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Nowitzki's revolutionary road to top 10

Dirk Nowitzki steps into the top 10 in scoring with a fascinating German backstory. Jesse D. Garrabrant/Getty Images

In his quest to pin down as many longtime Dirk Nowitzki watchers as he could find for this outstanding oral history, ESPN Dallas colleague Tim MacMahon naturally had me on his list.

And I, in response, wound up sending him a more voluminous collection of reflections from Nowitzki's unlikely journey all the way to the top 10 of the NBA's all-time scoring charts than he asked for.

Naturally.

Cover a future Hall of Famer closely for more than 15 years and it's tough to keep it brief.

I actually started covering Nowitzki before he landed in Dallas full time. During the NBA lockout in 1998, while away on one of my annual soccer junkets to England, I convinced The Dallas Morning News to send me from Manchester to Germany to spend a couple of days watching the Mavs' new first-round pick firsthand in a weekend back-to-back. It gave me an advance screening in real game conditions -- not the Nike Hoop Summit thing; this was playing against men -- right around the time Dirk should have been in his first NBA training camp.

And the first impression he left me with, from that very first trip, is that no big man has ever shot it as effortlessly as this 7-footer.

No one before him.

And only Kevin Durant since.

My favorite team as a kid, as regular readers know, was the Buffalo Braves. So I was very familiar with the brilliance of Bob McAdoo, who to that point was the consensus best-shooting big man in the game's history. But you could see it right away: Even though he clearly wasn't NBA-ready when he got here, Nowitzki had range and textbook mechanics beyond even what Doo could do.

Now I'd be exaggerating in the extreme if I dared to claim, just off those first glimpses, that I ever projected Dirk to become a power forward who would (A) revolutionize his position, (B) lead a team full of role players and lacking so much as a second All-Star to a championship after a string of playoff heartbreaks and (C) finish as one of the game's 10 greatest scorers. Even a few seasons in, no one could have made the claim that Don and Donnie Nelson had undoubtedly drafted an all-timer. That ridiculous work ethic of his, coupled with those natural shooting gifts and the tutelage of longtime mentor Holger Geschwindner, wound up catapulting Dirk to levels no one ever envisioned.

Yet I'm firm in the belief that, even back then, I was telling anyone who would listen that this guy had something special you simply couldn't teach. He had tons to learn about the NBA game back in the fall of 1998, as his rough rookie season would soon prove. But that turned out to be the only stuff he was really lacking. The learnable stuff.

It won't hurt my feelings, though, if you don't believe me. If so, you're not alone. Because Dirk has his doubts, too.

He's asked me himself in the past: "Why can't you just admit that you didn't really believe I was gonna make it after that first year? You can admit it now." But he's wrong. The competitor in him won't forget how the Morning News used to run a graphic every Sunday of his rookie season comparing his stats to the player drafted right after him: Boston's very NBA-ready Paul Pierce. So he thinks everyone in the media back then was a doubter.

Not everyone.

I thought he had unquestioned All-Star potential from the start. And being the history-obsessed geek that I am, I tend to focus on milestones that aren't the traditional turning points you hear when the story of Dirk's career is recounted. Stuff like him going to summer league two Julys in a row after the lockout cost him the first summer league, which is essentially unheard of for a lottery pick of that stature. The sight of Dirk leading the Mavs to a first-round sweep of Kevin Garnett's Timberwolves and playing himself right onto the cover of Sports Illustrated is up there as well. So too, for me, are the beastly numbers he put up in the Mavs' otherwise feeble second-round exit to the Nuggets in 2009 against a really physical group of Denver defenders when he was surrounded by one of his weakest supporting casts … and with some tough stuff going on in his personal life.

The reality, though, is that it would take several years before the breakthrough that really slammed home the idea Nowitzki had gone to a new level and might someday scale the heights he's hitting with regularity now: Game 7 against San Antonio in 2006.

No one will ever forget how much damage Dallas' collapse two rounds in the 2006 Finals later did to his rep, least of all Dirk. But the series he played against the Spurs, especially in the deciding game, was breathtaking.

There's a reason why Tim Duncan and Dirk have become pretty decent pals after all these years and all those battles. Rest assured that all of the longtime Spurs have the ultimate respect for the only dude who's ever gone into San Antonio's building and bossed a Game 7 on their floor.

Most of all Timmy.

"He's the German Tim Duncan," my ESPN colleague Avery Johnson likes to say, after playing with Duncan and coaching Nowitzki.

Which probably sums it up -- in terms of what Nowitzki means to the Mavs' franchise and the city of Dallas in general -- better than I ever have.