Dirk Nowitzki is into his 21st season in the National Basketball Association, all with the Dallas Mavericks. The German is revered in the US, not just for his play, but also for how he conducts himself off the court.It was exactly 20 years ago, on February 5 1998, that Dirk Nowitzki played his first game in the National Basketball League (NBA). It was a shortened season that started several months late due to the third lockout in NBA history, but the lanky 20-year-old from the southern German city of Würzburg played well enough in the 47 of the Mavs' 50 games to earn consideration for the Rookie of the Year award. In his sophomore season, he was in the frame to be named the NBA's Most Improved Player. A year later he was Dallas Mavericks' top point scorer, a title he would hold for the next 13 years.
From prodigy to St. Dirk
By the 2005-6 season, Nowitzki had become the superstar he remains today. He was the first European – and only the third non-American after Nigerian Hakeem Olajuwon and Steve Nash of Canada – to be voted Most Valubale Player (MVP). But the highlight of his career was the Mavericks' title win in 2011 over a Miami Heat side packed with superstars including LeBron James, Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade.
Read more: Dallas Mavericks Dirk Nowitzki to come of bench this NBA season
Nowitzki was named Finals MVP in the playoffs that year, earning him the nickname Saint Dirk. Former NBA player-turned NBA commentator Brian Scalabrine could hardly contain himself.
"That's the greatest performance, I've ever seen in the Finals," Scalabrine exclaimed. "Go out there, look, who had a better Finals than that?"
A class of his own
Patrick Femerling, the man who has made the most record number of appearances for Germany's national basketball team, says there were a number of things that made the 2.13 meter (7 ft. 0 in) Nowitzki stand out at the start of his career.
Due to his strong shooting skills, Nowitzki can score from anywhere on the court. He hits plenty of three-pointers but is also effective l close to the basket. "All this he manages while keeping fakes to a minimum – just one or two dribbles," Femerling said. "He's super-efficient."
Nowitzki's signature move is the fadeaway jump shot – so much so that when others imitate it, reporters sometimes simply refer to it as a "Dirk." His style of play has had a major impact on how the game is played in the NBA today. Throughout the league, the three-point shot is much more important today than it was when he broke into the NBA two decades ago.
Europe's basketball prophet
Today every NBA club is on the lookout for the next Dirk Nowitzki.
"He changed the game for bigs. He gave us opportunity outside of the box," Demarcus Cousins recently told the US fan portal Fansided. The 28-year-old center with the Golden State Warriors is considered one of the most talented big men in the league. Of course, he too regularly scores three-point shots, without which he wouldn't enjoy that reputation.
Nowitzki is loved in the United States, not just for his exceptional talent on the basketball court. He is also seen as extremely hardworking, self-disciplined, professional and competitive. For Nowitzki it's not so much about being a star. Instead, it's all about the unconditional willingness to take on a challenge, be it to improve his technique, to fight back from a deficit on the scoreboard or to make his latest shot. These are qualities attributed to a lot of NBA stars, but none of them are as unpretentious as Dirk Nowitzki.
Fans love Nowitzki
To find evidence of how much of a team player Nowitzki is, you need look no further than the contracts he's signed, foregoing millions so that Dallas could afford to go out and bring in enough other high-price players to make the Mavs competitive. According to the Business Insider the German has left as much as $194 million (€170 million) on the table in three contracts that paid him well below his market value.
It's fitting that Nowitzki uses social media to share videos of training, rather than posting photos of swank cars, golden watches or celebrity events. A good example was a photo he tweeted of himself on an old bicycle in the summer of 2017: "Everyone is posting pics from their workouts! So here it goes: summer grind on my new bike…."
Countless videos posted on the internet document Nowitzki's sense of humor – including the self-effacing variety. He's been known to appear in a television commercial wearing a wig combed in his own hairstyle, or even to perform comedy at a charity event. All this adds up to an unparalleled popularity that makes Dirk Nowitzki far more than "just" an exceptionally good basketball player.