Tuesday night in Dallas, Dirk Nowitzki hit a trademark baseline fadeaway over Larry Nance Jr. and became the sixth player in NBA history to score 30,000 points. A city, a country, and a world celebrated as The Big German, a source of so many pure basketball delights, shot six fingers in the air and wandered around the court.
Nowitzki is the most innovative and paradigm-shifting player of his generation. An honest to goodness dead-eyed three-point-shooting and free-throw-drilling big man who gave the Mavs the kind of efficiency you expect from a pivot—his career true shooting percentage of 57.9 percent edges out Hakeem's 55.3 percent and falls just a hair short of Shaq's 58.6 percent—while spreading the floor and allowing the rest of the team to drive to the basket. He is, simply, the evolutionary figure between the old circa-1990s NBA's grind-em-out mid-ranging and the modern, Golden State–style space-and-pace artillery gunning. There might have been better players in his NBA, but there were none who have had a bigger impact on the way the game is actually played.
Nowitzki's path to 30,000 is littered with the kind of weird tales you can only imagine in samurai legend. He was once a big ol' German boy who played tennis—his serve, delivered from a seven-foot form, is said to be quite devastating—when he was discovered by Holger Geschwindner, an eccentric German basketball coach who saw his raw talent and put him through an unconventional philosophical basketball training program to turn him into the ultimate three-point-shooting machine. Here is Geschwindner shedding a few tears of joy for his student and friend during last night's pandemonium:
Nowitzki's unconventional skill set was a drug for Don Nelson, the drunk-on-madness (and also alcohol) coach of the Dallas Mavericks, who traded up in the draft to get a chance to play out his wildest mad-scientist basketball fantasies on the court. With point guard Steve Nash, the Mavs were a fast-paced proto-spread-offense squad that managed to win games and make several playoff appearances, a rarity for a franchise that had languished in the bottom half of the NBA for most of its existence.
Nowitzki was the backbone of a Mavs squad that went to the Finals and lost to the Miami Heat in 2006. (Tin-foil-hat types will tell you he was robbed as a way of coronating Dwayne Wade.) They then won 67 games in 2007, only to get washed out by the We Believe Warriors coached by the self-same drunk genius Nelson, who stymied his former charge by sticking the smaller and meaner Stephen Jackson on him, effectively exploiting his deficiencies as a traditional big man and keeping him frustrated and unable to get space on the perimeter.
After an MVP press conference where he was embarrassed by a weeping Mark Cuban, Nowitzki went on an actual fucking walkabout with Holger in the Australian wilderness, came back to the league, and developed a legendary one-legged post-up fadeaway, his beautiful, big, loopy, high-in-the-sky signature shot, and the last piece in his quest to become a completely unstoppable NBA scorer.
Nowitzki bided his time until 2010-11, when the Mavs added brilliant defensive/pick-and-roll center Tyson Chandler and managed to string together several clutch wins against the newly formed James/Wade/Bosh Miami Heat and take the NBA title.
Nowitzki celebrated in the immediate aftermath by heading into the locker room and indulging in some tears of happiness. It was, really, quite beautiful.
Since that dream season, the Mavs have settled into a groove of mediocrity, but Nowitzki has dutifully and mechanically kept scoring, and scoring, and scoring—without missing all that often. He scored behind the three-point line, he scored on baseline fadeaway, he scored at the free-throw line, he pulled up above the key, he took fellow big men off the dribble with a massive, herky-jerky, goofy-looking dribble. Minus his actual release from the wrists, which is textbook beautiful, nothing he does to set up that scoring looks like anything you've ever seen before. Some new, younger big men, raised in the shadows of his triumph in 2011, are starting to adopt some of his skills and bring the big man into the modern age en masse, but the world will never forget the vanguard who started it all: the Mysterious Man of Legend, swept in from far off currents, Dirk Nowitzki.