Dirk Nowitzki knew luring the big fish home wasn't guaranteed, but he put all his eggs, so to speak, in his owner's game plan -- trusted it when maybe he didn't even fully believe in it -- to strike a bold, new path for Dallas Mavericks basketball through the superstar's twilight seasons and beyond.
From Saturday night as the host of a smashingly successful charity baseball game in North Texas, where the wildly cheered 7-footer stroked a single to left-center, to his courtside seat days later at Wimbledon, there is no way Nowitzki could have envisioned this -- the jaw-dropping finality of a champion.
If the strategic pursuit of the truly lone big fish of this free agency were to fail, a stream of contingency plans owner Mark Cuban and president of basketball operations Donnie Nelson pronounced were ready to initiate at a moment's notice but could not be executed.
"I also know that Mark and Donnie always have something up their sleeve, even if this shouldn't work out and he's going back to Brooklyn and we've got to make something else happen," Nowitzki said Saturday night, hours before the free-agency period opened. "We as the Mavericks, we don't look at ourselves as a rebuilding organization. We always compete at the highest level there is, and so I'm sure if he makes the wrong decision for us, then we've got something else going."
Jason Kidd, the 39-year-old Hall of Fame-bound point guard whom Cuban helped escape from New Jersey in 2008 and who quarterbacked one of the great championship runs in 2011, reversed field on the Mavs' three-year, $9 million offer and bolted to the New York Knicks for a similar deal.
Kidd took a longing look at the Mavs' stripped-down roster, weighed the prospects for building it up under Cuban's new strategy of fiscal responsibility and then scanned the roster of those mismatched, ever-dysfunctional but highly talented Knicks -- Tyson Chandler, Carmelo Anthony, Amare Stoudemire and in all likelihood Jeremy Lin -- and believed he could help more there than here.
As big money, arguably stupid money, flowed out of Brooklyn to la-la land eight months after the resolution of a bitter lockout, the Mavs stood pat, sticking to a philosophy of fiscal sensibility. As the Nets added players and squeezed future cap space, the names on the rosters, Kidd said Wednesday, swayed Williams to stay in Brooklyn rather than be welcomed home as a hero and a guarantor of four more years of consecutive sellouts for Cuban.
Williams, who won 22 games and lost 44 with the Nets last season, preferred Joe Johnson and Gerald Wallace and the fuzzy notion that somehow Dwight Howard will be next to arrive in the borough. Kidd said Williams feared a Nowitzki injury would leave Williams "sitting with himself."
Somehow now it is Nowitzki sitting by himself. Chandler and Kidd can regale the rest of the Knicks with tales from the title. Kidd's unexpected defection leaves just Shawn Marion, Brendan Haywood and spare parts Rodrigue Beaubois and Dominique Jones as the last remnants of a champion crowned less than 13 months ago.
From strictly a competitive standpoint, losing Kidd and his three-year deal that would take him to age 42 isn't the end of the world. But how Nowitzki views yet another unforeseen personal loss is what matters here, not that Nowitzki will rise up and demand a trade. It's just not him.
When Nowitzki watched Nash leave in 2004 because Cuban believed his buddy's body couldn't handle the pounding, it stung. Yet Nowitzki moved on and shouldered the team to two Finals and a title without the aid of a second superstar in a superstar era.
When Chandler and J.J. Barea were allowed to walk after the title because Cuban radically altered his team-building strategy to comply with the new CBA rules and harsh penalties, Nowitzki publicly backed him. Nowitzki accepted that Terry could be a casualty after eight seasons together -- and would be if Williams were to arrive.
But Williams stayed put and the Mavs didn't put up a fight to keep their sixth man. Then there's Kidd, who dearly wanted out of New Jersey to play with Dirk, and over the years the two -- each delivering the other that elusive championship -- bonded like family.
Williams feared being left alone and Nowitzki, in a remarkable sequence of events, is now living it. He is alone atop a skeleton roster that, when completed, will be barely recognizable.
A scan of free agents still on the market reveals no quick fix, and Dallas has essentially no assets to pull a difference-making trade. Ramon Sessions has taken the lead at the top of the Mavs' list to assume Kidd's spot at point guard but not his team title as head of the snake.
Nowitzki will look around at Williams in Brooklyn, Kidd in New York, Nash in Los Angeles. He will see a hungrier OKC team to the north, a still very salty San Antonio squad to the south. The Clippers are improved. The Timberwolves will be, too. Memphis, Utah and Denver are young and dangerous.
When training camp opened in December after the lockout that created this new CBA and changed everything Nowitzki ever knew about his boss, the 7-footer said he felt a strange vibe knowing that Chandler and Barea and the gang weren't coming back.
When he arrives in Dallas for the start of his 15th training camp in late September, Nowitzki might feel more alone than at any other time since he came stateside as a shy, wide-eyed youngster with a bowl haircut.
Next July 1, the Mavs will have their cap space and will embark on an expedition for, potentially, Dwight Howard or Chris Paul or James Harden.
On this maiden voyage for the big fish, it didn't happen, though, and now nothing is the same.