Dallas Mavericks

Dirk Nowitzki passed Wilt Chamberlain in his own way

Wilt Chamberlain once scored 100 points in a game. Somehow, he still found the strength to hold up a piece of paper with “100” written on it, so the rest of us would know. Wilt Chamberlain once averaged 50.4 points over the course of an entire season, in which he played 80 games. This wasn’t yesterday, but it wasn’t during the Civil War, either, like some of baseball’s most revered stats. This was 1962. Kennedy was president. You remember. Wilt followed it up by averaging what had to be a disappointing 44.8, the next.

For Wilt Chamberlain, whom Basketball-Reference claims has among his nicknames “Big Musty,” there are caveats in both directions. Wilt only played 14 seasons, he only played 1045 games. Dirk’s played 20, and 1509. On the other hand Wilt, who took 39.5 shots a game in his 50 point season, ended up taking 23,497 in his career. Dirk, by whenever Basketball-Reference was last updated, had taken…23,586. Some of them were from a little farther away.

Wilt Chamberlain. I mean Wilt Chamberlain.

I remember looking at the 3-pointers made, all-time, list a few years back, in the days when the top of the list was mostly Mavericks (Jason Terry, Jason Kidd, Dirk, and Peja), and thinking it was mostly a longevity award. It still is. Nobody’s saying that Ray Allen, Reggie Miller, Kyle Korver, Jason Terry, Vince Carter, Jamal Crawford, Paul Pierce, Jason Kidd, and Joe Johnson — the non- Steph Curry entries on the top ten — were bad shooters, and a few of them are clearly among the greatest of all-time. But how many of them were known specifically as tremendous 3-point shooters and great players, rather than good 3-point shooters, and good-sometimes-great players who played for a long time? Ray and Reggie?

The all-time points leaders are not like that. Number one is Kareem Abdul-Jabar, who would probably be recognized as the greatest player of all-time if he were a little cooler. Karl Malone and Kobe Bryant are next. LeBron James, who is recognized as the greatest player of all time, is next. Michael Jordan, who is also recognized as the greatest player of all-time, is next. Dirk Nowitzki is next. Then Wilt Chamberlain.

Did you know that Wilt Chamberlain once ate a hundred omelets in one sitting? I actually just made that up, although that doesn’t mean it isn’t true. But is there anything you wouldn’t believe about Wilt Chamberlain? That’s the point. If I said he played one season against a league composed entirely of sentient bears, you’d go yeah, okay, where did he finish in the MVP voting? Wilt Chamberlain hatched from the head of Pallas Athena, wanting to one-up her dad. Dirk arrived from Wurzburg, Germany in 1998, 7-foot-1 and 125 pounds. In his rookie season, Wilt averaged 37.6 points a game, and grabbed….*looks again*…*grabs monocle*..*monocle shatters*… 27 boards a game. He led the league in both categories. Dirk spent his rookie year backing up Hot Rod Williams and Samaki Walker. It’s like somebody telling you that someday they’re going to carve Kid President’s face next to Roosevelt’s on Mount Rushmore. And then it happens.

Like everything Dirk did this year, and last, and hell, the year before that too, it did not happen quickly. When Dirk had about four points going into the fourth against the Cavs, and needed fourteen, I tuned out for a bit. He hasn’t been playing much in the fourth, and non-Dirk, non-Luka, Mavs-Cavs is Must-Not-See-TV. Naturally, he scored ten points in under two minutes, he who is averaging 6 points on the season. I tuned back in. The Mavs wanted it. I wanted it. My wife, who knows the names of several Mavs players this year wanted it. But stealing fire from the gods is an arduous business for a 40-year old man, and it didn’t last quite long enough.

On March 18, 2019, the Pelicans wandered onto the court knowing Dirk wanted to shoot. As a result, Luka got a wide open layup that he missed, and Jalen Brunson got one that he made. But 2 minutes and 9 seconds into the game, Dirk Nowitzki stepped into the lane and unleashed a 15-year-old jumper, a ball so beautiful it never even had to talk to the rim on the way down. One minutes and 16 second later, Dirk got the ball looking Kenrich Williams in the face, and unleashed another one, a young man’s shot, and it was over. I was glad Williams, all of 24, got to see it, a legend out of time, before the legend himself was out of time.

In the old days, like all Mavs fans, I knew something about Dirk that nobody else did. There were more explosive scorers, there were more creative scorers. God knows there were more creative scorers. But if he had the ball, and it mattered, and there was only one defender on him, the ball was going into the hoop. And he had so much offensive talent — call it German efficiency — he did it with less than any guy in the game. Wilt climbed Mt. Rushmore shooting 22.5 shots per, Michael with 22.9, Kobe with 19.5, and LeBron, so far, with 19.6. In his career, Dirk averaged 15.6 shots a game, and he made ‘em count. It could have been a lot more.

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That Dirk will almost certainly never make the top-five all-time in scoring is fitting in its way, and if you’ll remember, he’s been sixth before. LeBron passed him on the way up, and Michael is still some ways away. Dirk made a joke the other day that they’ll be able to use the same swag from the last time he was sixth. He doesn’t mind. He’s had a great time. Dirk, who only has one ring, who deserves at least two, and might have had three if a knee injury hadn’t forced him out of a conference finals in 2002. Dirk, who had to wait until his skills started to decline before everyone else learned how good he was. In perhaps the greatest playoff game he ever played, he scored 48 points on 15 shots, as if 50 would be too gauche, and call too much attention. Sixth is just right. Let him be sixth, again, let it be what it was. It was plenty, and more than plenty. Dirk Nowitzki. Wilt Chamberlain. Dirk then Wilt. Impossibly, after all this time, and as inevitable as the rain falling.

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