A night after Paul George was booed in Los Angeles for spurning Lakers fans last summer and San Antonio skewered Kawhi Leonard in the AT&T Center, Dirk Nowitzki’s potential final visit to the city of Boston was a glowing example of what the NBA is all about. With just over two minutes left in the game, both teams emptied their benches with the Celtics well on their way to a 114-93 blowout win over the Mavericks. A chant of “we want Dirk!” filled the TD Garden as a final tribute for the surefire first ballot Hall of Famer.
Dirk’s future is still uncertain. In his 21st season, he missed the first 26 games and has made a handful of cameos here and there. This feels like a last dance for the 40-year-old. He runs the floor like Robert Parish did in his twilight (for what it’s worth, Chief played nearly 27 minutes a night in his last year in Boston), but that patented one-legged fall away will always be unstoppable and his spirit and love of the game still shines through. Nowitzki may have played his entire career 1,800 miles away, but his loyalty and sacrifice to Dallas are traits appreciated and embraced by Celtics fans.
Before the game, Nowitzki recognized the significance of the moment and more importantly, that Boston wouldn’t just be another stop on potentially his farewell tour. “It’s sweet when not only your home fans, but fans on the road appreciate what you have done in the last two decades. I appreciate the fans of Boston and unfortunately, I was really disappointed I couldn’t even make one (shot),“ Nowitzki said.
I've seen tens of thousands of NBA, ABA, WNBA, G-League, D-League, church league, high school, college junior high school and pee-wee games. This is the 1st time I've seen fans in an opposing city rooting so hard for an opposing player to score the way Boston fans did for Dirk.— Dwain Price (@DwainPrice) January 5, 2019
Boston fans gave Dirk Nowitzki a standing ovation pic.twitter.com/zii4NlFzIR— ESPN (@espn) January 5, 2019
Nowitzi came into last night’s game one point shy of passing Kobe Bryant as the leading Western Conference scorer at TD Garden. That may be a lot of qualifiers, but it speaks to the longevity and brilliance of his illustrious career. Unfortunately, Nowitzki failed to hit any of his ten field goal attempts and when he found out about the record, he said, “awww, man. I might have to come back for one more year.” And even after a loss, nothing could dampen his love for the Garden and its fans.
“There’s great cities on the road where you play and you know it’s a sports town and the night before you step out, everybody knows you wherever you go. That’s Chicago, that’s New York, that’s Boston and I always enjoy those moments, playing those games against good teams with great crowds.
Whether the team is doing well or not, fans always show up and it’s always sold out and you know there are great sports fans in a great sports town and they know the game and appreciate the game.”
Let’s not forget that back in 1998, Dirk was selected just one spot ahead of Paul Pierce. Both would bring championships to their respective cities, but it’s not hard to imagine a parallel NBA universe where Nowitzki raising Banner 17 to the rafters and eventually retiring his #41. In his post-game presser, head coach Brad Stevens said:
Boston REALLY wanted Dirk to have this last shot. pic.twitter.com/WfhjvVYsk2— ESPN (@espn) January 5, 2019
The players were just as reverential as Stevens. After spending time with Dirk at the NBA Africa game last summer, Jaylen Brown said, “just as he’s a great basketball player, he’s just a great person. He’s just super cool, low key, humble. He was always joking around. When he finally steps away from the game--he gave so much to it--it will truly be an honor.”
On the fans cheering on Dirk at the end of the game to hit a shot, Gordon Hayward said, “Dirk has done so much for the game of basketball. I’m happy to see him still out there. He’s such a great player, so I thought that was pretty cool.”
So many times as fans, we’re fed the party line that “basketball is a business” and sure, it can be and most of the time, it is. For a city that falls hard for their players, it can be a hard truth. The franchise has traded away Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett and Isaiah Thomas, legends of the parquet, all in the name of business. But for one night, real recognized real and Boston fans cheered Dirk Nowitzki for doing it the right way, the Celtics Way.