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On the NBA: Seen and Not Seen

As much as I used to abuse the word, I have to admit that “soft”, a word that is common parlance among the NBA-initiated, exists in a peculiarly basketball-related stratosphere of sports. In the world of a more violent, well defined sport such as football, the word would simply never be uttered by the sport’s fans, as inherent toughness is as accepted of a standard as any, slightly behind steroid usage and general hugeness. Still, the word has earned such power in the context of today’s NBA; any player above the height of 6’7″ must immediately be measured by its twofold rubric, and those who fail find themselves on an endless path back toward respectability, generally only concluded with rings (and even Pau Gasol still hears that noise). The emasculation apparent in the designation does not go by idly, as Chris Bosh likely nightly attempts to wash away the stink of being the NBA’s “RuPaul” with wads of money and Cuban girls. For the others not so fortunate to be as, well, good as Bosh, “softness” just festers, leading to gross overreactions to prove the possession of male genitalia or post-retirement flurries about the softness of some team that actually still plays basketball. In sports, machismo rules all, and in a sport where most of that magical trait has to be displayed through hand gestures after made shots and chest-puffery, it has led to a mostly useless term intended to mock those without the requisite amount of said machismo, even the best of players. And Dirk Nowitzki is most certainly among the best of players.

Throughout his remarkably stable career, one of the most consistent knocks on Nowitzki has been, and continues to be, the Charmin-like-softness of his particular game. A 7-footer who shoots jumpers (spectacularly well) and plays mostly on the perimeter (where he is most effective and tremendously dangerous to opponents), Dirk has consistently tried to make headway with the unfair tag plastered across his immense German frame, but despite improvements in rebounding (and even defense), All-NBA selections and a freaking MVP award, the sweet-shooting big fella cannot escape the concept. At this point, the word has come to define him, and his teams, almost as much as his wicked jumpshot or hilariously foreign-looking hairstyles (high five for xenophobia!).

The injustice committed along the way, disrespecting Nowitzki’s unparalleled abilities, could not be graver. Instead of attaining the cult status that LeBron and Kobe did as one-man-shows (admittedly, Kobe’s did seem to arrive posthumously as the new, “mature” Kobe Bryant collected his championships), Nowitzki found himself routinely chided for not bringing teams with second-best players like Jason Terry, Michael Finley and Josh Howard to the promised land, all the while posting some of the more ridiculous shooting percentages for a jumpshooter of this era of professional basketball. There have not just been moments of transcendence for Dirk, either; over the last decade, seemingly no other star has so consistently carried teams to stellar seasons with0ut the proper complementary pieces. LeBron only kept up his team’s brilliance for a couple of years before taking his… skills to Miami. Wade and Bryant were mired in years of mediocrity between the banner years, and Duncan and Shaq always, always had the help. Nowitzki himself has been the main cog in a few great ensembles, although the only Hall-of-Fame candidate with whom he ever played would have been laughed off of anyone’s ballot when he was an actual teammate of Dirk’s, but the perception, or the benefit of the doubt, afforded to other stars of his ilk simply isn’t there.

In 2011, Nowitzki, despite his finest efforts this season, will confront his own “Groundhog Day” of matching up with some deceptively powerful lower seed and being bucked out of the playoffs that the Mavericks looked so prime to take over just months ago. He will elevate his game for the playoffs, as he mostly has throughout his career (outside of those six games in Oakland that made us all believe in the power of insanity that Golden State had firmly on its side). And his teammates will likely fail him, unable to provide the dynamic, lockdown defense that made the Mavs so dangerous earlier in the year. Or maybe unable to score as efficiently in seven games where the opposing team is fully cognizant of the Mavs’ depth and weapons (basically, no one will be getting blindsided by Roddy Beaubois). Or simply not be as good as the fiercely determined Portland Trailblazers or the ineffably large Memphis Grizzlies. No matter these circumstances, Dirk will be blamed, blamed for his “softness”, for his inability to “will” his team to wins, for being white and being a jumpshooter and playing his game that has made him so great for so long. Unless something other than the expected takes place, Dirk Nowitzki will be damned.

Post up, push until the defender gets out of defensive position while trying to take away the post-up, spin off, fade away and shoot (with an arc so high that every made bucket seems like a one-off surprise). We’ve seen his moves, lots of times. We as basketball heads have all yelled at him at some point to bring those defenders deeper into the paint, to stop settling for (ridiculously efficient) fadeaway jumpshots. And if we’ve been watching long enough to figure out what he’s going to do, we’ve been watching long enough to figure out that it works. That Dirk Nowitzki’s version of winning basketball may not coincide with the pre-written narratives we’ve established of what “winning basketball” means, but no one cares because his peculiar set of moves continue to produce. We’ve learned that to be effective, one does not have to fit oneself into the established order of good in basketball, that even a “soft” German who does not play defense very well and takes a lot of shots in places he ostensibly shouldn’t can be one of the greatest basketball players of his generation. With all sincerity, I hope we’ve learned exactly how little we allow ourselves to enjoy greatness if it doesn’t look like the greatness we wanted.

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