Growing up in Germany in the 1990s, Dirk Nowitzki used to watch Shaquille O’Neal dominate the NBA with his rare brand of power and muscle.
O’Neal would win four championships and become one of the top scorers in NBA history.
Fast forward over two decades, and — surprise, surprise — that tall and lanky kid from Germany is on the verge of muscling his way past O’Neal in the NBA scoring books.
Going into the Dallas Mavericks’ 6:30 p.m. contest Tuesday at the Air Canada Centre against the Toronto Raptors, Nowitzki is 30 points from passing O’Neal and becoming the No. 6 all-time leading scorer in NBA history.
Nowitzki has put in long hours transforming himself into one of the game’s greatest players.
“He’s probably arguably the most dominant big man that’s ever played this game,” Nowitzki said of O’Neal. “So yeah, it’s still kind of surreal that I’m up there among these all-time greats.”
O’Neal finished his 19-year career in 2011 with 28,596 points. Now in his 18th season, Nowitzki has 28,567 points while also collecting a bushel of individual franchise records.
When Nowitzki was struggling as a rookie, no one could have envisioned the 7-footer one day being among the game’s all-time greats.
He’s probably arguably the most dominant big man that’s ever played this game. So yeah, it’s still kind of surreal that I’m up there among these all-time greats.
Dirk Nowitzki on Shaquille O’Neal
Once Nowitzki passes O’Neal, only Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Karl Malone, Kobe Bryant, Michael Jordan and Wilt Chamberlain will have scored more career points in the history of the league.
“To have him continue to climb the charts and be in the category with and be compared to folks as great as names like Shaquille O’Neal, for him I’m sure is humbling. But at the same time it’s well deserved,” said Donnie Nelson, the Mavericks’ president of basketball operations.
Nelson watched Nowitzki struggle during his first season, then average a career-high 26.6 points and lead the Mavericks to the 2006 NBA Finals, only to lose it in six games to the Miami Heat after the Mavericks built a 2-0 lead in that best-of-seven series.
Nelson also saw the grit and determination Nowitzki displayed in getting the Mavericks back to the Finals in 2011 and wining it in six games — again against the Heat.
“It’s really storybook in a lot of respects,” Nelson said. “What [Nowitzki] had to fight through in the first couple of years, going through all that self-doubt — do I belong — and then going to the Finals (in 2006) and going through that gut-wrenching, really difficult experience.
“And then really feeling the weight of the world, because he feels like he’s representing not just the Mavericks, but he feels like he’s representing a lot of folks that are trying to overcome odds and prove themselves from all parts of the planet. Then having to go back to the, quote unquote, scene of the crime (in 2011) and be able to right all those wrongs and silence the demons and the critics and actually lift the cup and bring it back to Dallas for the first time in franchise history, anything past that is really icing on the cake.”
... My body will know and my mind will know when it’s done, and I won’t be dragging myself just to chase more records. That’s not what I stand for.
Besides Bryant, the only player on the top 10 scoring list to score all of his points with one franchise is Nowitzki. That, in itself, is another story.
“It just speaks to how special he is, how special his career has been, the amount of work that he’s put into it, the level of which he really lives the game on a day-to-day basis,” coach Rick Carlisle said. “All of that stuff is just so historic it’s hard to put into words.
“And I know Shaq is a guy that he really respects, as we all do.”
Nowitzki trails Chamberlain — the No. 5 all-time leading scorer — by 2,852 points. However, Nowitzki has only one year left on his contract after this season, and respects the game so much that the desire to bust into the top 5 is not something that’s on his bucket list.
“I’m not going to say, ‘OK, this is no fun anymore, the body’s not holding up, but I’ve got to play one more year to reach this and this,’ ” the 37-year old Nowitzki said. “That’s not what gets me going — that never was my goal.
Besides Kobe Bryant, the only player on the top 10 scoring list to score all of his points with one franchise is Nowitzki.
“My goal was to always have fun and play the sport that I love and compete, and my body will know and my mind will know when it’s done, and I won’t be dragging myself just to chase more records. That’s not what I stand for.”
Forward Chandler Parsons sees daily what Nowitzki stands for on the court.
“He works harder than anybody I’ve ever seen, whether it’s working on his jumper, his body, his diet,” Parsons said. “It’s truly impressive what he’s done.
“He’s a guy with not a lot of athleticism, and at the age he’s at now, he can still go, and it’s unbelievable. I’m just glad I’m a small part of it and to be able to play with him while his career winds down.”
Nowitzki vows not to do a farewell tour. When his body notifies him and the game’s no longer fun, he’ll simply pick up his sneakers and head home to his wife and kids.
He works harder than anybody I’ve ever seen, whether it’s working on his jumper, his body, his diet. It’s truly impressive what he’s done.
Mavericks forward Chandler Parsons on Nowitzki
“He’s really an anomaly, really in a lot of respects,” Nelson said. “I tell people that as great a player as he is, he’s a better human being.
“They’re like, ‘Oh come on, really, he can’t be that nice.’ But the reality is, he is. He’s one of those guys where he can be the boy next door and at the same time he’s, in my opinion, the greatest foreign player that’s ever played in the NBA.”
Mavericks at Raptors
6:30 tonight, FSSW
The top 10 NBA scorers of all-time:
The top 10 active all-time NBA scorers: