- Marc Stein, Senior Writer, ESPN.com
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On a flight from Los Angeles to DFW on Monday night, returning home from a Nike photo shoot, Dirk Nowitzki spotted a familiar face from the Dallas sports pantheon settling in one row away.
Like pretty much anyone connected to the local sports scene, from armchair quarterbacks to Hall of Famers, Irvin was well aware of the message Nowitzki dispatched through his Twitter feed earlier Monday in support of under-fire Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo.
Having watched the morning-after savaging Romo received in the wake of the worst collapse in Cowboys history -- with three interceptions thrown by Romo helping the Detroit Lions turn a 27-3 road deficit into a 34-30 comeback victory for the ages -- Nowitzki felt compelled to broadcast the following message:
"Dear tony romo. Don't worry abt all the critics. I heard that same garbage for a long time. Keep working hard and keep improving."
Reached by ESPNDallas.com to find out why he decided to weigh in so publicly, Nowitzki cited two main reasons.
"First of all, I think support to a local sports figure is important," Nowitzki said. "I love the Rangers. I watched that whole [Cowboys] game against Detroit. I support every local team."
"Last week he played with a punctured lung and he's the hero," Nowitzki continued. "This week they lose and it's all his fault. I just think every week you [media] guys change your minds. Just let him play."
Nowitzki went on to reveal that he's never actually met or talked to Romo, but he can certainly identify with the scrutiny. As he touched upon in his tweet, Nowitzki heard far more about his supposed shortcomings as a leader and crunch-time performer than his undeniable gifts until this past spring. That's when the Dallas Mavericks -- widely regarded as the team everyone in the West wanted to see when the playoffs began -- went on a Dirk-fueled magical two-month run that not only delivered the first championship in franchise history, but enabled Nowitzki to avenge Dallas' torturous capitulation to the Miami Heat in the 2006 NBA Finals after taking a 2-0 series lead.
"Nobody knows if he's ever gonna win it all, but you can say that about a lot of guys," Nowitzki said of Romo. "I think he has what it takes. He's got a winning mentality and he's going to be OK."
The reality, of course, is that even Nowitzki's critics recognized him as a certain Hall of Famer -- with or without a championship -- after the 33-year-old emerged from a small Bavarian town in Germany in 1998 to ultimately revolutionize the power forward position with the deadliest jumper ever seen from a 7-footer.
Romo, by contrast, still has only one solitary playoff win on his resume despite all of his obvious playmaking ability.
Asked if he feels a special kinship with Romo because of the heat they've both had to cope with as the highest-profile athletes in the same city, Nowitzki said: "It's not only with him. Every sports guy that gets ripped, I feel for them. Everybody in our position [as a franchise player] gets ripped. That's part of the job. But every time he has one bad game, everybody jumps all over him."
Yet after 13 years in North Texas, Nowitzki has seen enough football to know that the team Romo plays for and the nature of the local and national media means little is likely to change unless Romo, like the Mavericks, can manufacture the ultimate response in the postseason.
"To be the QB of the Cowboys is probably the hardest job in the whole league," Nowitzki said. "Nobody else has to play [quarterback] under that kind of scrutiny. So maybe a little support was good and needed."
The 2-2 Cowboys are in the midst of a bye week before traveling to New England on Oct. 15. Nowitzki only just got back to Dallas from Germany on the day before the Detroit game, hopeful that a settlement to the NBA's lockout isn't far off.
If the work stoppage starts to consume chunks of the regular season, Nowitzki says he is likely to resume basketball training at the end of this month or in early November and will then start to seriously consider the overseas feelers he's been getting from teams in China and across Europe since the work stoppage began July 1.
Nowitzki has said he's unlikely to play for a team in his native Germany so as not to favor one club in the Bundesliga over the rest, but he scoffed at a Greek media report this week linking him with Real Madrid, saying: "I haven't talked to anybody yet. I'm still hoping that we can get a deal done soon."
These days, then, while waiting for that labor settlement, Nowitzki is a Cowboys and Rangers fan as much as anything.
A vocal one.
Marc Stein covers the NBA for ESPN.com.
The Mavs' Dirk Nowitzki was quick to come to the defense of Tony Romo.