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					                               THIS YEAR IS DIFFERENT
                                           By Bob Sturm

CHAPTER 1 — The Parade
(June 16, 2011)


June 16 - Dallas Mavericks Championship Parade - Dallas, Texas

So this was what the view was like from the top.

Dirk Nowitzki towered jubilantly atop a parade float, a perch he heretofore only had imagined.
Emblazoned on his shirt was the fantastic directive, “Raise the Banner.”

His smile was broader than anyone had ever seen. He always had wondered what this might feel
like. And whether he would ever make it here.

It had taken an untold number of shots and free throws over his 32 years, honed through hours in
the practice gyms and executed under the bright lights of NBA arenas.

It had taken more than a thousand bruising professional games, including hundreds ending in
defeat.

And it had taken the unshakable belief of a Bavarian teenager, tall for his age, that he could one
day venture forth from Germany and succeed in the world’s premier basketball league.

Looking out upon the frenzied fans, many wiping tears from their eyes, he struggled again with the
emotions that so easily overtook him earlier in the week.

He still couldn’t believe this was real.

But, as he rode down Young Street in downtown Dallas, he tried to soak it all in. This was the
summit for which he had fought. This was what had pushed him when the doubters were mocking
him. When season after season ended in disappointment and dejection, it could have been easy to
accept defeat. Instead, Dirk kept fighting. That’s what made it so sweet to stand here today, on top
of the world.

The final float in the championship parade carried the veteran “Big 3” of the Mavericks. Riding
together were Nowitzki, 33-year-old shooting guard Jason Terry, and the 38-year-old point guard
Jason Kidd.

Four days earlier, they had done it. Against all odds as the playoffs began, and still against most
experts’ picks until the very end, the Dallas Mavericks had defeated the Miami Heat in the 2011
NBA Finals, 4 games to 2.

It was a triumph that capped a season of 111 games and, in some ways, a lifetime of effort.
The parade drew more than 300,000 to downtown Dallas to recognize the champions of the
basketball world. Most of those in attendance honestly never thought they would see this
procession — especially with those three players anchoring the final float.

Their window had closed, we were told time after time. We said it ourselves. The players heard it,
and perhaps had come to believe it a bit, too. They would all have nice careers and make tons of
money, but they would never be the principal characters in a dream season that ended with an
adoring city lavishing them with love.

Yet here they were.

As the parade rolled on, the gleeful smiles in the crowd were matched by those atop the floats. This
was a party to remember for anyone who had stuck with this team through all the tough nights.

First, the team’s broadcasters drove past, followed by the support staff, assistant coaches, and
various team officials. Next came Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle, seated with his family in the
back of a convertible. Then, team owner and parade-funder Mark Cuban rolled through, joyously
clutching the Larry O’Brien trophy in his arms. He looked like a guy who had chased something
for so long, now that he had it, he wasn’t quite sure what to do except laugh and smile.

Then came the players, rolling through in groups of two or three. Most were waving and chomping
on victory cigars, huge smiles on every face. But, as the final float approached, it was apparent
which player, by far, was the most animated. Without him, this victory would not have been won,
nor would it have been as rich.

This day was about Dirk. And he was embracing the celebration with the untempered joy of a child
on Christmas morning.

The entire basketball world, including those who confidently said he would never see this day,
marveled at what Nowitzki accomplished on his way to becoming a champion in 2011. And now,
he was thanking his adoring fans for sticking with him, even if they hadn’t always done so.

His shirt sleeves were hiked to his shoulders on this gloriously sunny morning, and a scraggly
beard darkened his face. His long blonde hair was casually unkempt as he enjoyed what he would
call “the best day of my life.”

He would soon lead the crowd in an unforgettable chorus of “We Are The Champions,” from a
balcony of the American Airlines Center. Nowitzki might not have made anyone forget Queen lead
singer Freddie Mercury, but never has a version of that song been performed with more personal
joy and passion. Dirk occasionally even hit a correct note along the way. And, as he sang, his
adoring fans struggled to hold back tears.

An unthinkable victory had finally been achieved. And Dirk’s career, his franchise and his city all
were celebrating their redemption with this day of unified delirium. The Dallas Mavericks were
world champions.
========

To fully understand the unique feeling of “Parade Day” in Dallas, a few things must be considered.

First, one must remember what this franchise looked like before Nowitzki arrived in Dallas. Of all
of the characters in this story, only the man who targeted him, Donnie Nelson, has served more
time with the Mavericks than the big man himself. When Nelson arrived in this city in January
1998, you could barely find 5,000 fans to attend a game.

Just making the playoffs seemed a fantasy to downtrodden fans. Mavs supporters had endured the
frustration of star forward Roy Tarpley’s drug problems; the ineffective coaching of Gar Heard,
Quinn Buckner and Jim Cleamons; and the embarrassment of 10 consecutive losing seasons from
1990-2000. The low point was seeing the team win just 24 games over two seasons (11-71 in
1992-93, followed by 13-69 in 1993-94) to become the laughingstock of the league.

