High at the top of the 3-point arc, Dirk Nowitzki took aim Sunday night and brought the Dallas Mavericks-Philadelphia 76ers game to a momentary halt.
Swish! went his fourth 3-pointer of the night.
Boom!, bigger still, went the 29,000th point of his 18-year NBA career.
When the public announcer acknowledged the milestone — reached by only five players before Nowitzki — the crowd at the American Airlines Center appropriately rose to its feet.
We didn’t know it that night in 1998, when coach and general manager Don Nelson stepped to the podium at Reunion Arena, but the Mavericks were about to acquire a German teenager who would grow to become one of the best who has ever played.
The men ahead of Dirk on the NBA’s all-time scoring list all are giants — Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Karl Malone, Kobe Bryant, Michael Jordan and Wilt Chamberlain.
Apparently, Nellie and his son Donnie knew, and were none too anxious to share their find with anyone. Donnie’s perspective from his years of experience in coaching international teams, plus Nellie’s acute foresight in realizing how Dirk would fit in, prompted them to persuade the young Nowitzki to make himself scarce, more or less, during that 1998 draft week.
On draft day, Dirk was in Germany, not New York, when Don Nelson stepped to the microphone and announced that with the sixth overall pick the Mavericks had selected ... Robert “The Tractor” Traylor of Michigan.
Truth be painfully told, I was one of the media clowns in attendance that night who nodded in approval of the Traylor pick. Big man. The Mavericks could always use one, I figured.
But three picks later, the plotting Nelsons’ sleight of hand became clearer. Traylor went to Milwaukee, and the Bucks, picking ninth, selected Nowitzki for the Mavericks in what amounted to a save-a-buck deal for then-owner Ross Perot Jr.
Dirk who? we asked.
Just 29,000 points, one NBA championship trophy and one memorable balcony rendition of We Are the Champions later, we realize how special that one hour in the 1998 draft was.
“It’s another amazing achievement and just an amazing career,” Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle said after Sunday’s otherwise unremarkable 129-103 win.
“I don’t know if we’ll really be able to put this all in perspective until he’s gone — and we hope that’s not for a while.”
The kid from Wurzburg, Germany, is 37 now, and there seem to be moments each night when he’s still the best player on the floor. Nowitzki finished with 18 points and seven rebounds, as the Mavericks began a critical homestand.
“This is an important win for us,” Carlisle announced, after beating a team with an 8-47 record. “It stopped the bleeding.”
Nowitzki, like the rest of the Mavericks, had been in a slump, making only four of his previous 19 3-point attempts. But he was 5 for 9 against the 76ers, and the home team surged away with a 9-0 run in the second quarter.
“He’s one of the most amazing people, as well, that I’ve ever been around,” Carlisle said. “A remarkable career. Sustained greatness. A great teammate. The whole deal.”
The whole deal, of course, included the 2010-11 NBA title.
His legacy here is all but complete, but Dirk keeps scoring and playing on.
It took the Nelsons to find him and hide him. And to realize that at 7-foot-1, Nowitzki could shoot over just about anything.
That was Dirk Nowitzki on Sunday, already on his way to 30,000.