Looking for the Dirk in LeBron James
With the week he had, LeBron James would be the most obvious NBA candidate to discuss in a weekly sports column: his ability to put up huge numbers, display out of this world athleticism, and his proclivity to undo his own greatness were all on full exhibition. And it was the last of those three prongs that was the most telling tale of the NBA this week, but Bethlehem Shoals already told it and told it well (links were not working at the time of this post); so rather than just repeat what he said, I want to focus on an insignificant moment between Dirk Nowitzki and Delonte West.
The perception we fans have of players is constantly evolving, sometimes at glacial speeds and other times in the blink of a hurricane, and often times, the moments that redefine one player’s legacy ripple through the legacies of other players as well. According to its most popular tellings, last year’s Finals can either be viewed as LeBron James’ tragic Waterloo or as Dirk Nowitzki’s brave halting of a tyrant, and those Finals confirmed for many of us our worst suspicions about LeBron’s inability to win that first began to manifest themselves in 2010 against the Boston Celtics and snowballed as he made The Decision. After those first seeds of doubt were planted about his greatness, many of us openly rooted for him to be both shamed and humbled, and when that moment came, it also revealed the dual nature of every moment in sports by redeeming Dirk Nowitzki’s worthiness and exorcising him of all his own demons.
Players who don’t have rings often downplay the necessity of gold bands, diamond studs, and unimpeded celebrations. Players who don’t have rings really can’t be trusted to tell the truth about themselves, what championships mean, how championships are won, or how legacies are exaggerated and broken. Great players that have yet to win a ring insist they are still great; while the critics of the game insist they are not, that their greatness is somehow fraudulent; a chicken masquerading as a peacock. And for the longest time, these views are what I projected onto Dirk Nowitzki. To me, his fadeaway always fluttered like confetti on someone else’s parade, and his demeanor at post game press conferences felt like forced testimony in front of a skeptical jury. I believed that writers like myself could see through his lies and knew he wasn’t really great. Then he won a championship, and the brooding frustration became confidence, the awkward pauses became patient wisdom, and the questioning self doubt became competitive drive. The mannerisms changed only slightly, but the difference in how I perceived them was incalculable; and I was no longer debating what kind of a bird was Dirk Nowitzki, but what came first the chicken or the ring.
This past Wednesday the Dallas Mavericks were tied with the Boston Celtics. Paul Pierce had just landed a game-tying three, and the Mavs were down to their last possession. Kevin Garnett bodied up to Dirk on the perimeter, his chest against Nowitzki’s ribcage. Dirk stepped into Garnett, swung his elbow high and wide towards Garnett’s temple and drove so slowly and methodically to the basket that his grimace cut across my television screen like a crack through a thick layer of ice. When he got to within two feet of the rim, he wrestled the ball up in arthritic maneuver, was fouled by Brandon Bass coming over on a late rotation, and the ball fell through without so much as grazing the net–submitting to gravity is always easier than resisting it–and while the game winning shot looked like something from a middle aged Church League, Dirk’s ring made it into a stunning example of what it means to be a champion.
Dirk Nowitzki’s teammates pulled him off the floor; an act that last year would have made him look like a failed and wounded warrior in need of a crutch rather than a conquering king in need of anointing. They pounded his chest, exchanged war cries, and stared at each other with the utmost certainty. They believed in themselves because of Dirk Nowitzki and Dirk Nowitzki wins games, always, when in the past, prior to him having a ring, an outside observer might be prone to wonder whether Nowitzki needed more from his teammates than they did from him, that perhaps he sought mercy from defeat’s glare by counting himself among them, that he wasn’t ready to be what they needed, that his seven foot frame was hyperbolic of what the man truly was deep inside his heart.
People don’t ask those questions anymore.
The last player who came to Dirk Nowitzki after he outmuscled Kevin Garnett was the prodigal Delonte West. Dirk put an arm around his new teammate’s head, tilted it toward his lips, and yelled something tribal to a player best known for his struggles with mental illness, illegal gun possession, and the crude rumors of having slept with a much more talented teammate’s mother. But, with Dirk yelling in his ear, all that seemed to disappear, because when Dirk speaks on redemption and triumph and journeys out of the abyss now, well, now he’s a credible source and men of all walks and angles listen to a man like that. And the symmetry of the circumstances is enough to make one wonder, too, what LeBron James could one day be.
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