The tributes officially started in 2019 with Dirk Nowitzki Way, a street that was renamed in Dallas to honor the greatest Mavericks player of all time. Then in January, the Mavs retired his No. 41 jersey. Then in September, Germany retired the No. 14 jersey he wore for his country.
Even after scoring 30,000 points, he still isn’t enjoying all the fuss.
“It’s been super surreal,” Nowitzki said, “and a little embarrassing for me.”
Merry Christmas, Dirk. Here comes another celebration. Two of them, actually.
On Wednesday, he’ll be announced as a nominee for the 2023 enshrinement class by the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. And on Sunday, when the Mavs host the Los Angeles Lakers as part of the NBA’s Christmas quintupleheader, the Dirk Nowitzki Statue will be unveiled at American Airlines Arena.
It will be the ultimate Christmas present and incredibly fitting that it comes on a day where a slew of international stars that Nowitzki helped pave the way for — Philadelphia’s Joel Embiid, Milwaukee’s Giannis Antetokounmpo, Denver’s Nikola Jokic and fellow Maverick Luka Doncic — will get showcased on the NBA’s big day.
“It’s been super fun to watch,” Nowitzki said when asked about the ongoing imprint international players are making on the game. “And along the way, if I inspired somebody to pick up a basketball or if I motivated a guy to work harder or dream of the NBA, of course, that’s humbling to me … super humbling. That makes me proud, for sure.”
It’s not a new development. The last four MVP’s — in reverse order, Jokic, Jokic, Antetokounmpo, Antetokounmpo — are from Serbia and Greece. It seems reasonable to think that this season’s MVP will be an international player as well, with Jokic, Doncic and Embiid likely among the early frontrunners.
Entering Tuesday, the NBA’s top five scorers are from five different countries — Embiid (Cameroon), Doncic (Slovenia), Oklahoma City’s Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (Canada), Antetokounmpo (Greece) and Kevin Durant (US).
Such was unthinkable just a few years ago. Over a 13-season span, from 2004-05 through 2016-17, only one international player cracked the top five — Nowitzki, who was fourth on two occasions during that stretch. Every other slot was taken by an American.
This is what former Commissioner David Stern wanted — and why he prioritized making the NBA go international.
“It was his vision to truly make the NBA and basketball a global sport,” Commissioner Adam Silver said last weekend before a Miami-San Antonio game in Mexico City. “I began at the league in 1992, shortly before the Barcelona Olympics and the Dream Team. We saw the impact that had. Now looking back 30 years, 30 years of playing games in México City, it’s really happening.”
It’s not an accident that Doncic, Antetokounmpo, Jokic and Embiid are getting the Christmas game treatment. They are brands, huge draws globally, and the NBA has embraced international viewers more and more over the years.
Nowitzki preceded them all, a mop-topped German kid who initially wasn’t sure if he wanted to come to the NBA when he got drafted and wound up making the best possible decision for him and the Mavericks. He played three times on Christmas; Dallas went 2-1 in those games and Nowitzki averaged 27.3 points.
The Christmas lineup this year goes like this — Philadelphia at New York first, then the Lakers at Dallas, Milwaukee at Boston, Memphis at defending champion Golden State, then Phoenix at Denver in the nightcap. Some star power will be missing, with the Lakers without Anthony Davis and the Warriors without Stephen Curry. It’ll be LeBron James’ 17th Christmas appearance, and the first for the Grizzlies.
“These are the games that everybody grew up watching,” James said last year when asked about Christmas.
The NBA does its part to make sure “everybody” can watch — like the NBA Finals, the Christmas games are being sent to more than 200 countries and territories, with commentating happening in more than 50 languages.
German, of course, will be one of them. The Nowitzki statue depicts his famous one-legged jumper, a shot that changed the game. He was a unicorn when he went to the US; a 7-footer who could shoot, pass and dribble and wasn’t just a back-to-the-basket guy. Now, those skills aren’t rare to see in big men. They’re basically required.
Again, it’s so fitting that the statue is coming on Christmas. His game was a gift. And with the way it’s been emulated by so many in the last 20 years, it’s a gift that keeps on giving.
“That’s going to be there forever,” Nowitzki said. “I think that’s what’s so unbelievable, that this statue will stand there, and my kids will grow up with it. That’s what’s really mindboggling and so amazing about it— that this piece is for really for eternity and will be there long, long after I’m gone.”
Tim Reynolds is a national basketball writer for The Associated Press. Write to him at treynolds(at)ap.org
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