When Tim Duncan retired last year, many of us wondered when we’d see his kind again. When would we be so blessed with a 7-footer with Duncan’s gifts, grace and selflessness? In the me-first, groin-grabbing world of pro sports, where there may not be an “I” in team, but one everywhere else, Duncan was an anomaly of the highest and most refreshing order. So we wondered who could fill the epic void he left.
We forgot he’s been here for nearly 20 years.
Dirk Nowitzki, more underrated than Duncan, has now scored over 30,000 points, just the sixth player in NBA history to do so. And if many of us claimed we were aware of it the day before it happened, we’re likely lying.
Likewise, when Duncan notched 20,000 points, 15,000 rebounds and 3,000 blocks, we had no idea until some numbers geek told us. We also had no idea the only other player to reach those hallmarks was Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
Nowitzki may not have Duncan’s defensive splendor, but he’s almost as gifted. He averaged at least 20 points per game in 13 of 14 seasons (Between 2000 and 2014), and averaged over nine rebounds over nine straight seasons (2000-’09). Nowitzki averaged 90 percent from the free-throw line five times, and 88 percent over his career, with the latter No. 15 all time. He was an All-Star in 11 of those seasons, and is a 13-time All-Star overall.
And, even better, he’s just as humble as Duncan, both laconic, iconic big men making it possible to dominate with dignity.
Is it a coincidence that neither icon was born in the continental U.S.? With our smallest deeds making SportsCenter, played on eternal loop, is it possible for us not to believe the hype? Or should we see Duncan and Nowitzki among our most prized imports? (Yes, Duncan is from the U.S. Virgin Islands. But it’s a stretch to say he grew up with the same commercial indulgence we find in major American cities.)
Not to say there aren’t good guys in the Association. The names beaming from the NBA marquee, from LeBron James to Steph Curry to Chris Paul to Dwyane Wade, are strong players and fine family men who are quite charitable, without a whisper of malfeasance. But you can’t go an hour without hearing about their on-court exploits. When was the last time someone, anyone, mentioned Dirk Nowitzki? In any context?
And it’s not like I was in on some secret. This 30,000 points business wasn’t exactly on my calendar, or drilled into my ‘Droid. We just love volume. When Floyd Mayweather plans to bag $100 million for a glorified exhibition against Conor McGregor, while stand-up dudes like Keith Thurman and Danny Garcia get $2 million for fighting for the actual welterweight title, it says a lot about our appetites, if not our priorities.
For instance, Carmelo Anthony is part of the mainline news stream. Yet for all his ability, Melo’s career has not matched Nowitzki’s, in numbers or wins. Consider the company Nowitzki just joined, a roll call from Springfield, the top one percent of the top one percent. Michael Jordan. Wilt Chamberlain. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Karl Malone. Kobe Bryant.
That’s it. Only five players have put the ball in the bucket more often than this tall, slender, hardwood assassin. He has the numbers. He has the ring. He has the cash, but not the cachet.
It’s not unprecedented in sports for a great player’s understated mien to detract from his appeal or his legacy. But it’s hard to think of someone this good cruising this far under the radar. Even Duncan, for all his humility and understated dominance, won five NBA titles and routinely played in late May. Nowitzki has “just” the one ring.
But at least some of Nowitzki’s peers appreciate his basketball genius. LeBron James, eating dinner at the time of Nowitzki’s 30,000th point, pushed his plate aside and went viral on social media, recording a robust homage to the Mavericks star. Few can appreciate Nowitzki more than King James, who was centerstage playing for Miami when Nowitzki won an NBA ring at his expense. Other tributes poured in, including tweets from Tyson Chandler and Shawn Marion.
When asked how he planned to celebrate, Nowitzki was typically self-effacing, and deadpanned that he planned to drink a Bud Light. Surely there are legendary hops from his homeland that would have tasted better. But Nowitzki kept it American, as he so sublimely played America’s sport.
The fact that it took 30,000 points to celebrate Dirk Nowitzki says a lot about the world of sports and stardom, which too often shines a light on the inherent narcissism of celebrity. And the fact that we aren’t far behind says something about us. Dirk Nowitzki won’t tell you how great he has been. So it’s on us to do it for him.
Jason writes a weekly column for CBS Local Sports. He is a native New Yorker, sans the elitist sensibilities, and believes there’s a world west of the Hudson River. A Yankees devotee and Steelers groupie, he has been scouring the forest of fertile NYC sports sections since the 1970s. He has written over 500 columns for WFAN/CBS NY, and also worked as a freelance writer for Sports Illustrated and Newsday subsidiary amNew York. He made his bones as a boxing writer, occasionally covering fights in Las Vegas, Atlantic City, but mostly inside Madison Square Garden. Follow him on Twitter @JasonKeidel.