Wednesday, October 17, 2012

FROM THE FILES: Dirk Nowitzki is Unlockable

**Around this time last year, the NBA was speeding towards the black hole that was the NBA Lockout. With no end, at the time, in sight, it was hard to be happy as a diehard follower of the league. But, as an equally-diehard supporter of Dirk Nowitzki, fresh off his first world championship, it was easy to see why he wasn't seemingly taking it too hard.

This piece never really saw the light of day, but now more than a season removed from Nowitzki and the Mavericks' title, and with news of a possible surgery continuing to hover on the forward's horizon as the season revs up, I couldn't help but think of it and grin. The piece, after the jump.**

The world of professional basketball is a dark, sad place right now. Games continue to be whittled off the calendar, negotiations come, stay for awhile and promise nothing while providing the only hope left, then leave like it was all just a dress rehearsal for the staged reading of the worst class play ever.

Many of the league’s best and brightest, in an effort to continue playing together -- presumably because they realize how much they (not to mention we) will miss it -- have set up charity runs and pickup games across the country. These are noon-ball games at the YMCA, featuring some of the most talented players on the planet, mind you, but it’s noon-ball nonetheless. This untamed offering is a portion of the NBA, and is what makes the lockout so unbearable; the NBA that we’ll miss is much more substantial than anything else we could try to spend our time with. Insert the rebound girl never taking the place of the ex-girlfriend line here.

Everything is at a standstill, and many are playing because what the hell else are they supposed to do? Certainly, it’s a better option than facing the daily reminders of what won’t be, and the constant threats of what’s going to go next. For anyone dealing with the reality of this lockout (who, you know, didn’t want it to go down like this), the sustainable entertaining options are growing fewer and farther between, providing less and less in the form of void-filling escapism. How else can it be said: It’s just a fucking terrible situation, okay?

Unless of course, you’re Dirk Nowitzki. Or rather, the Former Tragic Hero For Life turned Redemptive Champion. For him, the lockout is, albeit unfortunate, although not ideal, a prolonged walk on the clouds of his basketball dream. And he’s living it to the fullest; basketball, NBA, lockout be damned.

Dirk led his team through the postseason -- past Kobe, Pau and the sullen Lakers, past the Durant/Westbrook power dramatics and the all-the-rage Oklahoma City Thunder, and, finally, over the pending dynasty/Pure EVIL in South Beach. He shot down the usual boring criers of “soft!” who are always nipping away at his bony elbows as he ripped another fading jumper through the net. He did just about everything you’d expect a franchise, and all-time, caliber player to do for his team under the harshest of spotlight glares. For that, you can have the BRI talks, the spinning spinny spin from all angles, the excruciating beep of the season on life support, ‘cause Dirk’s gonna throw out the first pitch in a World Series game, thank you very much. Then, sometime soon, Nowitzki’s gonna head back to Germany and get some shots up, get back into his specifically-German training regimen. Get back in the rhythm. Not because there’s a league to come back to anytime soon, but because it’s what he wants to do.

Nowitzki’s spent the greater part of this offseason relishing in his accomplishments. It’s an exercise afforded to few in his position; by now, many (okay, basically all) defending champions and NBA Finals MVPs would have already begun the throne defense, buying the paint for that target on their back, getting into the mental and physical shape required for another 82-game mystery tour. Dirk is heading back to Germany in early November instead. If (when) the lockout drags another month or so, Dirk will probably weigh his options overseas, where he’ll likely play where he wants and when he wants.

Really, the lockout is Nowitzki’s extended championship parade. It’s time added on to a summer vacation. And this time, not because of an early-round oust in the playoffs. The questions that were at a time annual regarding his physical and mental Toughness and/or Manliness, he never bothered answering with much thought anyway, but now, whether they’re again asked or not matters as little as it ever did. His resume is complete; no arguments need be made on his behalf. Those empty questions thrown like darts his way never truly defined Nowitzki as a player to those who follow the league closer than the “Don’t they ever call traveling?!?!?” lot, but those comments were usually the unshakeable mosquito cloud during his summer months, too. And, almost fittingly, in one of the league’s darkest off-seasons to date, Dirk Nowitzki is getting some well-deserved, wholly-earned, time to relax, to seep up his due credit and run victory laps until he passes out, while everyone else waits for the next round of “I think we’re both very interested in a deal sooner than later,” and “No further meetings are scheduled.”

The game’s most unorthodox, unassuming black sheep superstar isn’t running in pick-ups or standing behind Derek Fisher on the NBPA podium, because, fuck, that shit’s just depressing. Depressing if you aren’t the NBA Finals Most Valuable Player. Dirk has earned his time to throw out ceremonial first pitches, to drag the applause out longer, and to remind everyone looking towards a barren horizon that there is someone on top of the mountain. Of course it would go this way, right? Dirk’s never been the type, through the highs or lows of his career, to be concerned if or how you’ve noticed him, or if you have at all. That’s not to say he didn’t carry the burden that comes with oft-highlighted and over-analyzed failures on the main stage. It’s just that Nowitzki wore it more like “time is running out” than “I sure hope I can do this.” In spite of that, most people had him pegged anyway some time ago, and many probably didn’t budge all the way until his game was seen at its full crescendo last spring. It might be easy to forget last season as this one slips further and further away, but Nowitzki won’t. He shouldn’t, and nor should we. Even if we already knew.

Soon enough, Germany will beckon, be it for just his ritual training or something more competitive and with a contract, and until the lockout lifts, Nowitzki will, leaning one way or another, snap off of his fingertips his continuing celebration of the game he made go his way. This offseason will never be remembered in a positive light for the NBA. That doesn’t mean, though, that there shouldn’t be a bright speck gleaming in the thick haze for Dirk Nowitzki. This was also the offseason that Nowitzki, the World Champion, with jack-shit to prove and plenty of time, could, finally, waste a few pitches.

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