Feb. 13 game in Dallas, instantly becomes one of the feel-good moments of the season—Wade's last in the NBA and, quite likely, Nowitzki's, too.
It's a portrait of warmth and grace and mutual respect—and surely the oddest bookend to the most improbable rivalry in modern NBA times.
Rivals? The two future Hall of Famers flinch at the word. They play different positions—Nowitzki at power forward, Wade at shooting guard—and in different conferences. They faced each other twice a season. Never guarded each other. Rarely thought of each other.
With two notable exceptions, of course. In June 2006, Wade wrested a championship from Nowitzki—instantly boosting one star's stature while crushing the other's. Five years later, Nowitzki got his revenge, leading Dallas to the title at the Heat's expense. This was not Magic vs. Bird battling for supremacy across the 1980s. Or Russell vs. Chamberlain wrestling like titans through the '60s. It was not some storied mano-a-mano rivalry to define an era.
"Well, that's what it is," says Heat president Pat Riley, whose expertise on the subject—as a player, coach and executive—spans most of the last half-century. "I think you can go back to '47, when the NBA was formed and then you can pick out two guys in the league, every 10 years or every five years—I mean, great, great, great players, superstars—that had this natural rivalry that was born out of something, an event. Born out of playoff series, born out of championships, scoring titles, whatever it is."
And Wade and Nowitzki? "They had it," Riley says during a recent interview in his Miami office.
It isn't the sexiest or most layered of NBA player rivalries—it didn't even make the top 70, as compiled by NBA.com—but there is no disputing this much: Wade and Nowitzki had a uniquely profound effect on each other's careers.
That 2006 defeat? It nearly wrecked Nowitzki but ultimately sharpened his focus and game, driving him to an MVP campaign the next season and the championship four years after that.
"Without that '06 happening," Nowitzki tells B/R, "I'm not sure I would have won in '11."
The 2011 defeat? A humiliating blow to Wade's newly formed Superfriends alliance with LeBron James and Chris Bosh—after all their visions of world domination. But it forced a recalibration that positioned Wade and his buddies to win the next two titles.
"Them beating us the way they did, it changed my career," Wade says. "I came back with a different mentality."
These aren't just polite platitudes meant to warm a sometimes frosty relationship before the two men shuffle off into the horizon. Their impacts on each another were tangible, intense, perhaps not apparent in the moment but certainly clear now with the benefit of time. Both Wade and Nowitzki, interviewed separately for this story a week apart, expressed sincere appreciation for the other.
"There's a lot of symmetry to the connection that people will make for eons," Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle says.
Last September, Wade announced that this season, his 16th, would be his last. Nowitzki, in his 21st year, has been coy about his future, although he, too, is expected to retire—and has graciously welcomed every informal tribute and standing ovation from fans across the continent.
Both will rank among the greatest ever at their positions: Nowitzki, an evolutionary 7-footer who mastered the three-point shot and inspired a generation of unicorns; and Wade, an old-school slashing guard who mostly eschewed the three.
The two have played each other 22 times in the regular season, each winning 11 (there's that symmetry again). They meet for the final time March 28, in Miami, providing a quiet epilogue to their oddly intertwined story.
"If I'm never gonna get back, then let me leave a mark."
In the pivotal moment of the 2006 Finals, Wade was thinking of Dan Marino. Nowitzki was rapping in German.
The Mavericks were the stronger team—with 60 regular-season wins to the Heat's 52—so it was no surprise when they seized two victories at home to start the series. Nowitzki was stout but not dominant. Wade was productive but inefficient.
A Dallas championship was all but presumed.
That's when Wade's mind wandered to Marino, the legendary Miami Dolphins quarterback whose lone trip to the Super Bowl, in 1984, ended in a 38-16 crushing by the San Francisco 49ers.
"You hear the old story with Dan Marino," Wade says. "He got to the Super Bowl his second year, and he never got back. And just knowing that I might not never get back here. So if I'm never gonna get back, then let me leave a mark—something that I can walk away and have no regrets."
The Heat had acquired Shaquille O'Neal two years prior to accelerate Wade's ascent. But it was Wade who gave Miami its best advantage against Dallas. So he went on the attack, putting together one of the most memorable-slash-controversial runs in Finals lore: 157 points over the next four games, including 58 free throws (on 73 attempts), to lead the Heat to the title.
In the midst of that run, between Games 4 and 5, Dallas coach Avery Johnson famously pulled the Mavs from Miami and moved them to Ft. Lauderdale. And he assigned every player a roommate. Nowitzki got the feisty Darrell Armstrong, his polar opposite.
Armstrong sought inspiration by watching old boxing videos, much to his roommate's chagrin.
"So I'm over there showing him one of the greatest boxing matches I ever seen, with [Evander] Holyfield and Riddick Bowe in Round 10," Armstrong recalls. "And then he's over there rapping. Dirk is rapping in German."
