Dirk Nowitzki’s first game in a Dallas Mavericks uniform was about as boring and uneventful as watching paint dry.
It was Feb. 5, 1999, and the Mavs were opening the lockout-shortened season against the Seattle SuperSonics at Key Arena. Nowitzki was in the starting lineup alongside Steve Nash, Michael Finley, Shawn Bradley and A.C. Green.
The stat line for Nowitzki — 0-for-5 shooting, no rebounds, four assists and two points — was about as gloomy as a lot of days in Seattle. Afterward, Nowitzki’s game immediately took a public relations hit.
“I remember everybody crushing on him and killing on him as being another BWS [Big White Stiff],” said owner Mark Cuban, who was then a Mavs season ticket holder. “Everybody was like, ‘Who is this guy and will he ever make it?’
“It took a little bit, but he worked hard and he got there.”
Fast forward to today, and not only has Nowitzki gotten there, but he’s also arrived in style.
Going into Tuesday’s home game against the Sacramento Kings, Nowitzki needs just 17 points to pass Hakeem Olajuwon and move into ninth place on the NBA’s all-time scoring list.
Olajuwon finished his illustrious 18-year career in 2002 with 26,946 points. Nowitzki, now in his 17th season, has 26,930 points.
That’s a lot of baskets for a player who couldn’t find one that dreadful day in Seattle, and who was basically unheard of before he was chosen out of Germany with the ninth overall pick in the 1998 NBA Draft.
“What I like about Dirk is he came in without a lot of expectations, besides [then-Mavs coach Don Nelson] putting the pressure on him to be the Rookie of the Year,” Finley said. “But he worked himself up to superstar status.
“A lot of these guys come in from college and already are, quote unquote, put in a superstar category without doing anything. Dirk did it the hard way. He worked himself up and now he’s one of the best ever to play the game.”
A 7-foot power forward, Nowitzki said it was “definitely surreal” last season when he passed Oscar Robertson to become the No. 10 all-time leading scorer. The passing of Olajuwon will be even more surreal because Nowitzki will also be crowned as the NBA’s highest-scoring player born outside the United States.
“Passing the Big O and knowing that only nine guys ever in this league scored more than me, that’s crazy to think,” Nowitzki said. “From where I came from — a little dump in Wurzburg, Germany — it’s been an amazing ride.
“So you know, hopefully I can have a couple more good years and we’ll see where I end up.”
Center Tyson Chandler certainly knows where Nowitzki will end up — the Hall of Fame. Chandler, who teamed with Nowitzki to help the Mavs win the 2011 NBA title, marvels at the patience Nowitzki exhibited while perfecting his craft.
“Everything Dirk accomplishes he deserves,” Chandler said. “He’s been putting in a lot of work into this league. He’s one of the all-time greats and one of the all-time great professionals with the type of work and commitment that he’s had throughout his entire career.
“It’s really amazing, especially the way he started his career. The league had some doubts about whether or not he could play in this game, but he never stopped believing and the organization never stopped believing.”
Back in February 1999, Finley never envisioned a day when Nowitzki would be mentioned in the same breath as some of the all-time greats.
“At the time I didn’t see him being considered as one of the all-time greats, which he is now,” Finley said. “He’s worked hard over the years to put himself in that category, and it’s well deserved.
“We just go a long ways back. And just to see him develop from a kid from Germany who questioned his abilities to be in the NBA to now being considered the all-time greatest European player to play the game and one of the all-time greats to play the game, it’s just amazing.”