From Dirk Nowitzki to Luka Doncic, the Mavs are a global phenomenon

DALLAS — When he comes back to his basketball home, Dirk Nowitzki makes a right turn onto the street named after him and takes a bashful look at the unavoidable 24-foot statue of him shooting that classic one-legged fadeaway. He parks, walks into American Airlines Center and glances modestly at his basketball life’s work: the 2011 NBA championship banner, his No. 41 hanging in the rafters. Finally, as he watches the current Dallas Mavericks, he allows himself to marvel.

Nowitzki, the greatest Maverick and the quintessential NBA international superstar, is like the rest of us. He can’t take his eyes off Luka Doncic.

“This kid is something else,” Nowitzki said, shaking his head.

Twenty-six years ago, Nowitzki arrived in Dallas from Würzburg, Germany, as a shy 20-year-old standing 7 feet tall and possessing a diverse package of skills that teams now covet. But in 1998, he was more mystery than certainty, and the Mavericks had suffered eight straight losing seasons. A generation later, he’s a Hall of Famer looking at a new reality: a foreign-born franchise player who is the most valuable commodity in the NBA.

When the all-NBA team is announced, international stars will make up the majority of the first team for the fourth straight season. It figures to be the second season in a row that four of the top five players — Doncic (Slovenia), Nikola Jokic (Serbia), Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (Canada) and Giannis Antetokounmpo (Greece) — grew up outside of the United States. It’s also a lock that, for the sixth straight season, the man hoisting the MVP trophy will symbolize the sport’s globalization. And soon Victor Wembanyama will get really comfortable.

Over a quarter century, these players have advanced from novelty to fascination to essential. Most of the time, we look at them through a red-white-and-blue lens, wondering what it means to them and their countries to succeed in America. But here’s a better question: What does it mean to an NBA team to have this kind of global superstar? How do you comprehend — let alone measure — the benefits of a player who imports worldwide interest to a league working hard to export passion for its product?

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I spent much of the regular season trying to answer those questions. The Mavericks were an ideal team to study because they have been on this mission since Nowitzki landed in Texas, learning from their experiences and employing strategies that reflect the efforts of the league office and many teams in the NBA.

Nowitzki and Doncic overlapped for one season, enabling a rather seamless transition from one European phenomenon to the next. Nowitzki became the Mavericks’ best player in 2000, his third NBA season. Doncic, mature beyond his 25 years, became the guy immediately. Put them together, and the Mavericks have had 24 seasons with an international face of the franchise. They have made the playoffs 19 times in that span. They have won at least 50 games 14 times. Before that, the team had played 20 seasons and made just six playoff appearances.

The Mavericks were once an obligatory team, necessary to represent a big market but a competitive afterthought for the most part. Now they’re a respected brand in an expansive basketball world. Their global scouting has long been a strength, going back to when Donnie Nelson ran basketball operations. Nico Harrison, the current general manager and a former Nike executive, hasn’t abandoned the approach. The current roster features eight players born outside the United States.

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“Where I’ve seen the biggest change in the NBA is that teams, players and fan bases don’t care where the players are coming from,” said Kim Bohuny, the longtime NBA head of international basketball operations. “In the beginning, there was some sentiment that this is an American game, all the best players are from America, and it should stay that way. I witnessed it change. I’ve seen the evolution, and I think it’s wonderful where we are today.”

The Mavericks’ success coincides with the ownership tenure of Mark Cuban, who purchased a majority stake from Ross Perot Jr. in January 2000. While they were already set up well with a core of Nowitzki, Michael Finley and Steve Nash, Cuban invested in the franchise like never before, energizing the fan base and creating an unflagging ambition that remains even though he sold a controlling interest of the team a few months ago.

Nowitzki remembers how bad things used to be. The Mavericks didn’t have their own practice facility. They trained at a health club. He and Nash would want some extra practice time in the evenings, but they would have to wait for breaks in men’s rec league games.

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“We’d run out there, play a quick H-O-R-S-E, shoot a couple of threes, and then the next game would start,” Nowitzki said. “I’m like: ‘Okay, we’re in the NBA. This is not right.’ Yeah, the franchise has come a long, long way. But, really, the whole NBA has.”

Doncic is a beneficiary of the evolution, but he’s also here to amplify the growth of the game. Cuban and Nowitzki agree that Doncic is the best talent in team history. We can quibble about what the qualifications should be for the mythical title of “greatest Maverick,” but the crown doesn’t matter much to Nowitzki. He sees how Doncic, a point guard at 6-7, controls the offensive flow of the game, affecting everything with his deliberate style. Nowitzki’s name fits snugly between Michael Jordan and Wilt Chamberlain at No. 6 on the all-time scoring list. But he was a power forward who didn’t initiate, facilitate and finish plays in the same way Doncic does.

