Evolution of Leadership and Toughness

Posted by Bryan Gutierrez on February 19, 2013 under Commentary | 3 Comments to Read

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It was a rare site during All-Star weekend as the Dallas Mavericks organization was not really accounted for during the league’s weekend of celebration. You can count Dahntay Jones’ random participation as an assistant to Utah’s Jeremy Evans during the dunk contest, but it was still weird to not see Dirk Nowitzki rubbing shoulders with the league’s elite players in Houston. Prior to this year’s break in Houston, Nowitzki had been part of the last 13 All-Star weekends – as a 3-point shootout participant in two before his 11-year All-Star streak.

Even with that absence during All-Star weekend, Dirk still found a way to have his name mentioned during the break. The mention actually came from an unexpected source, one Michael Jeffrey Jordan. Wright Thompson is a senior writer for ESPN.com and ESPN the Magazine. Wright took the opportunity to follow Jordan as he’s 50th birthday was approaching and chronicled the interesting story of his life and how he struggles moving forward. It’s highly recommended reading. For those who don’t know what I’m talking about, let’s dig in on what MJ said about Dirk.

Jordan plays his new favorite trivia game, asking which current players could be nearly as successful in his era. “Our era,” he says over and over again, calling modern players soft, coddled and ill-prepared for the highest level of the game. This is personal to him, since he’ll be compared to this generation, and since he has to build a franchise with this generation’s players.

“I’ll give you a hint,” he says. “I can only come up with four.”

He lists them: LeBron, Kobe, Tim Duncan, Dirk Nowitzki.

When someone on TV compares LeBron to Oscar Robertson, Jordan fumes. He rolls his eyes, stretches his neck, frustrated. “It’s absolutely … ” he says, catching himself. “The point is, no one is critiquing the personnel that he’s playing against. Their knowledge of how to play the game … that’s not a fair comparison. That’s not right … Could LeBron be successful in our era? Yes. Would he be as successful? No.”

(via: Michael Jordan Has Not Left the Building by Wright Thompson)

It’s not a well-known fact, but Dirk is an avid reader. He’ll read books and he’ll also read clippings that float around on the internet in regards to the Mavericks. When asked about his reaction to hearing the praise from Jordan, Nowitzki definitely showed his humble nature. “I started playing in the 90′s and I was a huge Bulls fan and Jordan was my hero, obviously,” Nowitzki said. “For him to even know my name is crazy, to be honest. For him to say that I could have been a great player then means a lot. It’s humbling. It’s been great. It’s been a crazy ride over 15 years. It’s great to get respect from the greatest of all time.”

When you look at the list Jordan created, you look at the key components of four of the last six championship squads (Miami, Dallas, Los Angeles Lakers and San Antonio). The champions excluded from the list were the Boston Celtics and the Detroit Pistons. It’s hard to make a case for anyone on the Pistons’ championship squad. You could make a case for Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett, but apparently Jordan decided to go in a different direction. The Tall Baller from the G’s childhood self came out when he continued to comment about Jordan’s praise. “Everybody knows he’s the greatest of all time,” Dirk continued. “It’s already weird just him saying my name. For him to use me in a sentence with those other guys, obviously, that means a lot, for sure.”

It’s not like Dirk’s resume is not impressive on its own, but getting Jordan as a reference certainly boosts his value. You can say Jordan hasn’t had the greatest touch when it comes to being a player evaluator as a GM, but it’s hard to dispute the greatness that Dirk has shown over his career. It’s been an interesting journey for the player now known as the man who revolutionized the power forward position in today’s new brand of basketball. It’s hard to imagine anyone expected he could do that, considering he came into the league as an unorthodox shooter with size. “Maybe when I got in the league I was just a spot-up shooter,” Dirk said. “When you’re a spot-up shooter at 7-feet, you’re basically soft.

“You’re just labeled soft. I felt I put all the work in during the summer just to add some stuff. If I would’ve just been happy with being in the league and I would’ve stopped working out, I could’ve been a good, decent jump-shooter from 3. If you switch me on the pick-and-roll I would’ve been in trouble, but I always tried to add stuff.”

Dirk openly recognized that he arrived at the crossroads of his career very early. If he was complacent with his apparent role early in his career, he easily could’ve turned into someone like Andrea Bargnani (sorry, Bargs). Instead, he made a tough decision and decided that he wanted to do whatever it took to get better as a player. “I added the game off the dribble. I added the post game a little bit when they put smaller guys on me,” Dirk said. “I just kept working and working.” Whether people want to admit it or not, Avery Johnson’s stint in Dallas as the team’s head coach was extremely influential in Dirk’s development as more of a well-rounded player. He kept referencing his former teammate, Tim Duncan as someone Dirk needed to pattern his game after. Whether Avery was a positive on the team is a different issue, but it’s clear his influence on Dirk can still be seen.

You can cite Jordan’s flu game during Game 5 of the 1997 Finals against the Utah Jazz as an example of physical and mental toughness he showed during his career. Jordan was known as the alpha dog. He refused to believe that losing was an option and he would do anything possible to ensure he would come out on top. You simply weren’t going to get the best of him. He was driven to settle for nothing other than success. Jordan was clearly a player who pushed himself to the limit and not many people can do that. Dirk had his own “flu game” during Game 4 of the 2011 Finals. Why there isn’t a direct intention to produce a carbon copy or show he’s as tough as Jordan or tougher, Dirk does feel a strong sense of gratification by getting praised by Jordan. It can be seen as a sign of validation for his career and that’s he’s evolved into more than just a spot-up shooter.

