When Dirk Nowitzki recently passed Hakeem Olajuwon on the list of all-time leading scorers, one publication ran photos of the top 10 scorers and it was easy to spot Dirk, the only white guy.
There is nothing particularly profound about that. Dirk’s been around 16 years. We all know he’s from Germany, he’s white and he’s a great basketball player.
But it did remind me of a comparison that was made long before it was even close to being even remotely legitimate and one made primarily because he is white.
I first wrote about the foolishness of comparing Nowitzki to Larry Bird in the 2006-07 season and I was hardly the first to do that. So think about it. The suggestion the two should be compared is about a decade old.
It became more popular to do that season because the Mavericks had been in the NBA Finals the previous season and Nowitzki was in the process of winning his only MVP award.
But the only similarities between the two were pigmentation, hair color and great long-range shooting. If either player had been black, no one would have made the comparison.
At the time, I spoke to Peter Roby, who now is the athletic director at Northeastern University but then was the director of Northeastern’s Center for Sport in Society.
“It happens because it makes us comfortable,” Roby said of comparing players because they are the same race. “It’s the easiest way to make a comparison. There are many times when it is not accurate, but it is often uncomfortable to compare different races.”
How silly was it to compare the two at that time?
In his first eight seasons, Nowitzki made the All-NBA first, second and third teams twice each. His best showing in the MVP race was third in two seasons. At that point, the Mavericks had not won a title.
In Bird’s first eight seasons, he was All-NBA first team eight times. He was MVP three times, finished second three times and the other two times, he was third and fourth, respectively. His impact on the game was profound and immediate.
At the time, veteran coach Del Harris was an assistant with the Mavericks, but he was also a former coach of the year who had won 556 games as a head coach.
“I don’t see a lot of similarities in their games,” Harris said. “In my 50-plus years of observing the game, I’ve not seen anyone with a better mental grasp of basketball than Larry Bird.”
Keep in mind that Harris was coaching Nowitzki at the time, so he was obviously a big fan.
That, however, was eight years ago, and the discussion has changed because Nowitzki has had eight years of production. During that time, he has scored almost 14,000 points, won one title, one MVP award and been All-NBA first team twice, second team three times and third team once.
Eight years later, I checked with Harris to see if Nowitzki’s body of work had somehow drawn him closer to Bird.
“He’s still not Larry Bird because no one is,” Harris said. “But he’s in the neighborhood. If you look at where he started and where Bird started, it’s amazing that Dirk has played his way into that neighborhood. Everyone knew Bird was going to be great. Dirk started as one of the weakest first-round picks ever. So his progress is impressive.”
Nowitzki had a huge adjustment to make to enter the NBA. The year before playing in the NBA, Nowitzki was the star player for DJK Würzburg in a German professional league – not exactly a breeding ground for NBA players.
His first season was the 50-game lockout season of 1998-99 and he averaged 8.2 points and 3.4 rebounds in 20.4 minutes per game. And that makes Harris’ point. To go from that to the highest scoring player international player in history is a monumental achievement.
But the Bird comparison still is not a good one. Although both are great offensive machines, Bird, despite being three inches shorter, was a better rebounder. He also was a better passer and a better team defensive player. Bird made the All-NBA defensive second team three times. In that area, Dirk has never been in the neighborhood.
Harris said eight years ago and also in a recent conversation that the player whose game is similar to Dirk’s is Bob McAdoo, a three-time scoring champion who once averaged 34.5 points a game and won an MVP award in 1974-75.
McAdoo, who is in his 20th season as an assistant coach with the Miami Heat, was three inches shorter, but despite playing power forward and center, he spent much of his time on the perimeter.
Nowitzki is a better player than McAdoo, who was enshrined in the Hall of Fame in 2000. During the last six years of his career, McAdoo had injury problems, bounced around to several teams and was primarily a sixth man. But at his best, Harris said: “I think about Bob McAdoo when I look at Dirk [although] Dirk’s game is more varied.”
Sports is notorious for wanting to compare, but the truth is that not only should Bird and Nowitzki not be compared to each primarily because they are white, but neither should be compared because they are unique.
Bird is special on his own and so is Dirk, who is the greatest European player, the greatest international player who did not attend a U.S. college and the greatest 7-foot shooter in basketball history.
To capture Nowitzki’s brilliance, it is not necessary to compare him to white or black; Larry Bird or Bob McAdoo. Dirk is great all by himself.
Jan Hubbard has written about basketball since 1976 and worked in the NBA league office for eight years between media stints. Follow him on Twitter at @whyhub.
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