21 Seasons in Dallas – An Ode to Dirk Nowitzki

To all of my family, friends, and mentors in the DFW and to the best, most loyal athlete in sports history to whom I’ve committed y’all to metaphor

The perfect shot arcs with the miraculous bend of a note sustained at just the right time in the melody. You don’t watch the perfect shot; you hear it. In fact, you turn your back as it elevates. You raise your right hand as it bends, throw up your signature gesture—a three-pronged peace sign—and stick out your tongue as if to mock physics itself. Even without looking, you know it’s in.

The crowd knows too, though they tense up as it flies. They are watching Schrödinger’s basketball—both in and not in all at once. Until, finally, less than a second later, it splashes through the hoop, and the music of the swish fades into the roaring of the crowd.

I have seen the perfect shot. It is a basketball arcing from the hands of a man, or should I say giant?, as he appears to topple over—knee-bent, toes pointed, back at an odd diagonal with the court. There are many iterations of this shot, but I am drawn to one in 2011. You stare down Chris Bosh, dribble once, dribble twice, push your shoulder off of Bosh’s chest;  the announcer calls your name. We’re (the team, I should say, but you know how sports fandom works) leading by 8 in what will be the last game of the NBA finals. And here comes the shot, picture perfect from the baseline, over the outstretched arms of the defender. I wept.

As with all great talents, an element of mythos now surrounds your shot, engineered, as it were, by a mad German scientist at the so-called Institute of Applied Nonsense. Dr. Holger and Dirk—Frankenstein and his monster—every summer in the gym, adding equipment to what y’all’ve dubbed “the toolbox.” So tall, so seemingly stiff, and but yet all that time in the lab has made you a poet with the basketball, moving with such a frantic precision.

Like many an adolescent whose formative years were the aughts in Dallas, I, too, wanted to master that shot, “the one-legged fadeaway.” Dallas courts were littered us. Just like there were once little Jordans, sticking their tongues out as they stretched for the rim, and now are little Currys, chewing their mouth guards as they lob a three from damn near half-court. I was a little black kid, when most other little black kids had their signature Iverson headbands, but I idolized you, a 7ft tall German. Always, I am, a racial confusion.

I had no gift for the sport and would soon max out an average height, forever killing the dream. Still, your shot motivated me—if not to be an NBA star then to just be.

All those years you chose to stay in Dallas, and before I knew it, your shot was how I marked time. I wrote my first story in the 8th grade, during the lead up to your first finals appearance. In your game, I have always seen a frenzied, improvised kind of poetry. Your mad scientist likens it to jazz, and certainly, the analogy works. I still thought I could ball at the time but was starting to realize that I might have to create in another medium, one that didn’t require so much of my pudgy body. Each game I watched energized me, and I would scribble nonsense words on whatever scraps of paper I could find—my own jazz-like method of creation.

When you lost, when the team lost, when we lost that final game of the ’06 finals, I heard you and your inner circle spent all night in the stadium, the pain too much to bear. Those next few years, I’ve read, carried a pressure that should have crushed an NBA career. I remember.

The next year, you would win the league MVP but wouldn’t make it out of the first round of the playoffs. That was the rhythm of those years… some success that amounted only to an early exit. In that time, your fiancée was arrested at your home, leaving you “sad and furious.” In that time, my family moved three times in the same neighborhood, trying to ignore the lurking shadow of bankruptcy. In that time, my dad suffered a third stroke. I was a junior in high school and misplaced my anger. I went to band practice instead of the hospital. We watched you play the Kings that night. You, we, lost. I didn’t tell my friends where I was headed when the youth pastor came to pick me up, to take me to visit my father.

“I see you, after the final buzzer sounds, rushing to the locker room so that you don’t have to share your emotions with the camera, and I see my dad, wiping his own tears away.”

Before the 2010-11 season, you took a pay cut and re-signed for your 13th season in Dallas. I entered my last year of high school. I thought I could die at any moment, and sometimes, the thought was a welcome one. You might remember being 18 too.

It is not fair to put any spiritual substance on that championship run. The run, after all, was just a series of games, that perfect shot connecting with the target over a thousand times, and nothing more, but when I think of it, I tear up. I see you, after the final buzzer sounds, rushing to the locker room so that you don’t have to share your emotions with the camera, and I see my dad, wiping his own tears away. Destiny achieved.

It’s not fair, any of this. You’re a person, after all, a private person but a person nonetheless, with all the messiness that entails, and here I’ve conflated skill with something even less tangible.  Your career as Maverick has nothing to do with my time growing up in Dallas nor my impending departure for the Great White North, and yet when you re-signed for your 21st season, more than anyone else with one team, the emotion of that champion season swelled in the pit of my stomach.

Your shot, that perfect shot, is not those downtown trips on the DART to gallivant around Deep Ellum clubs. It is not the English teachers who encouraged and helped improved my craft. It is not learning to play the bass to join the worship band. It is not the group of writers who met in classrooms, bars, living rooms to drink and to discuss each other’s words. It is not the merry band of creative weirdos in the Spiderweb Salon that so inspire. It is not those nights bouncing around a living room in North Dallas, sweating and shouting with strangers and friends alike. It is not the students that still e-mail stories a year-or-so after the last day of class. There aren’t even convenient moments in your Mavericks tenure for me to draw satisfactory comparisons for any of the above. So why then does your shot and my time here seem so interchangeable? Is it just a constancy, like looking down at the footprints in the sand or, rather, the sneaker scuffs on the hardwood? Just a convenient metaphor for an emotionally-stunted product of the DFW branch of the patriarchy? Maybe it’s because I thought I wouldn’t ever leave, couldn’t ever leave, my financial mishaps proving too much a burden to overcome. Or, maybe, your shot truly is so perfect that, like the best of symbols, I can observe whatever, whoever I want in it… the good, the bad, the in-between.

You struggled with the move to Dallas. It’s hard to imagine there was ever a time when you weren’t the jolly German giant with murals all over the metroplex. You were once a towering teenager with a goofy haircut and one hooped earring, wandering the hot, humid Texas streets—will that be me, the average height black man with a snapback, kicking up snow in the Alaskan wilderness?

There are no professional sports franchises in Alaska, so my allegiances will not face much opposition, though you couldn’t get me to turn if you dropped me in the middle of the Staples Center with your royal blue 41 on my back. I’d still let out a hearty, “Fuck the Lakers,” and start practicing my, your, our fadeaway as I once did as a naïve little boy, dribbling on the asphalt, with dreams of being just like Dirk.

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