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The Long Goodbye Dirk Never Asked For

Why did we throw a retirement party for a player who hadn’t said that he was retiring?

AP Images/Ringer illustration

Dirk Nowitzki’s retirement tour hit its emotional crescendo Tuesday night, as the Mavericks great played his final home game in Dallas.

A former champion and MVP who revolutionized the way big men are expected to play basketball, the retiring legend has been the toast of the league this season. All year long, the NBA has gone out of its way to celebrate Nowitzki (as well as his retiring rival, Dwyane Wade) with unprecedented gusto. Fans went out of their way to shower Dirk with affection normally reserved for home players. It sounded like all of Boston was cheering for Dirk to hit a shot in the closing moments of his last game against the Celtics. (Unfortunately, he’s now 40 and missed multiple attempts.) In Brooklyn, Nets fans cheered louder for Dirk than they generally cheer for the Nets. He got a standing ovation at MSG. There were cheers of “We want Dirk!” in Portland. In Los Angeles, Clippers coach Doc Rivers actually stopped a game to take the PA microphone and request the crowd’s applause for Dirk. Nowitzki and Wade were given special spots in the All-Star Game, even though their play was far below that level—and the crowd went absolutely wild as Dirk drilled some 3s. It’s hard to find a hoops fan who dislikes him, and it’s impossible to find anyone who doesn’t respect him. Fans across the nation let Dirk know that as his career wound down.

However, nothing could prepare Dirk for the way he was treated on his final night in Dallas. It was billed as 41.21.1 night—a celebration of the fact that no. 41 is the only player ever to spend 21 seasons with just one NBA franchise. Appreciative Mavs employees packed the tunnels underneath the stadium so thoroughly that he couldn’t even get to his parking spot. A group of former NBA players whom Nowitzki has described as his favorites to watch growing up flew to Dallas to celebrate him. Dirk also played a basketball game, becoming the oldest player in NBA history ever to score 30 points. (It took him 31 shots, but nobody complained.) Following a video about the work he’s done in the community over the years, Dirk couldn’t hold it together anymore, crying on the court:

Dirk attempted a shot shortly after the video, with poor results. “I don’t even think I saw the rim,” Nowitzki said. “I had so many tears in my eyes.”

There was just one hitch to the whole thing. Before the game, Dirk hadn’t actually said he was retiring. In fact, when asked about his future plans over the course of the season, he’d deferred his answer, telling reporters that while he appreciated the homages and love from around the league, he wasn’t sure whether he’d retire.

Tuesday night, he did announce his retirement, although The New York Times’ Marc Stein noted that Nowitzki never actually used the word “retirement,” instead focusing on the fact that Tuesday night was his last home game with Dallas. (Cue the speculation that Dirk has agreed to some strange deal where he plays only road games, or that he’s coming to the Knicks with Kevin Durant?) Some believe Dirk didn’t announce his retirement simply because he’s humble and didn’t want to be celebrated. But if we listen to what Dirk has said, it sounds like he wasn’t sure he wanted to retire until the last few days, and that his decision mainly focused on his intense foot pain.

The retirement tour has become a regular and beautiful way of sending sports legends off into the Undying Lands. (Perhaps a tad overbearing, at times. But still beautiful!) Dirk’s, though, was odd. Why were we throwing a retirement party for a player who hadn’t said that he was retiring?

Player retirements have been cause for mass appreciation since Lou Gehrig told a jam-packed Yankee Stadium crowd that he was the luckiest man on the face of the earth. Even retirement tours weren’t invented yesterday. In 2003, the only time Michael Jordan announced his retirement in a non-weird way, the GOAT was feted for a whole season: Vince Carter gave MJ his starting spot in the All-Star Game, and the halftime performance was Mariah Carey performing as a variety of Jordans. The Heat retired Jordan’s number the final time he played in Miami, confusing everyone and eventually preventing LeBron James from wearing his preferred number during his stint with the franchise. The 76ers turned Jordan’s last Philadelphia game into a party, flying in Chicago’s old PA announcer to introduce Jordan and committing a series of intentional fouls to get MJ mass ovations at the end of regulation.

