I’ve got a Dirk story you need to hear.
It’s on my mind because of the Hall of Fame. Basketball memories have been flooding back. And the past few months, people have been coming up to me asking, How’re you feeling about being inducted? It’s hard to sum it all up. It’s a lot of emotions, right? We only get five minutes for the speech — putting a career in perspective in five minutes seems kind of impossible. But I think I’ve gotten it down to two words.
Yeah, man. Seriously. Sometimes I feel like I’m the Kevin Bacon of basketball. Six degrees of separation.
What I mean is, when I think back on my career, it’s like I’m watching all these different movies that I can’t believe I got to play different parts in. I was lucky to come into the NBA at this incredible moment. I caught the tail end of the Jordan era. I caught the prime of the Kobe/Shaq era. I caught the rise of LeBron’s domination. And then, in my last few years as a player and then as a coach, I caught the beginning of the Warriors’ era and the explosion of small ball. Each role I played on all these teams was a little different in its own way. They all shaped me.
Starting as a kid, I’ve always told myself to stay busy learning the game. As a rookie in Phoenix, I got to learn from Scott Brooks. A couple of years later, Steve Nash was the rookie backing me up. A few years after that, when I was playing for the Nets, those two were both guys I had to guard. As a kid, I’d always looked up to Gary Payton. He was a hometown legend in Oakland. It was crazy … one day I was a kid trying to hoop in the same park that he used to play in, and the next thing I knew was guarding him in the league and he’s whispering s*** in my ear trying to psych me out. All of those guys shaped my career in all sorts of ways.
Kevin Bacon, you know? It’s a heckuva family to feel so connected to.
O.K., the Dirk story. Ready? You ain’t ready.
I returned to Dallas in 2008, to the team that drafted me. By then it was Dirk’s team, without question. I was entering my fifteenth season, and one of the biggest lessons I’d learned along the way was to stay asking other guys for advice. To always try to keep learning and evolving your game. That season, coming into Dallas, I knew I wanted to improve my outside shot. Dirk was a three-point machine.
Before practice one day I went up to him.
“Dirk, man, teach me. What’s your secret to shooting?”
Dirk’s a low-key guy, right? That’s what people think. But listen, you don’t see half of what makes him the funny, crazy German genius that he is. What’s the word? Wunderkind. Yep, that thing. That’s Dirk. So Dirk proceeded to give me this really detailed, multipart lesson in shooting. It’s like I was in some basketball masterclass taught by a seven-footer with a buzz cut.
And I swear, Dirk’s advice — it was the wildest advice of my entire life. It made zero sense to me at the time, and yet it seemed to make all the sense in the world to Dirk.
Now, you’ve got to understand something — most NBA guys in the league are cool about you asking for advice but most of us aren’t experts at explaining in detail how we do what we do. But Dirk’s just Dirk — it was like he was waiting for me to ask. He started in, detail by detail.
Spacing your fingers just like this. Tuck your arm. Spread your feet like this. Release the ball like this.
It was all making sense. I was following along. That’s when he got this serious look on his face and said, “The key to shooting is, you have to breathe.”
“O.K., Dirk. Got it.”
“No. Through your eyes. Breathe through your eyes.”
BREATHE. THROUGH YOUR EYES??
I didn’t know how to respond. We kept shooting and Dirk was just kind of shaking his head at me. Maybe he was punking me? To this day, your guess is as good as mine.
It was one of those days you never forget.
To be real, though, I think it tells you a lot about Dirk. He was always in the gym. He approached basketball like a science. He’s was always staying humble. A great teammate. And man, on the court, Dirk’s a killer. It’s the kind of story that still makes me laugh. Because when it comes down to it, what I’ll miss most are experiences like that with teammates I admire.
A couple of seasons later, Dirk and I got our championship.
The 2011 Mavs, we were tough as nails. A ragtag group. Sometimes I call that team the NBA version of The Bad News Bears. We had Jason Terry, aka Benjamin Button. We had Tyson Chandler and Peja, and backing me up at point we had J.J Barea. We had Shawn Marion. We had a guy named Brian Cardinal, who we called “the Custodian.” He was a grinder. We just had a lot of veterans. I loved that group because we hustled. We enjoyed playing.
Nobody picked us to win the title that year. The Heat had LeBron, D-Wade, Chris Bosh — that first year together as the Big 3. We had the Bad News Bears. But that’s the thing, right? They had all the talent in the world, but they needed one more season to really get it going.
Myself, I was 0–2 in the NBA Finals before 2011. I’d learned the hard way how grueling it was just to win your conference — no matter what conference, no matter what year. It’s so hard. You need talent, luck, teamwork and everything else to come together just right. I knew too well what it felt like to get all the way to June … only to fall short against Shaq and Kobe, or Tim, Manu and Tony. All respect to those guys. I’m still really proud of what we did.
Dirk and I got our rings. It was a group of grinders, and that felt right. I think we won that series because we knew what adversity was, and we knew what teamwork was.
Either that or Dirk hit ’em with the eye-breathing thing.
It’s unstoppable, as far as I know.
My rookie year, Gary Payton introduced me to a man’s league.
Gary’s an Oakland guy, a few years older than me. Everybody talked about Gary when he was coming up, and everybody knew his dad, Al, who ran the city basketball league for kids.
When I met Gary, he was in college, playing for Oregon State. He rolled in with the freshest shoes and a sweatsuit. Even back then, he was talking your ear off. If he whispered, it was loud. He would always make a point of talking to me if he saw me. He’d give me some advice or encouragement. I appreciated that. He wasn’t too big for that.
When I got to the NBA, we first faced off in a game my rookie year in Seattle. We weren’t really friends, but he knew me from back in the day. Then I was guarding him in the game. I was jacked with energy. One play, he drove past me to lay it in and I caught up with him. I blocked his shot out of bounds.
It felt good. I was feelin’ it. I turned to Gary and yelled in his face.
“Get that sh*t out of here.”
I knew it was a mistake right when I said it. It wasn’t my style. Gary scored the next 11 points, moving in silence as he worked on me from the post. Our assistant coach caught my eye from the bench. He was shaking his head, like he wanted to say, Don’t you know not to get him going?
After the game Gary came up to me, with his head cocked to the side. Big smile.
I doubt he’d remember that game, but I’ll always appreciate what I took away from it. It took a few years, but I got better at controlling my emotions in games. I never got into trash talk very much after that. It’s a strength for some guys, like Gary, but it wasn’t for me. It’s a real thing, you know — even at the NBA level, basketball is a head game first and foremost.
I played on some amazing NBA teams in my career, like it was a series of guest appearances. Every place I stopped, and every guy I played with, I tried to take something from their approaches to the game and add it to mine. What I considered success in basketball was being the best playmaker on the court that I could be. I wanted to make the game easy and fun for my teammates. I hope I did that more often than not.
Thank you — to the Hall of Fame, to my coaches, to all the staff members everywhere who do all the things that fans don’t see, to my teammates — to everyone I crossed paths with in my basketball career. I’m proud, I’m grateful. I’m really humbled by this honor. More than anything, I know that I’m very lucky. I couldn’t have done it without so many people.