There wasn’t a postgame jersey swap at midcourt. There was no extended walk off to bask in the cheers. There was just a final one-legged fade away and a quick wave.
The Dirk Nowitzki maybe-but-maaaaybe-not retirement tour made a stop in the Moda Center on Wednesday night and fans, plenty of whom came clad in No. 41 Dallas Mavericks jerseys, got to pay respects to an all-time great.
But unlike year long celebrations courted by future Hall of Famers Dwyane Wade and Kobe Bryant, Nowitzki’s potential final game in Portland didn’t have the manufactured pomp and circumstance.
“Well he hasn’t said he’s going to retire so I’m not going to be sad tonight,” said Trail Blazers coach Terry Stotts, who spent four years with Nowitzki as a Mavericks assistant and was part of the 2011 Dallas championship team.
When Nowitzki and the Mavs came through Portland in December earlier in the season, Nowitzki, 40, sat out. The Mavericks were on the second night of back-to-back games they gave their aging star the night off. So when Stotts saw the former MVP in the back hallway he playfully taunted Nowitzki about needing rest after a grueling 12-minute outing.
The two shared another laugh before tip-off on Wednesday when Stotts found Nowitzki out on the court before his pregame shooting routine and told him that the Blazers were going endlessly hunt him in pick and rolls.
His sense of humor hasn’t faded, but Nowitzki’s game is certainly in a twilight stage. His gait does nothing to hide the miles he’s logged as a 40 year old playing in his 21st season. It certainly looks like it’s his final season, even if he insists he won’t make that decision until the summer. He finished with three points and two rebounds against the Blazers, treating fans to one final one-legged fadeaway while missing his only other two shot attempts in 14 minutes.
Once the game was decided late in the fourth quarter on Wednesday fans inside the Moda Center started a “We Want Dirk” chant, but Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle didn’t oblige. Nowitzki, who two days earlier had passed Wilt Chamberlain to move into sixth on the NBA’s all-time scoring list, stood and acknowledged the Portland crowd, for what seemed like the final time.
The strange thing about playing two decades in the league is that you up competing against a generation of players that looked up to you in your prime when they were pre-teens with hoop dreams. Damian Lillard said he owned Nowitzki jersey as a 5th grader and Zach Collins reiterated that he had always tried to model his game after the Mavericks star. There was shared appreciation from the stands, the players on the court and the coaches on the sidelines. If this wasn’t a “goodbye” it was a “thanks for the memories.”
Nowitzki is far from a villain in the northwest even if he did usher the Blazers out of the playoffs in 2002 and 2011. There were no boos like Kobe Bryant earned in his final game in Portland. There was no “maybe he’s still got it” moment like when Dwyane Wade carried the Heat to a win in Portland back in February of this year. There’s certainly no hashtag or uniform swap. Nowitzki plays a little bit. He waves to the fans and then he repeats some version of the explanation he’s uttered at arenas across the country.
“My plan was always play year to year my last couple years,” Nowitzki said. “See how the body feels and make the decision after the season.”
So this summer he’ll take some time and decide whether he is ready for season 22 or to move into some other role with the Mavericks front office or a third option away from the game. One thing he hasn’t ruled out is an encore, running the retirement tour back for another 41 nights of admiration on the road.
“No, I mean, I enjoy it,” he said. “If I come back, we’ll do it all over again.”