“To me, there’s obviously two types of tough,” Nowitzki explained. “There is the rah-rah tough, the elbow and play physical and go in there and dunk on people. That was never my kind of tough. I was never that physical. I’m not blessed with a 40-inch vertical. So my toughness was [that] I wanted to be out there for the guys, I wanted to fight with the guys, I wanted to win, I wanted to be there for the team when the game’s on the line. I play hurt. I play sick. I always wanted to be there for the team when the game was on the line. I played hurt, I played sick. I always wanted to be there.

“That’s the mental toughness I really developed over the years. I think I didn’t have that when I first got in the league, but I got better and better with experience and with a will to win the championship.”

What makes Dirk so special is that he can have complete and total recognition of the moment like he showed with his self-evaluation. He can do that and then show his self-deprecating nature in the next breath. If he’s not blessed with a 40-inch vertical, how high can he jump? “Now,” Dirk questioned. After gritting his teeth and scratching the back of his head, he replied, “I think I’ve still got double digits but that’s pushing it. When I first came back (from knee surgery) I would’ve said it was probably an eight or a nine (feet). Now, I’m might be back to 15 (feet).”

It goes without saying but Dirk Nowitzki is a once-in-a-lifetime player. Most of the blood, sweat and tears he sacrificed leading up to 2011 went unnoticed. With one of the most dominant championship runs the league has ever seen, Dirk’s name will be itched in the history books as a true champion for forever. He might not be able to fly as high as Mike, but Jordan definitely gave a tip of the hat to Dirk that put the Mavericks’ face of the franchise in rare air.

Bryan Gutierrez writes about sportsmen. He is a contributing writer for Mavs.com. Bryan also attended Ball So Hard University. You can follow him on Twitter @BallinWithBryan.

  • Guest

    Jordan is full of crap. where Garnett on that list? HATER. Tim over KG? I can just tell he’s counting the rings.I mean this is the same dude that said because Bron has 1 ring and Kobe has what,4, that Kobe is better. Well I guess Jordan ain’t the greatest player alive then, it must be Bill Russel cos he got more than half the amount of rings that Jordan has. This dude is a straight up hater.

    • Matt Hulme

      (Warning, unanticipated-rant-defending-Timmy-Duncan-of-all-people incoming.)

      It’s not all about the rings. Yes, Jordan is egotistic, self-absorbed, irritable retiree who’s best move would be to step away from the game for a while. You’re right about that, “guest.” But to say Jordan is full of crap on this is to have your KG-fandom blinders on. Because saying Garnett should be included on some (arbitrary, we should remember) list OVER Duncan is idiocy as its core. I’m not a Duncan fan, personally; I never was and never will be a fan of his, but Duncan is probably the greatest power forward of all time, period.

      First, a bit on KG. Garnett is obviously a first-ballot Hall of Famer, of course. He’s one of the best defensive players in NBA history, a great rebounder and shot blocker, a good scorer, and a very good passer for his size. That’s all clear as day. It’s true that KG never played for a premier franchise, but then again, he absolutely played for some talented teams in Minnesota, teams that were equally as talented as Duncan’s 1999-2003 Spurs, a squad, which, I remind you, featured very few talents outside of Duncan, a a rapidly aging David Robinson in the former years and a very young and underdeveloped Tony Parker in the latter years. While obviously there’s talent there, it’s certainly not substantially better than KG’s best years with Sam Cassell and Latrell Spreewell. And, obviously, once KG got to Boston, and he did win it all, he had a fantastic cast around him, that features two other HoF-level talents and a young, raw-in-his-youth yet talented Rajon Rondo. And yet, with all of that, they could only win it once. With less, Duncan has won more.

      Duncan was the linchpin, the enforcer, the scorer, the everything in between, and the biggest fundamental element (pun deeply intended) of a 15-year championship-contending team of which there is no rival. Name me another franchise that has been winning and defending and contending without fail for championships for 15 years with the EXACT SAME PLAYER as the focal point throughout said run. You can’t, not in today’s NBA, not in this age of rampant free agency and salary caps. Duncan is as pivotal a player to their team as any player post-Jordan/Bulls era, and THAT right there is the biggest reason he’s the greatest PF of all time. Yes, the rings matter. Rings matter in the NBA far more than they do in the Major Leagues, and even more so than in the NFL with the possible exception of QBs. So yeah, it does matter that Duncan has four rings to KG’s one, and Dirk’s one, and Malone’s zero, and Barkley’s zero. Because that’s what defines you, as the blood of a franchise, in this league: win rings and win often, or, as great as you might be, you will fall short of positional immortality.

      Sure, Duncan had better coaching, better talent around him, and better ownership, but in the end, none of that matters if he wasn’t up to the challenge of leading that team, year after year, long season after long season. I am in no way, shape or form a Spurs fan, but give the man his damn credit. He was -and remains- a force to be reckoned with in the NBA, the likes of which we’ve never seen.

      KG, Dirk, Malone, Barkley: that’s two current Hall of Famers and two destined for the same, the four of whom share a combined two rings. Duncan, alone, has double what the four of them have combined. Malone, KG, Barkley, and Dirk have all been on stellar teams built to win it all, as has Duncan. The difference is, Duncan did it best. Hence, he’s the best to ever play the position, and, in turn, more than deserving to surpass KG on his short (and again, completely arbitrary and meaningless) list.

  • Matt Hulme

    Great article, well put. I love Dirk’s quotes, and I love how humble and self-depreciating yet-highly-educated-on-all-topics-related-to-basketball Dirk has always been. What a fantastic guy, and great to see him so appreciative and appreciated by Jordan’s comments.