Dirk Nowitzki’s final game in Dallas wasn’t really about basketball. His game has steadily declined over the last few seasons, but his stature in the city has only grown in that time. The tagline 41.21.1 was plastered everywhere inside the American Airlines Center on Tuesday. Those three numbers not only told the story of Nowitzki’s career, but also of the city that fostered it. Dirk played 21 seasons in the NBA for the same franchise. He has long since transcended the sport in the North Texas area. He is the most widely beloved figure in Dallas, a living symbol of the fourth-largest city in the United States. The area has grown up along with Dirk, almost doubling in size over the course of his incredible NBA career.
He announced his retirement in an emotional postgame ceremony, setting a record (the longest tenure for an NBA player on one team) that may never be broken. The sheer length of his career is mind-boggling. Dirk came to Dallas in 1998 and played until 2019. The league has changed a lot in that time. The world has changed even more. Dirk has played under four different U.S. presidents. If Luka Doncic plays for the franchise as long as Dirk did, he’ll retire in 2040. I’m not sure what our country will look like at that point, much less our men’s professional basketball league.
Dirk has been a constant in so many lives here. One of the most touching moments in the postgame ceremony was when Abby Carlisle, the 14-year-old daughter of Mavs head coach Rick Carlisle, came over to hug Dirk before her dad began to address the crowd. She came to Dallas when she was 4, and she will start high school in the fall. Her dad coached Dirk for the vast majority of her life. Carlisle, the president of the NBA coaches association, intimately knows the short lifespan that comes with his profession. As he told the crowd, the only reason that his daughter may get to spend her whole life in one school is because he coached Dirk, giving him the type of job security that few coaches are blessed with.
There are many stories like that. I was born and raised in Dallas and have spent most of my life here. I’m 31 years old, and I’ve been watching Dirk since I was in fifth grade. I can track my life by his career. I was in eighth grade when he made the playoffs for the first time, a freshman in college when he reached the Finals, and right out of college when he won his championship. I doubt I would have the career I have now without Dirk. I spent a ton of time in high school and college honing my writing skills by arguing with people on message boards about Dirk. Being a fan of Dirk and the Mavs meant being a fan of a new style of basketball that challenged some of the most fundamental assumptions that people had about the game.
Dirk wasn’t always loved in Dallas. No one really knew what to make of him when he first arrived. The Mavs had been one of the worst-run franchises in the NBA in the ’90s, so it was hard for most fans to put much trust in what they were doing. Even when Dirk turned them into one of the best teams in the NBA, they could never get over the hump in the playoffs. There was a huge contingent of fans who didn’t believe in him until he won a title in 2011, in his 13th season with the franchise. This is a results-oriented town. Dallas will always support the Cowboys, but the love for every other pro sports team is conditional. Mavs games have been sparsely attended the last few seasons, no matter how many sellouts the franchise claims.
Dallas is a city of transplants. Not many people have deep ties to the region. There were fewer than 300,000 people in Dallas before World War II. It is one of many Sun Belt cities whose population exploded after the war, but the boom in Dallas never slowed down. According to the estimates of the Department of Homeland Security, Dallas County and the six that surround it (Collin, Denton, Tarrant, Kaufman, Ellis, and Rockwall) had roughly 3.98 million people in 1998, Dirk’s first season with the Mavs. The Dallas-Fort Worth metropolitan area had 7.58 million residents as of 2018. The area north of the city was empty farmland when I was a kid. Now there is development almost all the way to Oklahoma.
People move to Dallas to advance their careers. There was never a particularly big recession here. The local economy has been booming for most of my life, attracting newcomers not only from around the country but around the world. There is a constant stream of companies like Toyota opening corporate headquarters in the area. The land is cheap, the weather is warm, and the taxes are low. The result is a culture where striving is prized. A friend from Houston told me that when he joined our church he was struck by the realization that many of his fellow parishioners were the kids he disliked in college—kids who had networked in business school and followed a career plan they had mapped out since they were freshmen.
Dallas doesn’t have a great reputation within Texas. One of the biggest surprises for me when I went to college in Austin was the degree to which the kids from the other major cities in the state disliked Dallas. The perception was that it was an arrogant city with a money-obsessed and status-hungry culture. They weren’t totally wrong. Dallas is the home of the $30,000 millionaire. It’s a more honest twist on the American dream: a city where you will be judged not by the color of your skin, or the content of your character, but by the size of your wallet.
There is something refreshing about that mentality. Dallas is an incredibly diverse city: 44.2 percent white, 15.0 percent black, 31.7 percent Hispanic, and 9.1 percent other. My family falls somewhere in the middle of all those categories. My dad was from Nebraska, and my mom is from the Philippines. I never really felt like I was different because of my ethnic background. It was more that we just didn’t have as much money as other people. Getting ahead is the primary motivation here. There isn’t as much concern as there would be in many places about who you are if you can help people make money.
Dirk is the perfect example. He moved halfway around the world to chase a dream and wound up in a strange city that had almost nothing in common with the small town in Germany where he grew up. He didn’t know anyone or understand the local culture. He was embraced because of how good he was at his job, and he stuck around, eventually meeting his wife. She was the product of a Swedish dad and a Kenyan mom who grew up in Sweden and moved to Dallas for her career. They have three kids who are native Texans. The Nowitzkis are rootless people who are planting roots here. Their story isn’t that much different than the story of many of the 20,000 fans who packed the arena Tuesday to pay tribute to the greatest Maverick of all time.
Dirk had one last message to the crowd before walking off the court for the last time: “I left Germany 21 years ago and became a Texan.” There are a lot of places in this country where that opportunity no longer exists, where lines of identity are more rigidly drawn. Places that have been so ravaged by economic decline over the last generation that people are trying to leave as fast as they can. No one moves to a place where there aren’t any jobs. The idea of the melting pot still means something in Dallas. Dirk is one of us now. It doesn’t matter where he is from.