The Far-Reaching Legacy of Dirk Nowitzki

Dirk is about to become another player of a bygone era (and one that makes yours truly feel old), but his contribution to the game will never be forgotten.

In a vacuum, when Dirk Nowitzki decides to call it quits, it may end up being just another retirement. While incredibly skilled and deserving of being in the NBA elite conversation, he hasn’t quite reached the status of a Tim Duncan or a Kobe Bryant. There won’t be a long and exhausting debate about whether or not he deserves to be in the Top 10 of all-time. There will, however, be very little debate over whether or not the towering German changed the game both in the way it’s played and its international appeal.

Dirk’s footprint on the game may matter more than those above him in the pantheon of the league. His talent is undeniable and on merit alone, he deserves all the recognition he has received during his illustrious career, including the championship where he dragged a bandwagon of geriatrics to the NBA Finals against LeBron and Co. But more than that, Dirk was the first one to truly bridge the international gap for the NBA.

Before Dirk, the NBA’s relationship with international talent was fraught and fractured. Whether through the untimely unfolding of tragic events (Drazen Petrovic) or the iron curtain keeping some of the talent on the other side of the ocean until well past their prime (Arvydas Sabonis). When Dirk came into the NBA, international talent comprised only 10% of all players. Right now, we’re pushing close to 30% (you may have heard of this Greek guy).

Now, Dirk wasn’t the first international superstar. It would be blasphemous not to mention Hakeem Olajuwon here, but Dirk’s journey in many ways was the first of its kind. Having come from Nigeria, Hakeem spent some time playing college ball in the U.S. and entered the league very much an American product. Dirk was a lanky kid from Wurzburg, well outside of where scouts were used to finding talent.

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Dirk demonstrated that international players could not only compete in the NBA, but they could also dominate. Currently sitting 6th on the NBA All-Time Scoring List Dirk is in the league of his own when it comes to talent not only born, but developed and drafted from outside of the United States. In many ways, his career has been defying what’s possible.

In the late 90s, his name was consistently at the top of power forwards with an efficient three-point stroke (out of those who have taken enough to warrant it). Out of the few that came close in the same era were Robert Horry and Vladimir Radmanovic. Sure, big men dabbled in three-point shooting, but in the pre-stretch-4 era, that was nothing more than an adventurous escapade few undertook more than once or twice per game. Dirk forced you to chase him out there on the three, in many ways the precursor of the stretch 4 era.

As the game grew internationally, Dirk was the one shining example we could point to and say that anyone could truly succeed in the NBA. Just look at this German kid who came into the NBA looking like he was drafted straight out of a European Backstreet Boys Cover band. He wasn’t supposed to win MVP (both Finals and regular season), he wasn’t supposed to lead a team to two NBA Finals and one victory, he wasn’t supposed to be a 13 time All-Star while also racking up international accolades in Europe (x3 EuroBasket top scorer, x6 Eurostar player of the year, x2 FIBA Men’s European Player of The Year). 

Sure, Dirk will never have the magnetic pull of Yao Ming, capable of bringing half the globe to the NBA table, but where Yao (as talented as he was) was always a business decision first, Dirk’s success is the loudest statement one could ever make for foreign talent. One would argue that his impact of viewership remains miniscule, considering the popularity of soccer in Germany above all else, but it’s more than the sum of its parts.

Unlike China, the NBA play in Europe (and across “not China”) is more of a slow burn. By exposing the league to more international talent, they slowly expose international audiences to the League. I often play online (video games) with a friend from Latvia who testifies that half the nation stays up to watch Kristaps Porzingis play. Basically a national hero. But for NBA to take a solid interest in international talent, there needs to be proof international talent is worth it. Nowitzki is this proof, always has been. He has managed to bridge cultures in the game of basketball and show it as something more than simply American, opening the doors for many after him.

Dirk also opened up the way we think about European basketball. For years, we considered any version of the sport that wasn’t made in the US of A a softer version of it. Power forwards weren’t supposed to step outside and shoot, they were supposed to get down low, get dirty and bang with the big boys. They were supposed to throw elbows and hit you right on your head to get to a rebound. What was he doing telling us the game was supposed to be played every other way.

A mild-mannered German, by all accounts, Dirk quietly continued to plug away through injuries and adversity. We still talk about European basketball as some sort of reject from the American game. Look at all the discourse we have gathered around Luka Doncic. The Atlanta Hawks moved up in the draft to take Trae Young over my multipositional Slovenian child because… “Luka has not faced the level of professional competition to prove he was NBA ready.” The man who has spent two years of his teens playing vs. grown men in a professional capacity haven’t faced the level of competition that college kids do when they play against maybe 2 or 3 people good enough to go pro on any given night? Yet Luka is out here pushing 19-6-4, battling the same stereotypes Dirk has come so far to overcome.

As the game grew and evolved, Dirk managed to stay consistent to who he was and succeed regardless. He didn’t need to be particularly brash or loud to be a leader. He didn’t need to consistently assert his superiority verbally, he just went out there and played his brand of basketball, and for anyone who still had questions about his “mental strength,” you need to only look to his Championship Finals play to see how wrong you are. He may not have been the type of leader to consistently berate his teammates, or be vocal about his team off the court to lead them on it. It’s a different kind of leadership to stay true to yourself and your game. And it paid off.

In life, Dirk is also the perfect embodiment of this. He is married to Jessica Olsson, a Swede of Kenyan descent. At their wedding, Dirk openly embraced her culture (leading to many a meme), while maintaining his own, goofy and confident personality. And that’s who he is in the NBA. He is by many definition a Texan, strong: resilient and fierce. He is a basketball player, a foreigner playing what was an American game up until not too long ago. But he can’t help but leave his imprint on it, little by little, breaking down barriers and making a new way for himself and those that came after him.

Dirk Nowitzki will be remembered first and foremost for being a phenomenally talented basketball player, but we should not forget that he helped us unlock the game internationally as we know it today.

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Serge Leshchuk
Serge Leshchuk
Serge Leshchuk is a senior writer at Grandstand Central, number one Process devotee and nihilist Raptors fan who also does video production. You can send your complaints about any Celtics related articles to him directly on Twitter.



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