With about a minute left in Game 6 of the NBA Finals, and the Dallas Mavericks having effectively deflated the Miami Heat's championship hopes, I turned wide-eyed to my group of friends and the packed Denton bar surrounding me. The words shot out loudly as the realization washed over the gathered crowd.
"Oh my God... They're going to win!" I must have yelled that 10 times, each holler louder than the last, and within 30 seconds, as Dirk Nowitzki's face showed that he was experiencing the same thought, I cried.
In adulthood, crying over sports is silly since you're not directly involved. It’s like when I received over 20 congratulatory texts within minutes of the game ending — nice, but I didn't do anything to earn that praise, other than devote years of hopes and cheers to a basketball franchise that happens to be in my hometown.
Millions of fans do the same in 29 other NBA cities each year, many of which never experience this wonderful pay-off. Players may say it is about the fans, and when things go right we feel rewarded for our commitment to the team (worse, on the other side of the coin, some of us feel “owed” when things don’t go so well), but in a twisted way LeBron James is kind of right:
Our lives do remain the same, regardless of the outcome of a sporting event.
What made this win particularly special for Mavs fans is that it wasn't just about bragging rights or our validation for supporting the team through all these years. It was bigger than that, more intimate than your run-of-the-mill title. The feeling was personal, yet somehow not about us, the fans, at all. As a friend of mine tweeted that Sunday night, "Championships are so much better when you feel happier for the players than yourself.”
But of course, this isn't about multiple players, even if this was a "win for team basketball," as Dirk put it. Yes, it's heartwarming to see a bunch of deserving ring-less veterans like Jason Kidd, Jason Terry, and Shawn Marion finally reap the fruits of their labor. But even all of them know the truth. This was for Dirk. ... Chuck Cooperstein's call touches on that as The UberMan hits the Game 6 dagger ...
Obviously, far superior writers than I have already detailed how fantastic it is to witness Dirk's loyalty triumph over Miami's stir-and-serve recipe for success. It's a critical, beautiful storyline to this dream finale, but it only scratches the surface of a much deeper well of emotions. In short, Dirk loves Dallas, and Dallas loves him back.
In 2004, my second year living and working in Boston, I covered the celebration when the Red Sox won the World Series. I vividly recall sitting in a cramped apartment full of college students as the team closed out a sweep of the St. Louis Cardinals. Even in the ninth inning of Game 4, the Boston fans were convinced something was going to go awry (turns out this fear is buried inside me as well). But the jubilation that followed the Sox' victory was sweet for Bostonians for a totally different reason — not better or worse — than this Mavericks' win was for us.
The Sox’ championship was deeply personal to the fans, the culmination of 86 years of waiting and praying, parents and grandparents passing their fandom onto their kids and grandkids, and so forth. In the Mavericks' case, this title may be a pot of gold after 31 fruitless years passed down over a few generations of fans, but throughout this playoff run, I believe the vast majority of Dallas fans removed themselves from the equation. Even Mark Cuban took a backseat by going silent.
Why? It was all about how Dirk felt.
Under normal fan circumstances, we would simply be happy with a Mavericks championship. Dirk’s personal success, which thankfully runs concurrently, should be secondary to us — after all, he’s a man most of us don't know personally. However, the script got flipped. In Dallas, seeing Dirk become a champion became Priority No. 1, while the fact that it also meant a Mavericks title became the bonus.
There’s a simple explanation for this. Our feelings for Dirk, and frankly, his personal well-being, grew to be extremely personal over time. That’s what happens when you watch an awkward player who looked like Bambi trying to walk on ice during his first season develop into the saving grace of your moribund franchise and then come oh-so-close to a championship in 2006. His struggles made us proud of each of his successes and appreciative of his tireless work ethic. We started taking personal offense when other fans, who clearly didn’t regularly watch him play through countless sprained ankles, labeled him “soft.” We vigilantly defended his honor when lazy national writers attempted to place Pau Gasol above him on the league’s best European player list (that debate was settled convincingly this year, right?).
Soon, we began worrying about Dirk as if he was our own son out there on the court — how is he going to feel about losing to the Warriors in the first round then quietly accepting an MVP trophy? How will he react if he believes his best friend got low-balled on a new contract, causing that friend to sign elsewhere? He never asked for this doting concern from us and he never would. But he certainly earned it.
Dirk toiled in the gym every day not to enhance his own legacy (his rebudding of endorsements makes it crystal clear he honestly doesn't care about his mainstream image), not just to know how it feels to be a champion for his own personal sake, but largely because he appreciated the rollicking support of Dallas, both the city and the organization. It's why he often said it wouldn't feel the same to win a championship elsewhere — as was widely suggested by those who said he could never play the Batman on a title team, and should just become another team's Robin.
"I can't even tell you how great the city has been to me over the last 13 years. They've been by my side through ups and downs, fighting through a lot of stuff, and they always stuck with me," Nowitzki told Hannah Storm after the Game 6 close-out, sniffling through the interview. "They took me like one of theirs when I came there 13 years ago, and this is for them."
The second part of that quote is particularly significant: "Took me like one of theirs." For a 20-year-old German with spotty English playing in loud and proud Dallas, Texas, that's huge. But Dirk, don’t defer credit: You earned that acceptance.
Many of us have watched the Mavericks since long before Dirk knew where Dallas was on the map, but never felt the affection for a single player as we have for him. Dirk is everything you could want in a franchise player, as well as a humble spokesman for our city and team and an ambassador for the game itself. That those facts were so woefully misunderstood by the at-large NBA public for the duration of his career led to Mavericks fans embracing Dirk tighter still. He became one of us.
No wonder Mavs fans thanked him in true Texan style, putting Shiner Bock on his doorstep after the Finals. Dallas and Dirk have been inextricably linked for years, and amazingly, after all these seasons of wondering whether championship windows were cracked or closed, that union paid off. Big time. In the sweetest way possible, with all sorts of fun storylines about revenge and vindication and The Decision. But it didn't really matter who Dirk won a championship against. We just wanted him to get one — for him. And if he didn't? We would have loved him just the same.
I spent a long time that Sunday night justifying those tears to my friends who snapped photos of my crumpled face. But there wasn't any need. They understand. The connection with Dirk runs deep – his tears are our tears, and vice versa. He may have hidden his tears from public view when he jumped over the scorer's table as Game 6 ended, running into the locker room showers while covering his face with a towel to hide his emotion.
But I am proud of mine, silly and embarrassing as they may be. They're for Dirk. He earned them.
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Glenn Yoder is a lifelong Mavs fan, a friend of DB.com and a veteran writer most recently with the Boston Globe. This article first ran on DB.com on Aug. 1, 2011.