Local and international fans turn out to bid Nowitzki farewell

Eric Coughlin
The Detroit News
Dirk Nowitzki fans display their pictures of the German forward before the Pistons game on Thursday.

Detroit -- The most popular basketball player in Little Caesars Arena on Thursday night only scored seven points and played 13 minutes, none of them in crunch time, in the Pistons' 93-89 victory over the Dallas Mevericks.

And he doesn't play for the home team.

Dirk Nowitzki is 40 years-old, and while he hasn't said for certain that this is his last year, fans in opposing arenas are giving him a royal sendoff.

"I've been a Dirk fan since about 2003-ish," Sean Gallant, 27, of Jackson said. "I'm the only Mavs fan I know that was a die-hard through the struggles. He's my favorite player of all-time. I look like him, but I've also played basketball my whole life and I styled my game after him, too."

Sean Gallant, 27, of Jackson, tried to get Nowitzki's attention with a creative poster.

Gallant, whose real father got him tickets for the game, was part of a large contingent of Nowitzki fans that braved cold temps to see the lanky forward on an NBA court one last time, or in Gallant's case, the first.

"This is the first time I've gotten to see him play live," Gallant said. "He's my basketball idol." 

The loudest the building got in the first half was due to two made jumpers by Nowitzki, part of an inefficient game (3-for-9 shooting) for the German, but spectators weren't complaining. Some even gave him a standing ovation when he entered the game, enthusiastically appreciative of his efforts.

Nowitzki scored a season-high 14 points on Wednesday in Madison Square Garden, a far cry from his 20-point career average, and received a similar reception.  

Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle said the reception for Nowitzki on the road has been heartwarming.

"I'm not a betting man, but if I was, I'd bet there will be a statue (for Nowitzki)," Carlisle said. "He made major impacts on the worldwide game. He's had a staggering, positive impact on the international player's ability to come into the NBA game. I think 25 percent of the players in the league are international, and he's a big reason why. Dirk's been a huge factor in redefining the power forward position. The guy's had a remarkable career. He's such a great representative of the game that people have such an appreciation for him."

Metro Detroit fans of Nowitzki weren't the only ones to show up on Thursday. Fittingly, he had an international contingent as well.

Viktor Henrikson spent $70 for a fourth-row ticket but explained that the plane ticket from Sweden, rental car and hotel make it a pretty expensive excursion.

Viktor Henrikson flew in from Sweden to see Nowitzki.

"I'm here to watch Dirk," Henrikson said. "I'm following him. I'm going to Cleveland on Saturday. I have to catch Dirk now while he's still playing. He's the best ever."

Henrikson, who said the weather in Detroit is nice compared to his native Sweden, became a Nowitzki fan when his brother was playing professionally in Germany.

"I'm so fortunate he's been here (in the NBA) for 21 seasons now," Henrikson said.

The game against the Pistons was close, and there were many more important basketball things to talk about, but Pistons coach Dwane Casey found himself fielding questions about the big European during the post-game press conference.

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"I thought that was beautiful," Casey said about the ovation Nowitzki received when he checked into the game for the first time. "Our fans are so intelligent and so respectful. I thought that was beautiful because of the work he's put into this game. A lot of European players owe him a lot for what he did for the game to be one of the greatest big-man shooters. The new, analytical NBA that's there now, I thought he had a lot to do with that, but it didn't come easy. He had to work a lot of nights in the gym, getting the shots up. He wasn't born with that. He made himself into the hall of fame player that he is."

The legacy Nowitzki leaves as an international superstar might be best exemplified by the team he spent his entire career with. The Mavericks are now led by Luka Doncic, from Slovenia, and new-addition-as-of-Thursday Kristaps Porzingis, a 7-foot-3 center from Latvia.

But at least for now, Nowitzki is still the international shot-maker fans clamor for.

The farewell tour, if that's what it is, continues on Saturday in Cleveland.