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

DALLAS – When he returns to his basketball home, Dirk Nowitzki turns right onto the street named after him and looks shyly at the inevitable 24-foot statue of him as he shoots that classic one-legged fadeaway. He parks, walks into the American Airlines Center and takes a modest look 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 NBA’s greatest Maverick and quintessential international superstar, is just 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 kid standing over 7 feet tall and with a diverse set of skills that teams now covet. But by 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 facing a new reality: a foreign-born franchise player who is the most valuable asset in the NBA.

When the full NBA roster is announced, international stars will make up the majority of the first team for the fourth straight season. It is 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 the United States. . It’s also a certainty that the man who lifts the MVP trophy will symbolize the globalization of the sport for the sixth season in a row. And soon Victor Wembanyama will really feel comfortable.

Over the course of a quarter century, these players have gone from novelty to fascination to essential. Mostly, we look at them through a red, white and blue lens and wonder what it means for them and their countries to succeed in America. But here’s a better question: What does it mean for an NBA team to have such a global superstar? How can you understand – let alone measure – the benefits of a player importing global interest into a league that works hard to export the passion for its product?

I spent much of the regular season answering 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 implementing strategies that mirror the efforts of the league office and many teams in the NBA.

Nowitzki and Doncic overlapped for one season, allowing for a fairly seamless transition from one European phenomenon to another. Nowitzki became the Mavericks’ best player in 2000, his third NBA season. Doncic, mature beyond 25, immediately became the man. Put them together and the Mavericks have had 24 seasons with an international face of the franchise. In that period they made the play-offs 19 times. They have won at least 50 games 14 times. Before that, the team had played 20 seasons and made only six playoff appearances.

The Mavericks were once a mandatory team, necessary to represent a large market, but for the most part a competitive afterthought. Now they are a respected brand in an expanded basketball world. Their global scouting has long been a strength, dating back to the days when Donnie Nelson ran basketball operations. Nico Harrison, current CEO and former CEO of Nike, has not given up on the approach. The current roster consists of eight players born outside the United States.

“Where I’ve seen the biggest change in the NBA is that teams, players and fans don’t care where the players come from,” said Kim Bohuny, the NBA’s longtime head of international basketball operations. “In the beginning there was a feeling that this is an American game, that all the best players come from America, and that should remain that way. I saw it change. I have seen the evolution and I think it is wonderful where we are now.”

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

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

“We ran out there, played a quick HORSE, shot a couple threes, and then the next play started,” Nowitzki said. “I’m like, ‘Okay, we’re in the NBA. This is not right.’ Yes, the franchise has come a long, long way. But actually the entire NBA has that.”

Doncic benefits from the evolution, but he is also here to enhance 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 and influences everything with his deliberate style. Nowitzki’s name fits right in between Michael Jordan and Wilt Chamberlain at No. 6 on the all-time list. But he was a power forward who didn’t initiate, facilitate and finish the game in the same way Doncic does.

“There really isn’t a hole in his offensive game,” Nowitzki said.

Nowitzki became an analyst.

“He can go both ways, 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 win the league led in scoring. “He has that step back that you have to play for. Once you sit on his shoulder, you are at his mercy. He’s so strong that he just pushes you back. He’s got the interludes, the floats, things like that. He can post you. He has mastered all the movements: the ups and unders, the turnarounds. … He even shoots the one-layer. You really can’t hold this kid down in a one-on-one situation. That’s how good he’s become.

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

In his sixth season, Doncic is still in the joy phase of his NBA career. He has always been keen to win, but the pressure to do so is not as high as it will be soon. The Mavericks have done well with Doncic. On Sunday, they will begin a first-round playoff series against the Los Angeles Clippers as the 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 from two years ago. The Mavericks now have more athleticism and defensive versatility, especially after a pair of trade deadline moves to add big men Daniel Gafford and PJ Washington. The acquisition of Kyrie Irving last year gave them an efficient, high-scoring veteran complement to Doncic.

The process of putting together the right team around Doncic has required dedication and tinkering. That includes the franchise’s efforts to maximize global interest in a player who has been in the public eye since turning pro at age 16. Before the NBA, he played in the EuroLeague for Real Madrid. When Doncic joined the Mavericks, the organization quickly discovered that he was big in Slovenia, Spain and across Europe.

Becca Genecov, the franchise’s social media manager, has helped improve the Mavericks’ various accounts. They are now among the best in the NBA at fan engagement. Doncic’s popularity creates what she gleefully describes as “absolute madness.” His 73-point game against the Atlanta Hawks in January generated the second-highest social engagement of the season, behind 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 as he scored the fourth most points in league history.

He has a rare charisma that the Mavericks are eager to accentuate. During interviews he is quieter than a young Nowitzki. He answers many initial questions with the shortest sentence possible, and when asked a follow-up question he may talk for ten seconds. But in informal situations his personality shines through. On the field, his behavior consists of fiery banter with the officials and hilarious facial expressions and gestures.

“He just has so much fun playing,” Genecov said. “This man is just a child. They don’t call him ‘Luka Magic’ for nothing. People are addicted to that. In this sport, some people take themselves too seriously, but not him. It is contagious.”

During a home game against the Boston Celtics in January, 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 large-scale events. The NBA now has offices in 17 markets around the world, and this year’s season opener featured a record 125 international players from 40 countries. The goal isn’t just to make these players feel welcome. It’s about respecting and working with people who represent cultures that enrich the NBA.

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

“I heard about this boy when he was little – maybe 13 years old – in Slovenia. He was a pretty cool wonder at that time,” Mirosic said of Doncic. ‘Look at him now. He is the largest Slovenian brand in the United States. There is no doubt about that.”

And the Mavericks are such a big brand in Slovenia that Connor Terry, their corporate sales executive, was stunned when he visited five years ago. He thought he had been invited to some 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 wasn’t prepared for the enthusiasm there.”

When Mirosic met Cuban at the game in January, they talked about working together.

“It’s not just 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 poorly,” Doncic said. “I missed a lot of layups. I guess it wasn’t my night.”

Four nights later he scored 73.

As the first international face of a franchise for the NBA, Nowitzki propelled the Mavericks to global relevance. Doncic might be able to take them further.