LOS ANGELES — The crowd rose to its feet and cheered. This time, the commotion did not involve excitement over LeBron James or Anthony Davis offering a highlight reel. During a first-quarter timeout of an eventual loss to the Dallas Mavericks on Sunday at Staples Center, the Los Angels Lakers played a tribute video for recently retired Dallas Mavericks star Dirk Nowitzki.
"I had no idea the Lakers were going to do that," Nowitzki said. "I’m super honored and humbled."
So Nowitzki stood up in his courtside seat and waved to a crowd that once bemoaned his presence. During his 21st and final NBA season, most teams accommodated Nowitzki’s request not to have any video tributes. By that point, he had not officially retired. Nowitzki also did not want a farewell tour. Those plans changed on Sunday.
He had hosted a charity tennis event in Dallas in September with one of the auction items involving a paid trip to Los Angeles, a tour of Jimmy Goldstein’s home and court-side seats with Nowitzki for the Lakers-Mavericks game. Then, Nowitzki learned only shortly beforehand that he would receive a tribute video that he called "sort of surreal."
Lakers play a video tribute for Dirk Nowitzki, who’s sitting courtside for the Lakers-Mavs game pic.twitter.com/HMSersMtHU
In the video, LeBron James called Nowitzki "one of my favorite players" despite losing to Dallas with the Miami Heat in the 2011 NBA Finals. The video also showed an interview clip of former Lakers star Kobe Bryant, who said "you all know what a big fan I am of Dirk." The Mavericks obtained Nowitzki's rights on draft night in 1998 following a trade with the Portland Trail Blazers, exactly two years after the Lakers acquired Bryant from the Charlotte Hornets for Vlade Divac. Thus, Bryant and Nowitzki crossed paths at each other’s expense. While Bryant cemented a 62-point game against Dallas in December 2005, Nowitzki helped the Mavericks sweep the Lakers in the 2011 Western Conference semifinals.
"It’s amazing the basketball culture this club has had for such a long time," Nowitzki said of the Lakers. "Kobe and LeBron were always two of my favorites to watch and compete against. They know how to prepare with how they’re ready, how they compete every game and their skill level. Definitely two of the best to ever do it."
Thank you @Lakers I’m truly humbled https://t.co/A6FSHm5Vin
Nowitzki is in that category as well. He cemented a 21-year career with an NBA championship, a regular-season MVP and a sixth-place standing on the league’s all-time scoring list (31,560). He scored plenty of those points with a patented fadeaway jumper and made 15 playoff appearances and 14 All-Star teams. When the Mavericks remained patient with his early development after playing in Germany, Nowitzki stayed loyal to the Mavericks even amid six missed playoff appearances.
No wonder the Mavericks liked the Lakers’ gesture just as much.
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"Fantastic. He certainly was a good luck charm for us sitting over there," Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle said. "Our guys really get a kick of seeing him around or having him around when he’s around the practice facility and at games. It’s great to see him here."
Mavericks star Luka Doncic downplayed Nowitzki’s actual affect on the outcome. Doncic maintained "we’re inspired every game" after posting 27 points, 10 assists and nine rebounds to help the Mavericks (13-6) end the Lakers’ 10-game winning streak (13-6). Nonetheless, Doncic admitted that "it’s always cool to see him at the games and see him supporting us."
That has happened only occasionally. Otherwise, Nowitzki has spent the past 2½ months mostly traveling to his native Germany and other European countries with his family. He plans to spend Christmas in Germany, too. Rarely does Nowitzki regret that he no longer wears a Mavericks uniform.
See what @swish41 says about life after retirement!#MFFLpic.twitter.com/bKUBZmWu1x
"I wish, but my foot is not great," Nowitzki said. "My health is not there anymore where it needs to be to compete and go up and down every day. From that standpoint, last year was already tough. It took some of the fun away. Just not being able to do the moves I wanted to make."
Nowitzki missed the first 26 games of the 2018-19 season after offseason surgery on his left ankle. Even when he returned, Nowitzki admittedly felt limited. In related news, Nowitzki averaged career-lows in points (7.3), shooting percentage (35.9%) and minutes (15.6) in 51 games. He had occasional highlights, including a 21-point performance against the Golden State Warriors that he considered his best game. Otherwise, Nowitzki maintained that he "knew it was time to step away."
Nowitzki temporarily took a step back into the spotlight Sunday. After enjoying his tribute video, he expressed optimism Doncic, Kristaps Porzingis and their supporting cast could produce even more memories.
"We’re going to be set up to be good for a long, long time," Nowitzki said. "I see that with Luka and KP and hopefully we keep adding to that team. Hopefully they’ll be a fun team to watch for a long, long time."
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