Nowitzki considered Jordan to be his hero while growing up as a basketball-loving kid in Germany, so he was beyond flattered to be mentioned among LeBron James, Kobe Bryant and Tim Duncan as modern-day superstars whom Jordan thinks could have been as successful when he was dominating the league.
“For him to even know my name is crazy, to be honest,” said Nowitzki, who noted he thought several deserving players were left off of Jordan’s list. “For him to say that I could have been a good player then means a lot. It’s humbling. It’s been great. It’s been a crazy ride over 15 years. It’s great to get respect from the greatest of all time.”
It’s not just a nod to Nowitzki’s unique skill set. There has never been another 7-footer with Dirk’s ability to dominate from the perimeter, but that’s often been a knock against Nowitzki.
The "soft" stereotype got slapped on Nowitzki almost as soon as he got off the plane from Germany. It took him 13 years -- and one unbelievable championship run -- to get rid of it for good.
The respect from Jordan, widely considered the most ruthless competitor in NBA history, is a nod to Nowitzki’s unconventional, undeniable mental toughness, something Dirk developed during his career along with the ability to attack off the dribble and post up.
“To me, there’s obviously two types of tough,” said Nowitzki, who acknowledges that 7-footers who are solely spot-up shooters will get labeled as soft. “There is the rah-rah tough, the elbow and play physical and go in there and dunk on people. That was never my kind of tough. I was never that physical. I’m not blessed with a 40-inch vertical. So my toughness was [that] I wanted to be out there for the guys, I wanted to fight with the guys, I wanted to win, I wanted to be there for the team when the game’s on the line. I play hurt. I play sick. I always wanted to be there.
“That’s mentally tough that I developed over the years. I didn’t have that when I first got in the league, but I got better and better with experience and with a will to win a championship.”
Dirk’s game and mind frame developed so well over the years that he’s recognized by his childhood hero as a rare player who could have been great in any era.