Commentary

Love hurts

Dirk Nowitzki knows all about heartache -- basketball and otherwise

Updated: January 13, 2010, 4:24 PM ET
By Allison Glock | ESPN The Magazine

This column appears in the January 25 issue of ESPN The Magazine.

Dirk Nowitzki's track pants are riding a little high as he works the court at Mavs practice, his socks in clear view, unruly Keith Urban hair held fast by the sweatband haloing his forehead -- traces of his Euro roots, even now, a dozen years into the NBA. He playfully trash-talks with teammates, running a joke into the ground, as is his habit. The clowning interferes little with his focus. He nails his shots, every basket low-hanging fruit, grinning as the net snaps. "Oh, yeah," he booms in his deep baritone, wide smile showing rabbity teeth.

Ethan Levitas for ESPN The Magazine

Rick Carlisle watches the face of his franchise race around, chasing stray balls, a Labrador let loose. "Dirk lives the game," the coach says, nodding in approval. "Since age 13, everything he does in his life is and has been geared toward being the best basketball player he can be. And the thing that you love about Dirk is that he loves living that life." The "life" Carlisle refers to does not involve diamond-encrusted stereo speakers, salacious cocktail waitresses or painkiller addictions that conveniently explain a proclivity for diamond encrusting and cocktail waitresses. No, the life for Nowitzki -- All-Star, NBA MVP, future Hall of Famer -- is and has always been only about basketball. "He's not flashy," says Mavs head trainer Casey Smith. "He's not conspicuously spending money. Or hanging with high-profile friends. He's not after every dollar he can get. It isn't interesting to him."

As such, Nowitzki has no slick agent or publicist, no signature fragrance or designer-jeans line. He has very few endorsements -- almost all in Germany -- not because he can't get offers but because he chooses to stop short of making himself a brand. He isn't selling anything but game, and a fairly vanilla game at that. "I'm not going to jump over two guys and dunk it or stare or muscle you down," he says of his style, which is quiet, quick and coolly efficient. Even a recent collision with the grill of Houston's Carl Landry, which resulted in five busted teeth for Landry and three stitches for Nowitzki, was more about what typically happens when elbow meets enamel than any badassery.

Nowitzki is old-school, a workhorse. He does drills, push-ups on fingertips, late-night shooting practice. And his commute is always the same. Drive directly to the arena, then back home, a well-worn groove of enthusiastic compliance. He avoids red meat and dairy. He does not drink or smoke or invite girls up to his hotel room. He has no swag. For the most part, his idea of fun is to stay home and read. Or watch basketball. (He does insist that he raps -- in German -- and dances; "I'm good," he says, an assertion teammates dismiss with eye rolls.) He is the Taylor Swift of the NBA. Which is why it was all the more startling when, last May, the media released a mug shot of Nowitzki's then-fiancée, Cristal Taylor, along with a report that the woman was a small-time con artist with a history of seducing wealthy men. She was wanted in two states. Nowitzki, it turns out, was a target. "I usually do a good job of keeping my private life out of the media," Nowitzki says with clear lament.