Finals MVP Nowitzki still battling stereotypes

DALLAS — Dirk Nowitzki and I were talking criticism recently — specifically judgments based on ethnic stereotypes — when we had a tense misunderstanding.

I was talking past tense. He was talking present.

“I have heard that all along,” he said, “and still people call me soft to this day.”

“Wait, what?” I said. “I was talking about the criticism when you first came into the league, and how stereotype-based it was.”

“Oh, early on you mean,” he said. “I thought you were talking about what people were saying this season.”

“Yeah, there was that too,” I said. “This is crazy.”

This was an actual conversation between Dirk and me. The context was New York Knicks phenomenon Jeremy Lin and what constitutes fair criticism and what slips into unfair cultural stereotypes. Dirk listened to plenty of “White guy can’t lead” and “Soft Euro” criticisms on his way through the NBA.  

A few were fair, but none of those were a result of him being white or from Germany.

Dirk finally dismantled every bit of that nonsense in June, by outdueling LeBron and Co. in the NBA Finals. And what he demonstrated is the questions rarely go away, just change.

Here is a former league MVP, reigning NBA champion, and NBA Finals MVP who hoisted his Mavericks teammates on his back to beat what was supposed to be an unstoppable Miami Heat team last summer. Yet, by December, Dirk was taking on waves of criticism for:

a) Getting his butt kicked by Father Time, his best days thereby done.
b) Being lazy and out of shape with a bleep-it attitude.

a) Having lost a status he had only finally earned in June — a winner.

TNT analyst Charles Barkley said the part about old and done to my man and former Fort Worth Star-Telegram colleague, Randy Galloway, on his radio show. Coming from Sir Charles lent it credence.

“Dirk’s getting old, bro. . . . Father Time is catching up with him,” Barkley told Galloway. “That’s the way it happens, you drop off the face of the Earth. His days of being the man are over.”

I usually love a good knee-jerk reaction — especially from Barkley, who is willing to drop truth on anybody and everybody. He has no sacred cows. He rarely sugar coats. He neglected to mention a couple of extenuating circumstances with Dirk, though.

Dirk was hurt earlier this season. And exhausted.

Hoisting JJ Barea and DeShawn Stevenson on your back and beating LeBron James and Dwyane Wade is grueling, and apparently not good for your knee. The very medical term for what Dirk had was swelling. His knee was swollen — from playing deep into June, from playing for Germany in the European Championships in late summer, from the season sneaking up on him and everybody else, from the lack of a real training camp.

The thing is, Dirk has earned the benefit of the doubt by spending so many of his waking hours playing and practicing basketball. Even in his worst moments, when his critics (including D-Wade) were attacking his leadership or ability to finish or win a championship, nobody could contend that he was not working his butt off or putting in the work. That guy deserved a pass. Yet, even in the friendly confines of the Dallas media, Dirk had to listen to talk of him hitting “the Kevin Garnett wall” and Galloway dropping the “lazy, out of shape, bleep-it attitude” charge on him.

“I think ultimately the lockout year didn’t help me,” Dirk said. “The uncertainty of ‘Are we going to have a season?’ We can’t work out. We didn’t have a long training camp. I think some of that stuff came back to hurt me.”

What has happened since is predictable for anybody even remotely familiar with Dirk’s work.

He has been good, really good. As a result, a Mavs team left for sports dead only weeks ago has been playing good ball — partially obscured by Linsanity— with a chance to be a better second-half team and a playoff contender. At 21-12, the Mavericks have the third-best record in the Western Conference headed into Wednesday’s game against the Lakers. And on Monday, with Barkley and Co. watching on TNT, Dirk had a 26-point, 16-rebound performance in a victory over the Celtics— a reminder that, just like a year ago, Dirk gives this team a chance.

He is not done. He is just cranking back up.

In fact, when we talked, I screwed up by guesstimating he was at “what, 80 percent, right?”

“One hundred,” he said with a laugh. “I knew, ultimately, once my legs came back and my wind came back, I was going to be OK. I feel fine now.”

And the criticism did not hurt him. If anything, it helped him. As Dirk himself noted, it “has been with me all the way. The championship was always the hurdle I was missing and now I’m over that and (the criticism) is still there.”

Criticism is part of sports. Dirk knows this. I do it for a living.

What I came to ask Dirk is why the cultural stereotype stuff still seems to be fair game. He shrugged at the question.

“I think every Euro that comes out of there and likes to shoot jumpers is automatically soft,” Dirk said. “That is just what you are; that comes with the territory.”

So why is it OK to say that? Isn’t that insensitive?

“Honestly, you can’t worry about that too much,” Dirk said. “I try to do my own thing, work hard, get better from last season and try to be a better player. That was really all I was worried about; the other stuff was stuff somebody else was worried about.”

So the lesson in this for Jeremy Lin is not to worry. One day they will criticize you for things that have nothing to do with cultural stereotypes.