The franchise was near death, at a point where talk of relocation would not have sounded crazy.
But fortunes began to change with the draft-day acquisition of Nowitzki in June 1998 and the
arrival of a competitive, deep-pocketed young owner in Mark Cuban, who purchased a majority
stake in the team in January 2000 for a reported $285 million.

Under Cuban, the Mavericks have enjoyed a fantastic renaissance, winning 69 percent of their
regular-season games over the past 11 seasons and reaching the playoffs every year. Even so, there
were four first-round playoff exits, four losses in the Western Conference semifinals, one ouster in
the conference final and the most heartbreaking result of all: A come-from-ahead loss to Miami in
the 2006 NBA Finals.

It was that postseason nightmare five years earlier that had made the word “parade” taboo in
Dallas. With the Mavs up 2-0 in that championship series, city officials tempted (and incurred) the
wrath of the sports gods by discussing plans and possible routes for a championship parade with
newspaper reporters before the team had even landed in Miami for Game 3. That proved to be the
first of four consecutive losses as the resurgent Heat stormed to their first NBA title.

How much inspiration the public parade plans gave Miami in 2006 can be debated (Dwyane Wade
may have had more to do with it). But there had been no parade in Dallas, nor an NBA
championship. And, for many, premature discussion of a parade was a convenient hot button when
attempting to autopsy the Mavericks and their cratered dream season.

The 2006 Finals haunted the franchise. Those who were there — Nowitzki, Terry, Cuban and
president of basketball operations Nelson — said all the right things but were asked about it
constantly. What happened? How do you feel about it? Who do you blame? How can you sleep at
night?

Not even those who joined the franchise after the 2006 Finals were excluded. They were asked to
share their perception of what happened to the Mavericks, what the league thought of Dallas, and
whether they thought the Mavs were haunted.
The questions never stopped. It was their identity. It shaped opinions of Dallas from sea to shining
sea. And all roads led back to their German superstar, Dirk.

For that is how the NBA works. Each team that competes for the title does so as a team. But there
are moments when that guy needs to make that shot. When your best player has to out-duel their
best player. And despite enough heroic efforts through his long career to put Nowitzki on an elite
level, those who did not wish to place him amongst the very best would always point to his track
record in the postseason. Sure, he had big games and big nights. But did he ever put the franchise
on his back and carry it all the way to an NBA title?

Until he did, the doubters would have their say on the Mavericks in general, and Nowitzki in
particular. It didn’t matter if it was fair. It was going to happen.

And that is why 2006 stung so badly. They were so close. They won the first two games in Dallas,
and the planned parade route was being reported in The Dallas Morning News. A 13-point lead
late in Game 3 disappeared in the fourth quarter, and Dallas ran into a freight train Miami team
fortified by veterans who knew their role and were hungry for a ring.

Wade had some very heroic efforts in that series, but the Heat were able to slow down Nowitzki,
double-teaming him effectively with Udonis Haslem tight and Shaquille O’Neal behind. O’Neal
was not the force he once was, but was still a very capable defender and presence in the paint.
Every time Dirk got around Haslem, Shaq was there waiting.

The younger Mavericks of 2006 either failed to comprehend how rare their opportunity was, or
lacked the seasoning to properly seize it. As Game 3’s slip was followed by Game 4’s blowout, it
seemed apparent the entire Mavericks organization was panicking. Attempts were made to save the
ship, but the water was rushing in too fast. Referees were being blamed, the hotel was being
changed, but ultimately the opportunity of a lifetime was being wasted.

Game 5 was decided through some questionable officiating (the call that made Bennett Salvatore
even more famous), unforced errors by Dallas and a big dose of D-Wade. The Heat had assembled
a roster of guys who knew what to do at big moments of big games. Gary Payton, in particular,
made huge plays in Games 3 and 5 to help Miami sweep the three games in South Florida.

                                                                          th
On the day between Games 5 and 6, Nowitzki tried to “celebrate” his 28 birthday. But the only
thing he could think about was that NBA title slipping through his fingers, an opportunity he might
never see again. His coach (Avery Johnson), team owner and many teammates had become
distracted by the officiating of the series and were generating a fair amount of fines and
consternation from the league office. The Mavericks were losing their composure, and the ability
to focus on the true opponents wearing Miami uniforms. And, try as he might, Nowitzki was
unable to pull his team out of its nosedive.

The series ended in Dallas the next day, with the Heat’s fourth straight victory in The Finals. A
season that had been considered the best in Mavericks history ended with a sour taste for all
involved. It was that extremely rare confluence in which both the greatest and most disappointing
year in the history of a franchise occurred in the same season.

The Mavericks had taken down the rival San Antonio Spurs and the Phoenix Suns along the way in
their longest-ever postseason march. But, in the end, nobody wanted to look back at a season that
ended so painfully.

There are many examples in sports where swift revenge was attained by a team that had fallen just
short of its goal. That certainly did not happen for Dallas.

