Love hurts

This column appears in the January 25 issue of ESPN The Magazine.

Dirk Nowitzki's track pants are riding a little high as he works the court at Mavs practice, his
socks in clear view, unruly Keith Urban hair held fast by the sweatband
haloing his forehead -- traces of his Euro roots, even now,
a dozen years into the NBA. He playfully trash-talks with teammates, running a joke into
the ground, as is his habit. The clowning interferes little with his focus.
He nails his shots, every basket low-hanging fruit, grinning as the net
snaps. "Oh, yeah," he booms in his deep baritone, wide smile showing rabbity

Rick Carlisle watches the face of his franchise race around, chasing stray
balls, a Labrador let loose. "Dirk lives the game," the coach says, nodding
in approval. "Since age 13, everything he does in his life is and has been
geared toward being the best basketball player he can be. And the thing that
you love about Dirk is that he loves living that life." The "life" Carlisle
refers to does not involve diamond-encrusted stereo speakers, salacious
cocktail waitresses or painkiller addictions that conveniently explain a
proclivity for diamond encrusting and cocktail waitresses. No, the life for
Nowitzki -- All-Star, NBA MVP, future Hall of Famer -- is and has always been
only about basketball. "He's not flashy," says Mavs head trainer Casey
Smith. "He's not conspicuously spending money. Or hanging with high-profile
friends. He's not after every dollar he can get. It isn't interesting to

As such, Nowitzki has no slick agent or publicist, no signature fragrance or
designer-jeans line. He has very few endorsements -- almost all in Germany -- not
because he can't get offers but because he chooses to stop short of making
himself a brand. He isn't selling anything but game, and a fairly vanilla
game at that. "I'm not going to jump over two guys and dunk it or stare or
muscle you down," he says of his style, which is quiet, quick and coolly
efficient. Even a recent collision with the grill of Houston's Carl Landry,
which resulted in five busted teeth for Landry and three stitches for
Nowitzki, was more about what typically happens when
elbow meets enamel than any badassery.

Nowitzki is old-school, a workhorse. He does drills, push-ups on fingertips,
late-night shooting practice. And his commute is always the same. Drive
directly to the arena, then back home, a well-worn groove of enthusiastic
compliance. He avoids red meat and dairy. He does not drink or smoke or
invite girls up to his hotel room. He has no swag. For the most part, his
idea of fun is to stay home and read. Or watch basketball. (He does insist
that he raps -- in German -- and dances; "I'm good," he says, an assertion
teammates dismiss with eye rolls.) He is the Taylor Swift of the NBA. Which
is why it was all the more startling when, last May, the media released a
mug shot of Nowitzki's then-fiancée, Cristal Taylor, along with a report
that the woman was a small-time con artist with a history of seducing
wealthy men. She was wanted in two states. Nowitzki, it turns out, was a
target. "I usually do a good job of keeping my private life out of the
media," Nowitzki says with clear lament.