Dirk Nowitzki notched season highs in points, shots and minutes before telling Dallas Mavericks fans that his record 21st season with the same franchise would be his last.
Then the 40-year-old said he gave just about all he had in what he knew would be his final home game , which might make the last game of his career at San Antonio on Wednesday night little more than a curtain call. It’s a fitting finale in some regards because the Spurs were probably Nowitzki’s biggest rivals.
“I’m going to try to play a little bit tomorrow and still enjoy and hoist a few jumpers,” said Nowitzki, who had 30 points on 31 shots in 33 minutes in a 120-109 win over Phoenix. “Tonight for me, of course, was the big night. One more time in front of these amazing fans that have supported me and pushed me over two decades.”
The 14-time All-Star said the Mavericks bought more than 300 tickets in order for employees to attend what everyone now knows will be his final game. And the most accomplished European player in NBA history is merely playing out the string again in a third straight season without the playoffs, the longest drought of Nowitzki’s career.
But on Nowitzki’s special night, nobody was thinking about the Mavericks never winning another playoff series with the best player in franchise history after he led them to their only championship in 2011.
Not any of the former NBA stars who made the trip. Larry Bird, Charles Barkley, Scottie Pippen, Shawn Kemp and countryman Detlef Schrempf took the court Tuesday night and gave brief speeches in honor of the player who was shown in an old video listing each of them as among those he idolized growing up in Germany.
And certainly not coach Rick Carlisle or owner Mark Cuban, who promised Nowitzki a job for life, a jersey retirement and a statue. Plus, the win over the Suns did allow the Mavericks to avoid a second straight 50-loss season.
“I was so happy for Dirk,” Carlisle said. “The only thing he’s ever cared about is bringing this fan base success, and helping these fans experience success, and ultimate success. This wasn’t a winning season, but it was triumphant in many ways because of the respect and all of attention Dirk got for 21 years being with the same franchise.”
Nowitzki said he had broken down emotionally a few times in private since deciding in recent days that it was time to retire, including on the day of his final home game with his wife, Jessica Nowitzki, after putting on the suit he wore to the arena.
But the league’s 2007 MVP and 2011 NBA Finals MVP also knew how difficult the past two seasons had been physically, including missing the first 26 games of his final campaign after a longer-than-expected recovery from ankle surgery last April. Nowitzki was experiencing flare-ups in his feet and ankles late this season.
“It takes a lot at 40 to get ready every night and then with the foot pain,” Nowitzki said. “It just took a little bit of the fun away from the sport I love. I think that actually made the decision easier for me.”
The highest-scoring foreign-born player in NBA history has 31,540 points with a game left. Nowitzki eclipsed 10,000 defensive rebounds late this season — and fans who went wild nearly every time he hit a shot even cheered those moments.
The only 7-footer to win the All-Star 3-point shooting contest was the first player of his size to be a legitimate threat behind the arc. All of the game’s biggest stars say that dimension changed the game, and many of them emulated his signature one-legged fadeaway jumper — the shot he used on his final bucket at home late in the fourth quarter.
“You want to leave the game in a better place than you got it, and you’ve done that,” Kemp said during the postgame ceremony. “Not only did you bring a championship to Dallas, you are a champion.”
With one more game before his final goodbye.