But now we’ve fully entered the Retirement Tour Era. I think it began in earnest in 2014, when the Yankees let a barely mobile Derek Jeter ride off into the sunset while putting up a team-worst OPS and league-worst fielding stats. He got ludicrous retirement gifts from every team he played—did he bring his bucket of Baltimore steamed crabs back to his hotel room, eat them at the ballpark, or just throw them out?—and the Red Sox hired an Aretha Franklin impersonator to sing him “Respect.” In 2015-16, the Lakers let Kobe Bryant have one of the silliest seasons in NBA history, leading the league in field goal attempts per 36 minutes (21.5) while posting the worst field goal percentage in the league (35.8 percent). On the final night of the season, coverage of Bryant’s last game was broadcast to a national audience (even though the Warriors were simultaneously trying to win their record-setting 73rd game), and he took 50 shots and scored 60 points.

Three years ago, The Ringer’s Claire McNear wrote about how retirement tours seemed to be pushing the boundaries of what anybody could find enjoyable when David Ortiz actively complained about the number of pregame ceremonies and wished he’d kept his retirement plans secret so he could focus on playing the damn games. But they have only gotten bigger and beefier. Now, virtually every star men’s baseball or basketball player gets a retirement tour, and a process that used to be neatly contained in a postseason press conference has become a seasonlong odyssey of admiration.

Dirk’s, though, was something different. Most retirement tours take place only after a player makes an announcement that he’s leaving the sport and gives his consent to go along with the festivities. Like with Wade, who announced that he’d be retiring back in September and spent the year publicly reflecting on the end. As the world serenaded Dirk, he wasn’t even sure he wanted to quit. The ceremonies and standing ovations implied that he should. While the words out of everybody’s mouths expressed sentiments like “We’ll miss you!” there was a heavy subtext of “It’s time for you to go away.” Dirk’s 2018-19 season was one “we’ll still be friends” text message short of an attempted nonconfrontational breakup.

Of course, Nowitzki should be retiring. He posted career lows in virtually every significant stat this season. He would have posted the lowest field goal percentage in the league but, unlike Kobe, didn’t attempt enough shots to qualify. He was several steps slower than he was during the peak of his career, and, well, he wasn’t particularly fast during the peak of his career. There wasn’t really an argument for him being on an NBA floor besides nostalgia. (The Ringer’s John Gonzalez lovingly assigned Dirk, one of his favorite players, to Mt. Washedmore.)

What would’ve happened if Dirk didn’t want to retire? Sports franchises are under no obligation to continue paying ex-greats like Nowitzki millions to provide subpar on-court performance, and if Dirk had kept showing up and asking the Mavericks for a roster spot, eventually they would’ve had to tell him no. That’s when things would have gotten unfortunate. We’ve seen once-great players get traded or cut (I’m thinking of Hakeem Olajuwon and Patrick Ewing ending their careers with the Raptors and Magic) or try to push their wares for meager wages in strange overseas leagues (I’m thinking of Allen Iverson’s awkward reunion tour with the Sixers segueing into a monthlong attempt to play in Turkey).

There are significantly worse ways for a player’s career to end than how Dirk’s did. He was given an emotional and touching farewell that celebrated his impact on his sport, his franchise, and his place in the hearts of Dallas fans. But his final season still marked a turning point in the meaning of the retirement tour. Previous farewell tours were bestowed upon retiring greats asking for one last moment of glory, with teams and fans giving them permission to play outsize roles in spite of the fact that their late-stage talent levels may not have merited them. Yet what started as a way of letting players go out on their own terms can now be used as a way of telling them it’s their time to go. Dirk’s unrequested retirement tour was weaponized adulation. We loved Dirk loudly in the hope that he wouldn’t mind that we were actually asking him to leave.