Let the record reflect that Marino won this round, beating Holyfield and German hip-hop.
Nowitzki, hounded primarily by Udonis Haslem, never did get untracked, shooting just 38.7 percent in the four losses. The moment that most haunts him came at the end of Game 3: 3.4 seconds left, down by two, with two free throws to tie it. He sank the first shot, missed the second and a potential 3-0 cushion became a 2-1 lead.
"Then we started to get a little nervous," Nowitzki says, still shaking his head over that free throw. "Game 4, we got completely blown out."
These are the moments that define careers. Wade was crowned a champion and a Finals MVP at age 24, the first member of the vaunted 2003 draft class to reach that peak.
"Dirk was right on the shelf of winning the big one," Riley says, gesturing with his right hand, the 2006 championship ring glistening under his office lights. "And then Dwyane just stole it from him."
"Unbelievable," Nowitzki says. "Unguardable."
For about a three-year span Wade was, in Riley's view, "the best player in the world."
"Dwyane was better than Kobe at that time," Riley says. "He had a better year by having the impact on winning—in the Finals, in the biggest moments, on the biggest stage. And you get that moniker."
For Wade, the moment was career-defining, even if that career was just three years old.
"That first championship I got against him is something that, if I never got to the Big Three era, was something that set me up for the rest of my life," Wade says.
The consequences for losing were just as extreme. Nowitzki was branded as soft—a frequent and facile critique for nearly all European big men back then. An ESPN.com columnist put Nowitzki on a list of players on the downside of their careers—and never mind that Nowitzki had just reached the Finals with dominant performances against powerhouses San Antonio and the Steve Nash-era Suns.
"I just remember saying to myself, Everything you've worked for is down the drain," Nowitzki says. "Had an unbelievable season, unbelievable playoffs and that was all for nothing."
"That," he adds, "was probably the most frustrated I've been in my career. It was almost a feeling of emptiness. You don't want to get up in the morning, don't really know what's coming."
Frustration. Emptiness. And bitterness.
In the Mavericks' view, officiating had tainted the series—specifically with Wade's gaudy free-throw totals, particularly in Game 5, when he attempted as many foul shots (25) as the entire Dallas roster. Wade clinched the victory by hitting two free throws with 1.9 seconds to go, after a disputed call.
Mavs owner Mark Cuban ripped the officiating at the time, drawing a $250,000 fine. He revives the complaint without prompting when asked about the Wade-Nowitzki rivalry.
"I mean, look, I don't think anybody will doubt we had it taken from us," Cuban tells B/R, adding, "A different set of referees, a different outcome."
The Mavs' complaints in 2006 were taken as a slight by the Heat, a denigration of their title. So Wade hit back the next season, saying Nowitzki cost the Mavs the championship, "because he wasn't the leader that he's supposed to be in the closing moments."
Days after those comments, the two would share a court at the All-Star Game in Las Vegas. But they refused to acknowledge each another. No nods. No fist bumps.
That's when the relationship turned "frosty," in Nowitzki's description. That's when the rivalry was born.
"It was an everything moment for him."
In the pivotal moment of their second championship duel, in 2011, both Nowitzki and Wade were coughing and wheezing—Nowitzki from illness, Wade from a mischievous impulse to mock that illness.
The series was tied 2-2, with Nowitzki having put up 21 points and 11 rebounds in a Game 4 victory while fighting through a 101-degree fever. Wade and James, walking side by side after the morning shootaround before Game 5, play-coughed as the television cameras rolled.
"A little childish," Nowitzki would say at the time.
It had taken longer than he ever expected to return to this stage.
Even after the 2006 collapse, Nowitzki recalls thinking, "We're gonna be back in the Finals here from now on. This is our time. … And we didn't really notice I guess after '07 our window was closing right in front of our eyes."
Nowitzki had bounced back with his finest season, earning MVP honors while leading the Mavericks to a franchise-best 67 wins…only to lose to the eighth-seeded Golden State Warriors in the first round of the playoffs in one of the greatest upsets of all time.
That made two soul-crushing defeats in 10 months. Disconsolate, Nowitzki retreated to the Australian Outback with his longtime coach and mentor, Holger Geschwindner, for about five weeks in the summer of 2007.
"I take losses obviously very serious," Nowitzki says, reflecting on the moment. "If I'm one of the franchise players and obviously the best-paid player, I felt like if we don't win and we come up short, it's mostly my responsibility. That's how I always looked at it. And '06 was tough, and [after] '07, I was so frustrated I had to get away. So I wanted to get as far away as possible."
Nowitzki references a Geschwindner adage: "In doubt with yourself, always choose the world"—meaning, he says: "Don't stay by yourself; get out and do something. Experience something. Otherwise, you get frustrated and depressed. That's what we did that year. It was great for me. … Once I cleared my mind, I was ready to go again."
