This was the NBA Finals of good vs. evil. The proximity of the Miami Heat to a championship conclusion tp the collusion that brought its collection of superstars together brought vitriol from almost every corner of the sporting world. It’s always bad when as many fans are rooting for you to lose as are rooting for the opponents to win.
Almost accidentally, the Dallas Mavericks became the protagonists in this great theater, gaining with that responsibility almost more fans than its bandwagon was capable of holding. But for the neutrals who so ardently flocked to this series in record numbers, the reason for celebration this Sunday night should be for the champion Mavericks, not the fallen Heat.
It’s taken a combined 28 seasons, but Dirk Nowitzki and Jason Kidd are both champions finally. A more deserving player than Kidd would be difficult to find. For 16 seasons, the California product has been one of the game’s greatest point guards. He’s 18th all-time in games played in NBA history (interestingly enough, ten of the men in front of him on that list – Karl Malone, John Stockton, Reggie Miller, Clifford Robinson, Buck Williams, Mark Jackson, Sam Perkins, Charles Oakley, A.C. Green, and Terry Porter – retired without an NBA championship to their names).
Kidd ranks second all-time in assists, third all-time in steals and is the only player in NBA history with at least 15,000 points, 10,000 assists and 7,000 rebounds in a career. He has two Olympic gold medals playing for the United States. The future Hall of Famer is as deserving a player out there in search of his first ring and was able to obtain it in the city in which his playing career started.
Then there’s Nowtizki. When the going got tough, Nowtizki got going in this series time and again, regardless of illness, mockery or torn tendons. Nowitzki was everything LeBron James was supposed to be in this series; it was the German, not the Cleveland exile, who rose to the occasion for shining moments time and again while his Miami counterparts looked on helpless.
The 12-year veteran may turn out to be one of the more pivotal players of his generation. It’s not just because he’s waited more than a decade for the honor. It’s not because he’s a revelation to the game as a seven-footer who can create off the dribble and shoot like it’s no one’s business. In a decade or so, we’ll look back at players like Nowitzki as the trailblazers for a new generation of Europe’s and the world’s elite who choose to ply their trades in the States.
The season before Nowitzki was drafted, 1997-98, a grand total of nine players who were born outside of the United States and didn’t play college basketball in the States were on the rosters of NBA teams. A dozen years later, that number is at 56. The Mavericks alone will hand rings to four foreign-born players – Peja Stojakovic, Rodrigue Beaubois, Ian Mahinmi, and Nowitzki – and had two others in Sasha Pavlovic and Alexis Ajinca on the roster at other junctures of the season. It’s easy to point to Yao Ming as a catalyst of this type, but in reality, the prolonged and quiet success of Nowitzki is the real testament to the international flavor of the NBA.
Nowitzki’s celebration told us everything we needed to know as fans. It wasn’t public. It wasn’t gaudy and ostentatious. It was the perfect anti-Decision inasmuch as Nowitzki’s quiet free agent return to Dallas this summer was the as far away from the South Beach hysteria as could be. It was a private moment behind closed doors, a celebration of years of waiting and effort that was all for Nowitzki, not for the networks or the mass consumerism that the NBA can be. The antithesis of the Big 3 was the Quiet Glee Nowitzki celebrated.
Nowitzki and Kidd aren’t the only ones with ample reason to celebrate tonight. Jason Terry has been rewarded for a decade of humility as the quintessential sixth man. Shawn Marion has had bumps and hurdles throughout his career and probably didn’t think it too likely he would ever taste a championship after the dismantling of the Suns teams with Steve Nash and Amare Stoudemire that came so close to a title without being able to finish. There are also veterans like Stojakovic and Brian Cardinal on the downsides of their careers. And guys like Tyson Chandler and DeShawn Stevenson who over a decade ago made the still revolutionary decisions to jump from their respective California high school straight to the NBA rewarded with a title to complement solid NBA careers.
On the bench, Rick Carlisle is finally a champion as a coach, one of 11 players to win NBA titles as a player and a coach. His days in Detroit were unceremoniously halted a year after he was the league’s coach of the year, and the title the Pistons won after stumbling in the playoffs the previous two seasons was very much built by Carlisle before Larry Brown finished the job. He undoubtedly gave the Mavs a big edge over the young, and soon to be unemployed, Erik Spoelstra. And love him or hate him, Mark Cuban is one of the most proactive owners in all of sports who deserves to see his tremendous passion and involvement (if at times overly boisterously so) rewarded with a title.
Tonight, it’s easy to poke fun at Baby Bron-Bron (even I get in the act with the picture above), or Dwyane Wade or the tears (again!?!?!) of Chris Bosh. It’s easy to get caught up in the plays on words, the jokes and the t-shirts, however clever they may be.
But the positive fan in me knows that this is the image of this NBA Finals, just as the story, however posterity may frame it, is that Dirk Nowitzki and the Dallas Mavericks won an NBA Championship more than LeBron James and the Miami Heat ever lost one.