“In his offensive game, there’s really no hole,” Nowitzki said.

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Nowitzki turned into an analyst.

“He can take it both ways, with going right or left,” he said of Doncic, who averaged 33.9 points, 9.8 assists and 9.2 rebounds this season, becoming the first Dallas player to lead the league in scoring. “He’s got the step-back that you need to play for. Once you’re on his shoulder, you’re at his mercy. He’s so strong he just drives you back. He’s got the in-between game, the floaters, all that. He can post you up. He’s got all the moves on the block — the up-and-unders, the turnarounds. … He’s even shooting the one-legger. There is really no way you can stop this kid in a one-on-one situation. That’s how good he’s become.

“And the thing is, there are some good scorers, and if you trap them, you can kind of take them out of the game. But he’s such a good passer you have to be careful. You can’t just run people at him like crazy because he’s so smart with his passing. He’s got all the answers to the puzzle.”

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In his sixth season, Doncic is still in the joy phase of his NBA career. He has always burned to win, but the pressure to do so isn’t as high as it will be soon. The Mavericks have done well with Doncic. On Sunday, they begin a first-round playoff series against the Los Angeles Clippers as a No. 5 seed. They have qualified for the postseason in four of Doncic’s six seasons and made one deep run, advancing to the Western Conference finals in 2022. This slow-starting squad is similar to the team two years ago. The Mavericks have more athleticism and defensive versatility now, especially after a couple of trade-deadline moves to add big men Daniel Gafford and P.J. Washington. Last year’s acquisition of Kyrie Irving gave them an efficient, high-scoring veteran complement to Doncic.

The process to put the right team around Doncic has required diligence and tinkering. So does the franchise’s effort to maximize global interest in a player who has been in the public eye since he turned pro as a 16-year-old. Before the NBA, he played in the EuroLeague for Real Madrid. When Doncic came to the Mavericks, the organization learned quickly that he was huge in Slovenia, Spain and all of Europe.

Becca Genecov, the franchise’s social media manager, has helped improve the Mavericks’ various accounts. They now rank among the best in the NBA at engaging fans. The popularity of Doncic creates what she cheerfully describes as “absolute madness.” His 73-point game against the Atlanta Hawks in January provided the second-highest social engagement of the season, trailing only Irving’s ridiculous left-handed, game-winning hook shot against the Denver Nuggets. The buzzer-beater was on national television. Doncic seemingly came out of nowhere when he scored the fourth-most points in league history.

He has a rare charisma that the Mavericks enjoy figuring out how to accentuate. During interviews, he’s quieter than a young Nowitzki. He answers many initial questions with the shortest sentence possible, and when asked a follow-up, he might talk for 10 seconds. But in informal situations, his personality emerges. On the court, his demeanor includes fiery banter with the officials and hilarious facial expressions and gestures.

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“He just has so much fun playing,” Genecov said. “This guy is just a kid. They call him ‘Luka Magic’ for a reason. People are addicted to that. In this sport, some people take themselves too seriously, but he doesn’t. It’s contagious.”

During a January home game against the Boston Celtics, the Mavericks hosted their third annual Slovenian night. The NBA has grown from simply doing ticket promotions to accommodate fans of international players to celebrating the league’s diversity with full-blown events. The NBA now has offices in 17 markets around the world, and season-opening rosters this year featured a record 125 international players representing 40 countries. The goal isn’t just to make those players feel welcome. It’s to show respect for and collaborate with people representing cultures that enrich the NBA.

In Dallas, I Feel Slovenia Night included a visit from Iztok Mirosic, the Slovenian ambassador to the United States.

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“I started to hear about this kid when he was little — maybe 13 years old — in Slovenia. He was kind of a cool wonder at that time,” Mirosic said of Doncic. “Look at him now. He is the biggest Slovenian brand in the United States. No doubt about that one.”

And the Mavericks are such a big brand in Slovenia that Connor Terry, their corporate sales executive, was stunned five years ago when he visited. He thought he had been invited to have a few meetings. When he arrived, he realized he was a keynote speaker. He was also scheduled for a fireside chat.

“It was incredible,” Terry said. “I was not prepared for the enthusiasm over there.”

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When Mirosic met Cuban during that January game, they talked about collaboration.

“It’s not only big for Luka,” Cuban told him. “It’s big for the Mavericks.”

With a Slovenian contingent cheering from a suite and a Slovenian group called the Dunking Devils providing halftime entertainment, Doncic finished with a triple-double in a losing effort: 33 points, 18 rebounds and 13 assists.

“I played bad,” Doncic said. “Missed a lot of layups. I think it wasn’t my night.”

Four nights later, he scored 73.

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