Nowitzki finally delivers as Dallas see off Miami to fulfil dream
AMERICA'S National Basketball Association has a new European superstar.
Correction -- the NBA has a European superstar who has been around seemingly forever, but who has never managed to deliver when it mattered most.
Now, however, Dirk Nowitzki, long the franchise player for the Dallas Mavericks, has delivered -- and no longer is he merely the most famous sporting son of the ancient Bavarian city of Wurzburg.
On Sunday night Nowitzki led the Mavericks to their first national basketball championship, after a six-game demolition of the supposedly invincible Miami Heat. As a result, he is beyond doubt the most celebrated and most popular European athlete currently plying his trade in north America.
The 2011 NBA finals are likely to be remembered as among the best in decades, a fact reflected in television ratings up 20pc on the year before.
Part of that reflected the games themselves, almost every one a tight affair in which the lead constantly changed hands, full of late drama.
Then there was the broader storyline, of the underdog veterans from Dallas against basketball's 'Hollywood' team of South Beach mercenaries, built around the preening threesome of Dwayne Wade, Chris Bosh and LeBron James -- the last named generally accepted as the game's finest current player, but who earned infamy when he left the Cleveland Cavaliers in a departure he announced live on national television.
The Cavaliers branded him a traitor and so, it seemed, did most Americans.
How sweet, therefore, to see the ungrateful 'King James' get his comeuppance.
In fact, what happened was less soap-opera and more about the simple fact that Dallas were simply a better team in every department.
And over the series, no one contributed more than Nowitzki. He's a 13-season veteran and 10-time All Star about to turn 33 -- on the old side for a basketball star.
Right now though, he's performing better than ever. If he has a flaw in his game, it is a lack of defence, but lethal shooting skills, combined with exceptional strength on the drive, can make him all but unplayable.
"Dirk Nowitzki is one of the very greatest players in the history of this game," Mavericks head coach Rick Carlisle said after the Heat had been finally dispatched.
Carlisle might be expected to say that, but neutrals are no less impressed.
If you want to guard Nowitzki, former NBA titan-turned-TV commentator Charles Barkley has remarked, "get a cigarette and a blindfold."
The NBA has had big European stars before: Tony Kukoc for instance, a member of the all-conquering, Michael Jordan-led Chicago Bulls of the late 1990s, for instance, or Arvydas Sabonis, the great Lithuanian who played for the Portland Trailblazers.
But none has been quite the marquee player Nowitzki has been for Dallas. In becoming one, moreover, he had to lay some preconceptions to rest.
European players, it was said, might be talented. But they were unable to handle the grind and physicality of the 82-game, six-month NBA regular season, and the likelihood of 20-plus more games if a championship was to be brought home. The Mavericks' experience in 2006 only seemed to confirm this thesis.
Then as now, Nowitzki and Dallas were facing Miami in the finals. The Mavericks led 2-0, only to collapse and lose the next four games, cementing his reputation as a choker.
"Basically, I got hammered the last 13 years," he told reporters before game six.
"So hopefully this year I can make the hammering go away."
Mission accomplished. Nowitzki, who was named most valuable player of the 2011 finals, is the first European player to anchor a championship team.
By his own exalted standards, Sunday was not one of Nowitzki's greatest nights. For much of the game, he seemed tentative.
"I couldn't get into a rhythm, but the team carried me," he said after the game, speaking with the very faintest trace of a German accent.
But this time he delivered when it mattered most. Ten of his 21 points came in the final quarter, as he made five of his last eight shots, compared with just four of his first 19, as the Mavericks completed the decisive 105-95 victory.
Throughout the four rounds of play-offs, Nowitzki proved that he now possesses that most priceless gift in sport: the ability to play "in the clutch", to perform in critical situations when the pressure is highest.
He also laid to rest suggestions that he was a whiner, who complained at injuries that real men would play through without a murmur. (© Independent News Service)