OAKLAND, Calif. — The fans at Oracle Arena expressed their appreciation for Dirk Nowitzki, an opponent who will always be linked with the building the Golden State Warriors are leaving after this season, throughout the 21-year veteran’s final appearance in the arena Saturday night.
That included a standing ovation before the beginning of the second quarter, with an assist from his former Dallas Mavericks teammate Steve Nash, now a consultant for the Warriors.
The Warriors have occasionally celebrated the Oracle’s history during breaks in play throughout the season, and as part of that, the in-house MC asked Nash about his favorite memory in the arena. It was a way to honor Nowitzki while being respectful of the fact that he has not announced plans to retire at the end of this season.
“My all-time favorite Oracle moment was back in ’99 when my buddy Dirk Nowitzki scored his first career bucket here,” Nash said, having just witnessed Nowitzki swish his first four shots from the floor in a 10-point first quarter. “Since then, he’s got 31,000 career points. And I think he’s having a flashback, so we might want to guard him tonight.”
The Warriors never managed to cool off Nowitzki, as the 21-year veteran scored a season-high 21 points to help the Mavs roll to a 126-91 rout of the two-time defending champions.
It was a sweet finale for Nowitzki in an arena where he experienced arguably the lowest point of his career, when the 67-win Mavericks became the first No. 1 seed to be knocked out in the first round of a best-of-7 series, getting eliminated by the “We Believe” Warriors in six games in 2007.
The hole high on a wall outside the visitor’s locker room, created by Nowitzki in a fit of rage after that game, has become such a part of the Golden State’s franchise’s lore that there are plans to cut out that section of the wall and move it to the sparkling new Chase Center that will open in San Francisco next season. A piece of plexiglass autographed by Nowitzki, years later, after he led the Mavs to the 2011 championship, covers the hole with a bright yellow “We Believe” T-shirt tacked on the wall above it.
Dirk’s final walk past his famous hole in the Oracle wall: pic.twitter.com/m16NQz1eDI
— Tim MacMahon (@espn_macmahon) March 24, 2019
“It’s bittersweet,” said Nowitzki, who tossed either a chair or a trash can into the wall, although nobody recalls for certain which. “It’s a great thing to have something in an opposing arena, but also a great memory for them and not so much for me. But there’s nothing I can do about it now but embrace it.
“It was part of my career, part of my history. I always say without these [playoff] losses in ’06 and ’07 back to back, I wouldn’t have been the player I was in ’11 to close the whole deal. This is part of my journey. It was brutal and tough to go through, but I grew from it a lot.”
Guard Devin Harris, the only other player on the Mavs’ current roster who was on the team that lost to the Warriors in the 2007 playoffs, doesn’t quite feel the same sense of nostalgia.
“Don’t bring it up. No, don’t. Don’t,” Harris said, somewhat playfully cutting off a question. “It’s hard enough walking past this locker room every time and looking at that damn sign. The fact that everybody wants to talk about it just makes it worse. There’s nothing positive about it.”
Nowitzki ensured that the playoff loss to the Warriors, as well as Dallas’ collapse in the NBA Finals the previous season, would go down as footnotes to his career instead of the defining moments by leading the Mavs to a title as the team’s lone All-Star four seasons later.
But that hole, with his signature, in some ways serves as a fitting symbol to the sixth-leading scorer in NBA history’s legacy as one of the most humble superstars to ever play the game.
“Not many superstars would sign that thing the way he signed it,” Mavs coach Rick Carlisle said before the game. “That gives you a good study of what he’s all about. Just being a good sport and allowing somebody else to have a moment like that and giving a nod of respect to it even though that was a very painful situation.”
Warriors coach Steve Kerr raved about the unique combination of humility and historic impact possessed by Nowitzki, who has received organic tributes in arenas throughout the league during what is being treated as his unofficial farewell tour.
“Dirk is just one of those guys that everybody loves,” Kerr said before the game. “I don’t think you can find anybody in the league who doesn’t love Dirk because not only is he a great player, but how he carries himself and [has] a tremendous, self-deprecating sense of humor. He loves the game, loves to play. You don’t play for 21 years unless you love the game.”
Yet Nowitzki acknowledges that this 21st season, marred by a painfully slow and difficult recovery from spring ankle surgery, “has been frustrating a lot more than it’s been enjoyable.” Saturday night certainly fell in the latter category.
It took just more than a minute for Nowitzki to match his field goal total from the 2007 Game 6 nightmare, as he swished a 22-footer and a 3-pointer on the Mavs’ first two possessions.
“I wouldn’t say prime Dirk,” Nowitzki said when asked about his groove to open the game. “That’s long gone, but in warmup I had a good shooting rhythm. The first play was called for me, so I knew if there was any daylight, that thing was going up and it was going in.”
Nowitzki knocked down another 3 and a midrange turnaround to put him in double digits — and the Warriors behind by 12 points — three minutes and 29 seconds into the game. The Oracle crowd gave Nowitzki a standing ovation when he checked out for his first break of the night seconds later.
Many of those fans had exited before the fourth quarter, not wanting to watch until the end of a stunning blowout loss for the Warriors, but those who stayed gave Nowitzki one final standing ovation when he checked out for the final time with 4:41 remaining.
“This has always been a fun building,” Nowitzki said. “If their team is good or not, their support here has always been phenomenal and a fun atmosphere here to play. I’ll always remember this building unfortunately with my MVP season [in 2006-07], but also a lot of great memories. My first basket was in this building, so I’m going to for sure miss it.”
“Has Dirk retired yet? I feel like everybody pushing him out the league,” Durant said. “So I’ll wait ’til he makes his official announcement to really comment on that, but he looks great. He looked great tonight.”