I love Dirk Nowitzki. This you must understand before you read another word.
I love his game, especially the way he tortures smaller defenders with his ability to shoot over them with accuracy from virtually anywhere on the floor, and bigger defenders with his ability to maneuver around them and score inside. I love his humble attitude and his dedication to his craft, and the truth is that I’m rooting for him to win his first championship as the NBA’s version of the Final Four marches on.
Yes, I believe the Dallas Mavericks’ star to be one of the most uniquely dominant players of his era, whether he wins a title or not.
It’s important to make that point clear before I channel former Senator Lloyd Bentsen in the 1988 vice presidential debate against Dan Quayle, in my response to the trendy argument that Dirk has somehow ascended to a higher rung on the ladder of all-time NBA greats than the incomparable Larry Bird:
“Dirk, I was a fan of Larry Bird. I watched Larry Bird. Larry Bird was an inspiration of mine. Dirk, you are no Larry Bird.”
(I wonder if Quayle can still taste that, 23 years later?)
As Nowitzki continues to dominate in the Western Conference playoffs, the Bird comparisons were inevitable.
Now they need to stop.
Dirk fans are emboldened by the fact that Nowitzki just passed Larry Legend on the NBA’s all-time scoring chart in December. They see their identical 23 PPG career scoring averages in 13 NBA seasons, and their reputations as two of the best pure shooters the game has ever seen, and think they’re seeing two of a kind.
The truth is, however, that Bird’s value and greatness as an NBA player can never be measured by simple statistics — even though he has a significant edge in nearly all of them when compared to Dirk. Indeed, Larry’s career 10 rebounds per game to Dirk’s 8.4, and his 6.3 assists per night to Dirk’s 2.7 only tell part of the story.
It is Bird’s collection of three championship rings to Dirk’s zero that truly sets them apart; especially when the roles each has played in championship chases are considered.
Dirk has been noted for failing to lead his team to greater glory in multiple playoff opportunities, while Bird will forever be known as one of the great leaders in history. His tremendous talent was matched only by his work ethic and his ability to lift his teammates to performances far above their pay grades.
In the interest of full disclosure, I should also point out that my respect for Bird’s phenomenal career came, sadly, long after he retired. When he was actually performing at his historically high level in the ’80s, I was too busy disliking him to appreciate him.
You see, there was no middle ground on which to stand in a decade’s worth of epic East Coast-West Coast wars with Magic Johnson’s Los Angeles Lakers. You were with either the Celtics or the Lakers; never both.
For me, it was no contest. I loved “Showtime” in L.A., with Magic, Wilkes, Worthy, Scott, Cooper and, of course, Kareem.
Boston? I hated Bird and Kevin McHale, Danny Ainge and Jerry Sichting, Robert Parish and Dennis Johnson. And M.L. Carr’s towel. I hated that towel.
My disdain for the Celtics truly robbed me of the appreciation I should have had for Bird while watching him live, but I’ve had many years as a wiser fan to study him. And the one concrete conclusion I have come to after those years of study is that there will never be another forward like Larry Bird.
Not even you, Dirk.
Now, go win a ring.
Bob Frantz is a freelance journalist and regular contributor to The Examiner. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.