The Lakers of Kobe and Pau Gasol dominated the West from 2008 to 2010—a stubborn roadblock to Nowitzki's title hopes.
It was no easier for Wade following the 2006 title. Miami lost in the first round the next year, traded O'Neal to Phoenix during the 2007-08 season and then missed the playoffs. It took the greatest free-agent coup in modern times to lift Wade back into contention.
The stakes were vastly different when the two met again in 2011. Nowitzki, then in his 13th season and nearing his 33rd birthday, knew it might be his last shot at a title. And he'd returned with a decidedly unglamorous supporting cast: an aging Jason Kidd, a late-career Shawn Marion, a feisty J.J. Barea, a springy Tyson Chandler. Expectations were much higher for Wade's new superteam, of course. But the Heat were guaranteed to be perennial contenders for the foreseeable future. Sure, the pressure to win was high, but Miami had more room for error.
When Wade sized up Nowitzki that spring, he saw a sturdier player than he'd faced in 2006. "I thought he was ready," Wade says, looking back on the start of that series. "I felt that individually, as a leader, I felt like he was ready. And I knew that—even though I felt that we was very talented—I knew that we had our work cut out for us."
The Heat entered the 2011 Finals as heavy favorites—albeit widely reviled favorites. Wade and James' mocking of Nowitzki's illness in the hours before Game 5 only reinforced their villain status.
Nowitzki put up 29 points that night to push Dallas to victory and a 3-2 lead. He followed with 21 in the clincher three nights later—an emphatic stamp of career validation.
"Dirk was the best player in the world—at that time, during that series," Riley says.
Overcome with emotion, Nowitzki retreated to the visiting locker room after the final buzzer, to let the tears of joy and relief flow, while his teammates celebrated on the court.
"It was an everything moment for him," Carlisle says. "For Dirk, competing in this league was never really about the stats or the adulation—any of those kinds of things. Eventually it became about whether or not he could be that guy and carry a team to the title. When he was able to do that, it had to be one of the most amazing moments that an athlete can have."
Says Cuban: "It got him the ring he needed, because I think he would have felt incomplete. Like we all would have."
The backlash for the Heat was swift and merciless but mostly directed at James, who had delivered a shockingly lackluster performance across the six-game series. Wade had been steady throughout, averaging 26.5 points, 7.0 rebounds and 5.2 assists.
And yet, Wade says, the defeat did change him.
"Not knowing it at the time, but [Nowitzki's] greatness pushed me to be greater," he says. "That's when I gave the reins to LeBron, and I took a step back."
A year later, Wade was celebrating another title, combining with James to take down the Oklahoma City Thunder. A year after that, he grabbed his third championship in a seven-game thriller against the Spurs.
Says Nowitzki: "I think we were fortunate to see them in Year 1 of them getting together. They took their games to another level, figuring out even better how to play off each other, play with each other. They looked almost unbeatable for a while."
You don't get to choose your rivals in professional sports. They just sort of present themselves, through some combination of happenstance and geography and timing.
If you asked Nowitzki, now 40, to name his chief rivals, he'd point to the Suns and Spurs, teams he clashed with repeatedly, and memorably, in the annual battle for control of the Western Conference. His postseason career spanned 145 games and 14 different opponents.
For Wade, 37, who logged 177 playoff games and faced 16 opponents, it was often the Celtics, Bulls and Pacers who left the deepest marks.
Nowitzki, drafted in 1998, came up in an era of elite power forwards—Kevin Garnett, Tim Duncan, Karl Malone, Chris Webber, Rasheed Wallace—all natural rivals in the race for greatness. Wade arrived in 2003 and instantly had to prove himself against a generation of elite shooting guards: Bryant, Ray Allen, Allen Iverson, Vince Carter, Tracy McGrady.
Yet if the greatest rivalries are those born amid the greatest stakes, then this is the one they will remember most. Dirk to Dwyane, and Dwyane to Dirk. Here, at the end, they can gaze across the expanse and see it. They can grip each other's jerseys and grin tautly for the cameras with some strange mix of tension and gratitude.
"It's just hard to like your competition at that time," Nowitzki says. "But now we're older, and I'm older, and I've got nothing but respect what it did for basketball and for this league."
Howard Beck, a senior writer for Bleacher Report, has been covering the NBA full time since 1997, including seven years on the Laker beat for the Los Angeles Daily News and nine years as a staff writer for the New York Times. His coverage was honored by APSE in 2016 and 2017.
Beck also hosts the Full 48 podcast, available on iTunes.
Follow him on Twitter, @HowardBeck.
B/R's draft expert Jonathan Wasserman and feature writer David Gardner join Howard Beck to talk about how this year's NBA Draft is shaping up, who teams are looking at beyond Zion Williamson and what college players have made an impression on scouts this season. All that and more in the Full 48.