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Free minds: Dirk Nowitzki, the wild card Maverick

The Dunking Deutschman. Credit: Matthew Emmons/PA

The Dunking Deutschman. Credit: Matthew Emmons/PA

This week has been “free minds” week at UnHerd, showcasing the writers, philosophers, economists and academics who have dared to challenge the status quo, to swim against the normative tide. But when our Editor, Tim Montgomerie, originally conceived the series, the working title was “mavericks”. I tell you this because it helps explain my second contribution to the series (my first was Elinor Ostrom, Nobel prize winner): Dirk Nowitzki. Dirk is a 20-year veteran of America’s elite basketball league, the NBA, where he plays for my team, the Dallas Mavericks. And he’s a Maverick in more ways than one.

Seven-foot Dirk, drafted by the Mavs in 1998, is one of only seven players ever to have played 20 seasons in the NBA, and one of only two to have done so with a single team (Kobe Bryant is the second, in case you were wondering). His loyalty and longevity alone make him stand out. So too do his stats: he’s scored more than 30,000 points, making him the 6th all-time highest scorer; he’s a 13-time “all-star”; an NBA champion; and in 15 of his 19 full seasons has led the Mavs into the playoffs. That makes him a great of the game. But it is his unorthodox style that makes him a true maverick, because over the course of those two decades, Nowitzki has changed how basketball is played.

Dirk Nowitzki acknowledges scoring his 30,000th NBA point. Credit: USA TODAY Sports/SIPA USA/PA Images

Firstly, “big men”, as the tallest players are known, weren’t supposed to shoot long-balls, and certainly not 3-pointers. Dirk changed that. Nor were they supposed to have the versatility and ball-handling skills to drive to the basket, or stretch the floor. Which helps explain why defensive player after defensive player have dubbed Dirk “unguardable”.

Dirk didn’t just slot in to the game – despite his poor English, and the evident shock of joining a league whose quality was incomparable to anything he had experienced – he revolutionised it, and has spawned copycat after copycat.

Nate Scott, writing for Fox Sports last year said “if you look at the modern game, it’s hard to think of anyone more influential than Nowitzki.” The Wall Street Journal dedicated 1,000-plus words to his iconic “fade away” shot, or what they refer to as “The Most-Stolen Move in the NBA”. Dirk’s unorthodox moves were the result of equally unorthodox training regimes, devised by his eccentric German mentor and shooting coach Holger Geschwindner – and a lot of training hours (he’s famed for his superhuman work ethic).

It’s that willingness to rip up the rule book, to do things differently that makes Dirk the basketball equivalent of the “free minds” UnHerd has profiled. He’s my wild card offering because he shares many of the characteristics that link our current line-up: refusal to fit the mould, determination to forge a unique path, an unorthodox approach, and an unwavering commitment to winning (in his case the game, rather than an argument). The Dunking Deutschman is a shoo-in for the basketball Hall of Fame.  But as an #MFFL, I’d rather get a 21st season.


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