Milwaukee — Over an hour before the Dallas Mavericks took on the Milwaukee Bucks on Friday night, a jovial Dirk Nowitzki took a break from his comprehensive pre-game routine to joke with fellow big man Salah Mejri. "Stop shooting before you take all the paint off the rim," Nowitzki cracked, before telling all the rebounders they should cover their heads when he shoots.
In an alternate universe, right there in the Bradley Center is where Nowitzki would have spent his 20-year career. But, of course, instead of keeping Dirk after selecting him ninth 9 overall back in the 1998 NBA Draft, the Bucks dealt him to the Mavs for Robert "Tractor" Traylor — a move that obviously did not age well.
Regardless, that he was on the floor warming up to play a game in his 20th season is not something the Bucks nor the Mavericks could have foreseen back in 1998. But there he was, going through his pre-game drills with the same enthusiasm as if it was Day One, smiling and joking with his teammates in between his awkward-looking jumpers.
It was, as Nowitzki's long-time teammate J.J. Barea pointed out, a testament to how much he loves the game. "I've known him for a while now, so I'm used to seeing him work. It's crazy," Barea told CBS Sports after the Mavericks' 109-102 loss. "It's crazy what he's gotta do to be out here with us, so you gotta give him a lot of credit. That's how much he loves the game."
But more than that, it was just a joy to watch. It's a rare and beautiful sight to watch someone who has been at the top of their craft for so long still put in the necessary work to get out there and compete — and to do it with a smile on their face. Nowitzki is no longer the player he once was, but you could never tell it from his attitude.
Of course, you can tell it when the game begins. Always awkward, Nowitzki's movements are much more methodical now. But even as he nears 40 years old, Nowitzki is still helping his team, both on and off the floor.
"Even though he's not the Dirk of when he was younger, he's still a great shooter, he still draws attention," Devin Harris, another of Nowitzki's long-time teammates, told CBS Sports after the game. "You know people still pay attention to him when he's out there, so it helps us offensively with spacing."
And there's good reason for opponents to still pay attention to Nowitzki. Through the first 26 games of the season, he's knocking down a career-high 42.1 percent of his 3-point attempts. Plus, as the Bucks' Thon Makerexplained, he's still teaching people lessons.
Recounting a story from last season — when he was a rookie — Maker told about the time he got burned by the legend the first time he faced him. Knowing Nowitzki isn't as mobile as he once was, Maker said he kept straying too far from the big man on help defense, thinking he could recover in time. Unfortunately for him, he said Nowitzki made him pay by knocking down a bunch of jumpers. "He couldn't miss," Maker said. "And everybody was like, 'because that's Dirk!' After that, I learned my lesson."
Maker isn't the first youngster to learn a lesson from Nowitzki, and he won't be the last — no matter how much longer Nowitzki plays, which hopefully will be beyond this season. Few players have been as fun to watch as Nowitzki throughout his career, and even if he isn't who he once was, the NBA is better place with the big German around.
"He's great. He's a total pro. He loves the game, loves to compete, loves to play with his teammates. He makes everybody better," Barea reflected. "So as long as he has all those qualities, he can keep playing."