The first time I touched a computer that wasn’t a Nintendo Entertainment System, it was one of those early Apple computers—think mid-80s when I’d have been in elementary school.
Ostensibly, we were using them to learn to do math—which I’m still terrible at to this day (don’t think about that too much when I’m delivering statistical analysis). In reality, we rushed through our math lessons as quickly as possible so that we could play games.
My game was Oregon Trail. I didn’t realize, until years later, just how morbid my fixation with this game really was.
You die. A lot. It’s a hopeless cause, hitching your wagon in the East and heading up through the wilderness toward the promise of Western homesteading. When you die (of dysentery, thirst, broken legs, hunger, typhoid, drowning etc.) you get to mark your grave, and even write something snarky on it. You would write these snarky things so that you (or maybe a friend) would see these hilarious headstones on a future playthrough—and see just how far you’d made it. It was great fun. Here, give it a try ...
The point of all of this? I learned, at an early age, that milestones have meaning.
Make no mistake, the littered graves of early settlers were some of our early milestones. Before the trip to the unknown fields in the Dalles Mountains became a rote trip with Slurpees and cheeseburgers, it took a lot of trial and error, and a lot of people paving the way with their bones. Yes, they often served as little better than cautionary tales—but their work was necessary.
Passing someone who’d gone before you, even in their somber state, was a sign that you were making progress. Rare is the human being that moves beyond the mile-markers and into the unknown—especially in the 21st century. To witness the unknown—even on the horizon—is a special opportunity.
Enter the dysentery-and-typhoid-resistant Dirk Nowitzki.
For 18 seasons, the man has bent the light around his chase for history. He made his way up the list of the greatest scorers in the history of the game—and he did so while earning the title of over-rated and under-rated, often simultaneously. His quest to conquer the Western frontier is littered with the gravestones of rivalries that he outlasted.
Gone are the days when Dirk and Tracy McGrady would trade buckets in an NBA playoff series—then again, gone too is McGrady. Gone, so long in fact, that he’s eligible for the hall-of-fame.
Gone is Michael Olowokandi, Mike Bibby, Raef LaFrentz, Antawn Jamison, Jason Williams and nearly every other player from the 1998 draft class.
Gone again: Almost every player, 7th through forever, who scored less than the Big German.
But that “almost” looms large.
The thing about milestones, is that they’re supposed to sit still. You admire, you pay respects, you leave some flowers, and then you move on past. You get to the next one, you do the same. You’re not supposed to stop at one of the milestones and built a house there.
But, if you can die of a broken leg—your NBA chase can die on the aches of a bad Achilles tendon.
For much of the 2016-2017 season, Dirk has been stuck on the bench. Not on the bench, in shorts, just in case. He’s been on the bench, in a suit big enough to canvas a wagon, unable to play the game he’s helped redefine (take a look at all these three-point-shooting big men).
What happens to a player when he goes from chasing milestones, to being a milestone? I don’t mean in the way that Duncan, Kobe, or Karl Malone are now mile-markers. Those players reached their destinations, and walked away from the game.
I mean, what do you do when you’ve reached the highest altitudes of your sport, you continue to climb, but people start to catch up to you anyway?
J.R. Smith passed Dirk on the list of all-time 3-point shooters this year.
LeBron James, at age 32, has moved into 8th place (with over 27,600 points). He’s less than 2,000 points from Dirk for that sixth spot—which doesn’t seem like much for a guy who averages 25.6 points a game for his entire NBA career.
Just a year ago, Dirk was trash-talking Kobe, telling him he was coming for his scoring spot. Now, he might have to watch another player reach that spot while he’s still playing the game.
All of this, of course, assumes he makes it long enough.
There was a time when it seemed that the only thing keeping Dirk from passing Michael Jordan would be a little bit of patience. Now, I think a lot of us might be happy to see Dirk simply hit that 30,000 point mark that only five players have hit before him.
And don’t get me wrong: There is no shame in being passed by a player like LeBron James. James might be the best to ever play the game of basketball. Nor is there shame in Dirk supplementing Harrison Barnes, or being a guy who plays some center, or being a bad-ass role player, as was the case in Tuesday's win over Washington (game coverage here) and who might do much the same tonight when a bad Suns team visits the 11-24 Mavs. (GameThread and discussion here on DB.com Boards.)
Dirk is still very capable of NyQuil moments.
But, when LeBron stops by to pay respect, and when he drops off those flowers, we just don’t want it to be while our wagon is still lurching through the mud.