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Dirk Fans for Life?

Contemplating the Mavs without Nowitzki

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In Dallas, “MFFL” stands for “Mavs Fan for Life.” Many people in the Metroplex and surrounding areas identify as MFFLs — this author included — and throughout this piece, you’ll see video testimony from several MFFLs about Dallas, Dirk Nowitzki, and Mavs fandom.

The notion of what it means to be a Mavs fan for life has been challenged recently, as the franchise and its fan base were forced to consider a once-unimaginable scenario:

What if Dirk leaves the Dallas Mavericks?

It all got very real last week, when Nowitzki opted out of his contract with Dallas and Tim Kawakami of The Mercury News reported that Dirk could be pursued by the Golden State Warriors.

Were this to happen, Dallas fans would have to decide whether they’re more loyal to the franchise or the player who made that franchise worthy of their loyalty.

The answer must seem simple to outsiders. You stay loyal to the team. That’s what makes a fan a fan. It’s all in the name: Mavs Fan for Life, right?

Well, not really. “MFFL” originated right around the early-to-mid-2000s, just as Nowitzki was elevating the Mavs to respectability, not just throughout the league but in Dallas, where the Mavs had played for more than 20 years. People simply didn’t care that much about the Mavericks, pre-Dirk, especially younger fans. Dallas was Cowboy Nation, and that was it. There is a whole generation of 20- to 30-something Dallas natives who got into basketball only because of Dirk.

For so many young Dallas fans, Dirk is the Mavericks. I’m one of those fans. These are the things that have happened in my life since I started cheering for Dirk: I turned 13, had a first kiss, went to high school, learned to drive, went to college, got married, and had a kid. And almost every single year during that stretch (from ages 13 to 30), I have sat on my couch (or futon — college rules) and watched Dirk lead the Mavs to the playoffs. Every single year but one.

The first playoff game I saw live, Dirk led the Mavs in scoring. That was in 2002. The first playoff game my son saw live, Dirk led the Mavs in scoring. That was in 2016.

So you can imagine why it’s uniquely jarring to think about the Mavs without Dirk. It’s personal. But even if you took emotion out of it, the blow would be much easier to take if the Mavericks had one of two things: a past or a future.

For the Mavs, the only history that’s worth mentioning is centered on Dirk Nowitzki. That’s why so many people immediately mention Dirk when they talk about the franchise’s highest highs and lowest lows. Anytime the 2011 NBA Finals are brought up in conversation, the first thing anyone mentions is what that championship meant for Dirk. The same goes for when you ask someone about the heartbreak of the 2006 Finals.

As for the future, well, that Dirk is even thinking about leaving Dallas shows just how badly owner Mark Cuban and general manager Donnie Nelson have screwed up. Dirk hasn’t just been sinless, he’s been downright sacrificial. After Dallas broke up the championship squad — allowing Jason Kidd and Tyson Chandler to go to the Knicks in free agency — Nowitzki took a huge pay cut in 2014 so that the team could rebuild. But the Mavs repeatedly missed out on free-agent targets like Dwight Howard, Deron Williams, and DeAndre Jordan. And the ones they signed have battled injuries (Wesley Matthews, Chandler Parsons) or have been Charlie Villanueva.

Other teams have gracefully moved on from franchise players. San Antonio has been built around a Big Three of Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili, and Tony Parker for more than a decade. But now, as that core winds down, the Spurs have handed the team over to players they signed or developed, like LaMarcus Aldridge and Kawhi Leonard. When Boston moved on from Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett, they made damn sure they got a huge draft haul in return.

The Mavs have no such plan. Every summer they put all their eggs in the free-agency basket and hope that coach Rick Carlisle can make an omelet with whatever they bring back. And that would be OK for some Dallas fans, as long they can watch their favorite athlete continue to perform.

But for others, the Mavs’ front-office mistakes are so egregious that, as much as they love Dirk, they think it’s in his best interests to get the hell out of Dallas — taking their support along with him.

I asked roughly 25 Mavs fans whether they’d cheer for Dallas or Dirk (if he’s in another uniform) next year. The replies were split right down the middle, with a couple of iterations of “I’d rather die than make that choice” thrown in. Still, the one constant in everyone’s response was that the decision was hard. That these self-defined MFFLs are even considering this shows how close the city of Dallas feels to Dirk, and just how badly the Mavs have screwed this thing up.

I’m pretty sure all of these folks will cheer for the Mavs when Dirk is out of the league, thus restoring order to the MFFL universe. But if Dirk packs his bags this summer, Dallas might have to prepare itself for a significant dip in its fan base.