When the Dallas Mavericks beat the Oklahoma City Thunder on Wednesday night and captured the Western Conference title, it was only the second time in franchise history — and the first in front of their 21,092 loyal fans at the American Airlines Center. Sure sounds like a reason to celebrate.
And for almost everyone in the building after that memorable 100-96 win, it was.
But not for Dirk Nowitzki.
Check out the tape. About a minute into the postgame celebration, Dirk can clearly be seen leaving the floor, heading unceremoniously down the tunnel to the locker room. So after wrapping up a quick interview with Mavs coach Rick Carlisle, ESPN's Doris Burke turns to the huddle of celebrating Dallas players and asks to talk to the star of the show.
"Dirk?" she asks.
Dirk's not there.
Neither is Jason Kidd.
"It seems," Burke notes, "like everyone's abandoning me here."
Truth is, the departure wasn't personal in the least. Nowitzki has nothing against sideline reporters, nothing against celebrating fans, and nothing against general merriment. He's just sick and tired of celebrating mere NBA Finals berths. To him, there's no popping the champagne until the whole damn thing's been won.
Dirk's won the West before. He got this far in 2006, and got within two games of the NBA championship he's spent a lifetime chasing. He singlehandedly demolished the Heat in the first two games of those Finals, but it all came apart from there.
The officiating in those final four games has been questioned. That angle's been beaten to death. But Dirk knows the truth — the series really came down to a battle of wills between two superstars, and in the end, Dwyane Wade beat him. The Heat leader's point totals in Games 3, 4, 5 and 6: 42, 36, 43 and 36. That's how you win a championship.
Dirk has spent his whole career battling the "soft" label that's been foisted on him. But it's not his job to be hulking or intimidating — he's a floor-stretching power forward, and he knows his role. The true question of Dirk's toughness isn't about the physical. It's the mental.
How could he get so brutally outplayed in the four most important games of his career? What does that say about him? And what can he do differently now, five years later?
No one's under more pressure than Dirk this June. LeBron James has battled the same championship demons that Dirk has, but LeBron is in his prime at 26, flanked by two fellow All-Stars. Dirk is turning 33 this month, and the clock's ticking.
History only remembers the champions. If Dirk doesn't win now, he'll be forever forgotten — or even worse, remembered but lumped into the infamous group of ringless wonders. Charles Barkley, Patrick Ewing, Karl Malone, John Stockton. And Dirk.
Now's the time for the big German to take a stand and show what toughness is really all about. He's got no reason to celebrate yet, but if he can win four more games, all bets are off. Dirk will join all of Dallas — hell, all of Europe — in rejoicing together.
What do you think? Will Dirk Nowitzki finally win a championship? Share your thoughts below.