Instead of punishing the NBA in 2007 for laughing at their misfortune, they supplied more grist for
those insisting the Mavericks lacked championship quality. After dominating the regular season by
winning a franchise-record 67 games (tied for sixth most in league history), the Mavericks became
the first No. 1 seed to be eliminated by a No. 8 seed in a best-of-seven NBA playoff series, losing
4 games to 2.

That the eighth-seeded Golden State Warriors were coached by former Mavs coach Don Nelson
enhanced the pain. Cuban and Nelson had not parted on the greatest of terms after the 2005 season,
and it gave Nelson a fair amount of personal joy to take down his former employer with a far
inferior squad.

Nowitzki had just been voted the league’s MVP in 2007, receiving 83 of 129 first-place votes. But
the first European-born winner suffered the indignity of being ousted from the playoffs before his
trophy could be awarded.

Traditionally, the MVP award is given to the winner in front of his home crowd right before a
playoff game begins. The arena goes bananas and the winner is properly recognized.

That opportunity went up in smoke when Nowitzki made just 2 of 13 shots and scored eight points
in Game 6, a humiliating 111-86 loss that capped the biggest upset in league playoff history. It
took until the final minute of the first half for Dirk to make his first field goal that night, and the
Mavs trailed by 23 points by the time he made his second.

Did Nelson have the secret to defending Nowitzki? Based on much of the six-game series, it
appeared so. Frustrated by double-teams and harassed incessantly by smaller defenders, Nowitzki
averaged just 19.7 points per game and shot 38 percent in the series (he averaged 24.6 points on 50
percent shooting during the regular season). There were renewed questions about Nowitzki’s
mettle. And after the series-ending loss, Cuban was asked if he doubted Dirk as a leader.

“Not a little bit,” the owner said defiantly. “Anyone who suggests otherwise is a moron.”

When Nowitzki finally was presented his MVP award 13 days later in Dallas, the awkward
ceremony took place at a news conference attended by Cuban, Johnson and NBA Commissioner
David Stern. That trio tried to put the focus on Nowitzki’s impressive regular season. But the dour
German seemed preoccupied with knowing he was the first league MVP in 25 years (since
Houston’s Moses Malone in 1981-82) who had failed to win a single playoff series.
“Even when I heard I was the MVP, I was sad to watch all these playoff games and know that
we’re not a part of it,” Nowitzki said that day. “It’s heartbreaking, still, to me. I will think of this
day for the rest of my life. But when I heard it, I was still a little sad because the playoff debacle
was still fresh.”

It was hardly a typical MVP acceptance speech. But, it was hardly a typical conclusion to a season
for a MVP winner, either. Nowitzki had just finished 2006 by nearly leading his team to the NBA
title. He came back the next year to lead a 67-15 team and was voted league MVP.

And yet, he seemed as wrung-out and disgusted by those two seasons as a player could be.

Dirk did not play for endorsements or recognition. He was paid handsomely, but it wasn’t because
his agent had leveraged his performances properly. He didn’t have an agent. His deep loyalty to the
Mavericks was a rare trait amongst the NBA star system.

He just wanted to be the best player he could be. He wanted to win a championship for the
franchise that maneuvered a draft-day trade with Milwaukee to get him, and had stood by him.
And yet, the closer he got to his goal, the further it seemed to be.

His critics called him soft. They said he didn’t want it badly enough. They said he was not a
warrior in the mold of past champions of the NBA. That explains how you can win in February,
but not in June.

He also had the burden of representing the entire world outside the borders of the league. Aside
from Hakeem Olajuwon’s Houston Rockets, a team had never been led to the title by a prominent
foreign-born player. And, as far as 90 percent of the NBA talking heads were concerned, that sure
wasn’t going to change with this German.

Dirk clearly didn’t want it enough. How else would you explain David West disrespectfully patting
Dirk’s face in the ’08 playoffs without retribution? Or letting Kenyon Martin body-check him out
of bounds in the ’09 playoffs? He won’t even stick up for himself, they said. And his teammates
wouldn’t either.

Clearly, he just wasn’t of championship quality.

Those who win — Kobe Bryant, Tim Duncan, Wade — were doing something he wasn’t. They
knew how to win in the playoffs. He didn’t. He just wasn’t tough enough. Wasn’t enough of a
leader. Wasn’t cut from the right cloth. He was a Robin when the Mavericks needed a Batman.
They should have traded him while they had the chance. These were the sentiments expressed
through radio, newspapers and television in Dallas, even on the day Nowitzki received the award
for being the MVP of the entire league.

It was madness. And yet, for Dirk, it was his reality. Until 2011, when all the work, determination
and resolve to silence those critics finally bore its fairy tale ending. It was enough to make an
entire city jubilant for one man.
A few days after the Dallas parade — the one that actually happened — a Dallas tourist saw a new
Nike mural on the side of a five-story building in Munich, Germany. It was a photo from Game 6
of the 2011 Finals, featuring Nowitzki pumping his fist in triumph. The caption read, “ALLE
TRAUME KLINGEN VERRUCKT. BIS SIE WAHR WERDEN.”

Translation: “All Dreams sound crazy. Until they become true.”




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posted:9/23/2012
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