If Dirk Nowitzki had not had a change of heart, he never would have blossomed into one of the greatest NBA players of all time.
Nowitzki was struggling mightily throughout his rookie 1998-99 season with the Dallas Mavericks when he conjured up the courage to approach Don Nelson about what he thought was a dire situation. Nelson, the Mavs’ general manager and coach at the time, remembers the conversation like it happened today.
“I’ll never forget he came to me and said ‘I think I want to go home,’ ” Nelson said. “So we just had to convince him to weather the storm, it’s going to be great.
“We loved him and said just don’t worry about making mistakes or whatever was bothering him. I guess he was homesick more than anything.”
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Nelson said that conversation occurred after the middle of what was a lock-out season where all teams played only 50 games.
Of course, Nowitzki weathered the storm, and 18 years later he’s just 20 points away from joining Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Karl Malone, Kobe Bryant, Michael Jordan and Wilt Chamberlain as the only players to score at least 30,000 points in their NBA career.
Nelson knows he should be credited for passing up on a known quantity in Kansas All-America Paul Pierce in the 1998 draft in order to pursue Nowitzki.
Actually, the Mavs had the sixth pick and made a draft day trade with Milwaukee — it had the ninth pick — in order to secure Nowitzki. The Boston Celtics, meanwhile, had the 10th pick and definitely coveted Nowitzki.
“If I wouldn’t have taken him I think Boston would have, so he would have had the same career somewhere else,” Nelson said. “But we’re just so happy he came to Dallas and stayed there his whole career.”
Nelson said he “never had a doubt” if Nowitzki was star material.
“The first day of practice I thought we had a star,” Nelson said.
But Nowitzki even exceeded Nelson’s expectations and used hard work, grit and determination to become one of the more iconic players in sports annals.
“Nobody could imagine he would be this good,” Nelson said. “I thought we were going to have an All-Star and a guy we could build the franchise with.
“That’s what I thought. And he’s carried it way past that.”
Nowitzki eventually became a 13-time All-Star and the quintessential leader of a Mavs squad that captured the 2011 NBA title. He also became one of the first so-called stretch-fours — a big man with an outside shooting stroke — who could hang on the perimeter and torture a defense with his 3-point accuracy.
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“There were a few (stretch-fours in the NBA before Nowitzki), but more coaches wanted big guys to be around the basket,” Nelson said. “I said why not play outside, because that’s what he does the best, and then he can learn the inside game as he matured, and that’s kind of what happened.
“He could do everything except guard. He could pass, he could rebound, he was unselfish, and he was everything. He wasn’t a great defender, but he could defend.”
Nelson, who is the NBA’s all-time winningest coach with 1,335 victories, was fondly referred to as the mad scientist who often cooked up mismatches. So instead of having a 7-footer like Nowitzki toil down in the paint where he may have gotten aggressively worn down by other larger centers, he decided to play him at power forward where he had a distinct advantage.
Most power forwards during Nowitzki’s early years wanted to stay close to the basket. But since Nowitzki was a rare breed who mostly set up shop on the perimeter, he had the advantage Nelson was searching for.
“I never played him at the small forward because I wanted to matchup power forward against power forward, because the small forwards would have an advantage over him from the outside, but the big guys didn’t,” Nelson said. “So I made sure that he was always guarded by a bigger guy, so it could free him up a little bit easier.”
Now retired and living in Maui, the 76-year old Nelson said he’s very proud of what Nowitzki has been able to accomplish. Nowitzki’s success also helped vindicate Nelson, who was heavily criticized for passing up Pierce for Nowitzki in the 1998 draft.
“It doesn’t get any better than Dirk Nowitzki,” Nelson said. “He’s been an incredible addition to the NBA.
“It’s just all positive, and I’m just so happy to have him in the NBA and to be able to have seen what he’s done for the NBA. It’s worked out for him, too, so it’s all great.”