Dirk Nowitzki strolled past the crowd of cameras saying “it’s like the NBA Finals” for what had all the appearances of his last arrival for a home game.
The Dallas Mavericks were making good on owner Mark Cuban’s promise to make a big deal about the final home game of Nowitzki’s record 21st season with the same franchise.
The 40-year-old has never said whether he’s retiring because he didn’t want a farewell tour. Dallas played Phoenix on Tuesday night, with a visit to San Antonio set to wrap up the season Wednesday. The Mavericks are missing the playoffs for the third straight season, the longest drought of Nowitzki’s career.
The 14-time All-Star was greeted by hundreds of team employees as he walked from his car to the arena. Dozens of cameras were waiting for the walk to the locker room.
Larger-than-life placards of Nowitzki’s face were perched on most of the roughly 20,000 seats at American Airlines Center, and a huge mural hung over one of the entrances to the arena.
“It’s hard to fathom how big it is if that is the case,” coach Rick Carlisle said, referring to the lingering question of whether this is it for Nowitzki. “I have no idea how emotional it’s going to be. But it will be emotional.”
Nowitzki, a few steps slower than in his prime and a role player on a team now led by rookie sensation and fellow European Luka Doncic, has been serenaded in every road arena. Some opposing fans chanted, “We want Dirk,” late in games with outcomes decided and Nowitzki on the bench.
He gave the home folks the thrill of passing Wilt Chamberlain to regain sixth on the career scoring list last month. Nowitzki reached that spot last season, but LeBron James passed him. Nowitzki, who led the Mavericks to their only championship in 2011, had 31,510 points with two games to go.
The NBA’s highest-scoring foreign-born player broke Kobe Bryant’s record of 20 seasons with the same franchise, although it took longer than expected because of setbacks following ankle surgery that sidelined Nowitzki for the first 26 games.
Bryant retired from the Lakers three years ago. It’s expected that Nowitzki will pass on joining former teammate Vince Carter, who has said he plans to return for a record 22nd season. Carter has played for eight teams.
If Nowitzki doesn’t return, the 20-year-old Doncic still will be able to say he spent a season with the player who changed the game as the first 7-footer who was a legitimate threat from the 3-point line.
“All the things he did for the NBA,” Doncic said. “Now every big fella trying to shoot the ball from 3. Dirk made it happen, and he deserves everything.”
Nowitzki will get showered with praise Tuesday night, whether he wants it or not.
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