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They had met for hundreds of lunches in Dallas, but this one was different. The conversation had an edge that neither wished to acknowledge. It was as if they were meeting after a friendly divorce. � "So I'll see you at the game," Steve Nash said, smiling, as he was about to leave. � "Absolutely," answered Dirk Nowitzki, with a grin just as big. "Get ready." � That evening at American Airlines Center, Nash dribbled toward his best friend. "I knew what was coming," says Nowitzki. Though Nash now came wrapped in an odd, purple uniform, the point guard's every move was familiar from the countless hours they'd played together: the rhythm of the ball bouncing between his legs, the tantalizing head and shoulder fakes, the gray eyes scanning the periphery for cutters. Then, in a blink, Nash's flurry ended. The 7foot Nowitzki turned to watch the jump shot drop through the rim like a door slamming shut.
During their six years together on the Dallas Mavericks, Nash and Nowitzki grew to appreciate each other as much as any teammates in any sport. They spent thousands of hours in the gym developing their skills and their camaraderie, both of which helped transform the Mavs from charmless losers into NBA title contenders. "That's why it's so sad," says Nowitzki. "I thought we were going to finish together like Stockton and Malone. I never thought we'd break up."
Nash walked away last summer, signing a five-year, $53 million free-agent contract (which includes a partially guaranteed sixth year at $13.1 million) with the Phoenix Suns, the team that drafted him in 1996. The early returns on that investment couldn't be better. With Nash averaging an NBA-high 10.9 assists, many times dishing to 22-year-old power forward Amare Stoudemire (25.6 points per game), the streaking Suns were 14--3 at week's end and led the league in scoring (107.8 points). The 30-year-old Nash has emerged as an early-season MVP candidate for elevating a team that went 29--53 last year--even though he's not entirely comfortable in his new surroundings. "I told [the Suns] that I really wanted to stay [in Dallas] and finish what we started," says Nash. "Starting from scratch, unfamiliar with everything, trying to get a whole new career going again--it's been difficult."
Nowitzki has flourished too, averaging a league-leading 27.4 points through Sunday to propel the Mavs to a 12--6 start despite injuries to forward Michael Finley, center Erick Dampier and guard Jason Terry (who was acquired from the Atlanta Hawks in a four-player trade to serve as Nash's replacement, along with rookie Devin Harris). Last Thursday, in a 113--106 overtime defeat of the Houston Rockets, he erupted for a franchise record 53 points, the highest total in the NBA this season. While he's saddened that he can no longer dream of winning a championship with Nash, the 26-year-old Nowitzki burns with a desire to get the best of him. When Nash scored 17 points and handed out 18 assists in the Suns' 107--101 victory in Dallas on Nov. 16, Nowitzki walked off the floor without speaking to him. "I was so pissed, I went home right away--I didn't want to see anyone," Nowitzki says. "Then he calls me up from the airport. I saw the caller I.D., and I was, like, I don't want to talk to you right now."
What he fails to mention is that he had left a congratulatory message on Nash's phone a few minutes earlier. Eventually Nowitzki returned Nash's call, and they had a pleasant conversation. "The good thing," says Nowitzki, "is we're going to remain friends the rest of our lives."
they met at a press conference in June 1998, shortly after the Mavericks traded first-round draft choice Robert (Tractor) Traylor, the sixth pick, to the Milwaukee Bucks for Nowitzki (the No. 9 choice) and Pat Garrity (No. 18). Dallas shipped Garrity, two other players and a first-round pick in '99 (which would be used on Shawn Marion) to Phoenix for Nash, who was then a second-year backup to Jason Kidd. "He had bleach-blond hair at the time," Nowitzki says. "But he hadn't bleached it in a while so the top inch or two were blond, and you could see underneath it was brown. It was awful."
Nash was a 6'3" Canadian whose only U.S. college scholarship offer had come from Santa Clara, where he'd starred for four years. Nowitzki was a skinny 20-year-old from W�rzburg, Germany, with a bowl haircut and a fondness for three-pointers. "Those were the days before he had his rabbit [buck] teeth knocked out and had them cosmetically replaced," says Nash. "I felt for the guy. He was really shy."
On the morning after the draft Nowitzki woke up shocked to hear that he had been a lottery pick. He had warned NBA teams that he planned to remain in Europe for at least one more season to develop his game. Though the Mavs persuaded him to change his mind, Nowitzki was almost grateful when the owners locked players out to start the 1998--99 season, which enabled him to continue suiting up for the W�rzburg XRays. "Then it was the end of January, and one morning I looked on the news, and it said, 'Season Saved,'" says Nowitzki. "I said, 'Ohhhh, no.' I started sweating. I wasn't sure if I really wanted to go."
After an abbreviated 15-day training camp, Nowitzki made his debut as the Mavs' starting small forward. Too green to exploit his height advantage on offense and too slow to keep pace defensively, he was benched just a week after coach Don Nelson had touted him as Rookie of the Year. Nash provided his most important assists to Nowitzki off the court that year. "He was so down on himself," says Nash. "He thinks he's a realist, but I think he's a pessimist in so many ways. I'm sure that's part of the psychology that makes him great--that insecurity that drives you. But there were a lot of times when I would have to pump him up."
Even now Nowitzki admits that he sees himself less as a three-time All-Star than as an immigrant still struggling to succeed. "After a bad game I'm telling myself the next day, You've got to come in, you've got to shoot, you've got to lift at night, do cardio, you've got to get your game on track," he says. Imagine, then, the anxiety he felt as a rookie when he averaged only 8.2 points in 20.4 minutes--and imagine too how grateful he was to have a new friend and teammate who lived in the same apartment complex and was just as eager to work on his game. Back then the Mavs practiced in a gym that was open to the public at night. College students and paunchy businessmen would routinely occupy the one full court, leaving Nash and Nowitzki to practice in cramped quarters on a side basket. "We would play running HORSE, a lot of shooting games, tons of one-on-one," says Nowitzki. "Sometimes we would play in the post where I had a mismatch; then we would take it outside where he had it easier."