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Dirk Nowitzki waited half his life for a moment he could not bear to experience. Four seconds remained in Game 6 of the NBA Finals on Sunday, four seconds until Nowitzki reached the goal he set at 16, but he could wait no longer. Mavericks forward Shawn Marion was dribbling out the clock when Nowitzki bolted for the sideline, leaped over the scorer's table and began striding down the tunnel at AmericanAirlines Arena in Miami. Friends left the Dallas bench and pleaded for him to return, but they never really expected him to stick around for the final buzzer. Nowitzki is too emotional to swallow his tears and too private to show them. He rushed into the visitors' locker room, into the showers, to a bench in the back. Without turning on a faucet, 13 failed seasons washed off his 7-foot frame, all of them down the drain.
This was Michael Jordan, sobbing in the locker room at Los Angeles's Great Western Forum after his first championship in 1991, only there were no cameras this time and few witnesses. Nowitzki is a self-effacing superstar in a self-aggrandizing age, and when officials from the Mavs and the NBA finally found him and tried to coax him back onto the court, he refused for fear he would break down in front of the world. They had to convince him that he would want the memories, the photographs, and would forever regret not having them.
Nowitzki wiped his eyes and reluctantly returned. While he will surely treasure the snapshots with his teammates, basketball purists may appreciate them even more. Here is a star who stayed for the struggle, who bore the burden and who proved that a title does not have to be won with a Big Three or a Fantastic Four. A true star rides in front and demands everyone fall in line. "You see around the league three or four big-name guys trying to get together," said Dallas guard DeShawn Stevenson. "Well, one was enough for us."
As Stevenson spoke, his face was framed by two tattoos. On his right shoulder: under. On his left shoulder: dawg. The Heat had LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. The Mavericks had 38-year-old point guard Jason Kidd, undrafted free agent J.J. Barea and an assortment of afterthoughts and injury risks like Stevenson and center Tyson Chandler. Arguably their second-best player, forward Caron Butler, never got off the bench in the postseason because of a right knee injury. "We shook up the world!" Marion shouted in the locker room after Dallas vanquished Miami in Game 6, 105--95. More specifically, the Mavs shook up the perception of how a modern NBA champion should look and act. "No champagne for me!" Marion hollered. "Give me a beer!"
The contrast between Miami and Dallas was stark enough to remind fans why they were so put off by the Heat in the first place. This was the rare sporting event in which an American audience rooted for a European to humble three native sons. Mavericks president Donnie Nelson refers to the roster he built as "the little train that could," only it comes with a powerful German engine. Nowitzki led Dallas to wins in Game 2 with a freshly torn tendon in his left hand and in Game 4 with a 102º fever. While viewers marveled at Nowitzki—"Our version of Willis Reed," Nelson says—the Heat mocked him, Wade and James hacking up exaggerated coughs in front of television cameras before Game 5.
The Mavericks largely downplayed the video publicly, but it was the primary topic of conversation on their flight to Miami for Game 6. They were, according to a source on the plane, "pissed off." Nowitzki went to lunch at the Four Seasons with Kidd and Chandler on Sunday afternoon, and for long stretches, they sat in silence. "I was just looking in Dirk's eyes," Chandler says, "and I could tell he knew it was his time." Finally, Kidd said what the rest of the table was thinking: "Tonight's the night."
Nowitzki was overwhelmed, missing 11 of 12 shots in the first half, his worst display of a playoffs in which he would average 27.7 points and shoot 48.5%. At halftime 6'2" sixth man Jason Terry walked up to him in the locker room and said, " '05--06." It was a reference to the last time the Mavericks reached the Finals and blew a 2--0 lead over the Heat, when owner Mark Cuban screamed at commissioner David Stern over the officiating, then coach Avery Johnson made the team switch hotels because so many players were partying on South Beach and Wade questioned Nowitzki's leadership. Some in the organization refer to that series as the Meltdown.
The 33-year-old Terry could not stomach a repeat. He scored a game-high 27 points, and during timeouts in the fourth quarter kept muttering in Nowitzki's ear, "Remember '06." Nowitzki never stopped firing, finishing with 21 points on 27 shots, not his most efficient performance but easily his most gratifying. "When you look back on this year, you're going to look at Dirk Nowitzki's numbers, but remember what he meant to me, to Shawn Marion, to Tyson Chandler, to J.J. Barea," Terry says. "He made us raise our game to another level. That's when you have a superstar. That's when you have a Hall of Famer."
The Heat led 2--1 when the players gathered at American Airlines Center in Dallas for an off-day practice that began with their favorite shooting game. Nine players stand at different spots on the perimeter and take turns launching threes. If the previous shooter makes his three and you miss, you get a point. If two players make theirs and you miss, you get two points, and so on. Ten points and you're out.
Miami was feeling comfortable, and nine straight players sank their threes. It was James's turn to shoot. Teammates were hopping around, laughing and catcalling, ratcheting up the pressure. James turned to Wade and said, "You don't know how long I've been in this position. Everybody wants me to fail." Then he faced the hoop, let fly—and missed. Teammates rejoiced. The shot was insignificant but revealing. James hears the clamor around him and, despite his transcendent talents, can't quiet it.