After 21 seasons in the world's top basketball league, Dirk Nowitzki has left the court for the last time. He did so with a strong performance in the same city in which he first burst onto the global stage.
Chen Ying is begging for attention. The Chinese woman is standing with her boyfriend Xu Wei right behind one of the baskets at the AT&T Center in San Antonio. It's the basket that Dirk Nowitzkiand his Dallas Mavericks teammates are shooting at during the warmup.
Ying is far too polite to scream. Instead, she holds a banner above her head, which reads in German: "Lieber Dirk: vielen Dank, dass Sie von 13 bis 30 Jahre bei mir geblieben sind. Liebe aus China" (Dear Dirk: thank you for staying with me from 13 to 30 years. Love from China). Below that is a short request that Nowitzki had already ruled out fulfilling for her or any of his other fans: "One more year."
It's been almost 24 hours since Nowitzki announced at his last home game that he was calling time on his playing career. Ying and Wei were also in the American Airlines Center in Dallas one night earlier. They flew to Texas for Nowitzki's very last NBA game.
"I cried all night," says Ying, who has been following the German superstar's career for the past 17 years. Her hero had also shed a few tears the night before.
But now – on April 10, 2019 – he is the concentrated professional that he has always been. He arrives in the arena about 90 minutes before the opening tip off – first doing some stretching, then takes part in the warmup. He's getting ready for this game just the way he has for each one that preceded over the past two decades, but this evening in San Antonio is different, simply because it's his last.
Making it look effortless
As he plays the ball inbounds, many fans stand on the sidelines, watching closely, filming him and taking pictures. Nowitzki doesn't look like someone who will soon merely be watching the best basketball league in the world. His throws are rhythmic and round. He makes four shots in a row – first from outside on the left, a couple from more central positions, and then one from the right. He makes all of them look completely effortless.
When the Mavericks' starting five are introduced just before the start of the game, the arena is pretty quiet for the first four. But then it gets really loud – and emotional. Highlights from Nowitzki's career are played on the video cube above the court - including battles against Spurs greats Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker.
No Maverick caused San Antonio as much trouble since the turn of the millennium as Dallas' German with the number 41 on his back. But Nowitzki is so emotional, he can't even bring himself to look up to the video cube. Then he takes a deep breath and waves to the crowd and gets a standing ovation – just as he has gotten in so many other arenas this season.
'Home game' where it all began
The game begins. Each time he goes for a basket, a murmur goes through the crowd - and it immediately gets louder. This is partly due to the large number of Mavericks fans who have driven the 450 kilometers (280 miles) south on Highway 35 to get here from Dallas.
"It almost sounded like a home game," Nowitzki would say afterwards. When he scores his first couple of points, the San Antonio fans cheer almost as loudly as they would for the home side. This is despite the fact that this is anything but a nothing game for the hosts – a win would keep them in seventh place in the Western Conference, allowing them to avoid the defending champions, the Golden State Warriors in the first round of the playoffs.
This isn't lost on the Spurs defenders, who cover Nowitzki closely, giving little room to maneuver. He has to work hard for every basket. But he's never been one to ask for or give any quarter. Sometimes the Spurs even put two defenders on Nowitzki as soon as he gets the ball. Mavericks owner Mark Cuban calls this double coverage a "big compliment" for Nowitzki.
Going out with a double-double
With just 49 seconds left in the game, Nowitzki scores with a jump shot to make the score 105-92 in favor of San Antonio. These are the 31.559th and 31.560th points of his long career – and also the last for Dirk Werner Nowitzki, who bids farewell with a remarkable double-double of 20 points and 10 rebounds. Dallas lose 105-95, but the Mavericks fans couldn't care less.
There are hugs and displays of emotions. Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich, who has as much respect for Nowitzki as the German has for him, tells the retiring all-star that he will always be there for him and will never be farther away that the telephone.
Chants of "MVP" (most valuable player) echo from the stands and Nowitzki was one of the very best for the majority of his 21 NBA seasons. But the total of 1,667 competitive matches that he's played since February 5, 1999, have worn down his body. His left ankle, which was operated on a year ago, still isn't quite right, and when Nowitzki runs his motion is no longer fluid – it almost looks painful.
Now, he will have time for everything to heal. At 21:19 local time Nowitzki claps along with the fans and leaves the court to thunderous applause. In the locker room he grabs a beer and takes off his sweaty blue jersey one last time. A lot of other athletes make sure to keep the last jerseys they wore in their professional careers, framing them and hanging them up in their homes. Nowitzki though, throws all of his gear into the trash. His NBA career is finally over. An exceptional player has departed, but plenty of unforgettable memories remain.