By Jennifer Floyd Engel
MIAMI -- Before time had even expired, Dirk leapt over a table and straight into the tunnel to privacy. And once alone, he allowed Mavs 105, Heat 95 in Game 6, and all that entails, to sink in.
World Champions. Ring. Redemption. Legend.
The scene reminded me so much of Mike Modano, weeping openly, draped over the Stanley Cup in 1999. This kind of emotion signifies struggle, disappointment, layers of frustration piled on when your season does not begin with pep rallies, smoke machines and promises of many championships but rather doubt.
"If you are in this league for 13 years, just battling, and always coming up a little short. That's why this is extra special," Dirk said. "If I would have won one early in my career, maybe I would have never put in the work and time that I have over the last 13 years."
Yes, to understand how Dirk landed in that moment, you have to understand where he has been. And so on this happy Monday morning in Mavsland, we have to go in the way-back machine for a quick second.
To darker days. To 2007. To Cleveland.
The World Champion Miami Heat was there for a game, and media were peppering Dwyane Wade with questions about LeBron James' leadership.
The ugly from 2006 in Miami had barely faded, not for guys like Dirk and Jason Terry. OK, mostly for Dirk. His basketball résumé seemed to begin and end with those Finals.
And into this gaping wound came D-Wade.
"You're remembered for what you did at the end," he infamously said. "[Dirk] is the reason they lost the championship because he wasn't the leader he's supposed to be in the closing moments."
Harsh, especially by player-on-player standards. And D-Wade's words, over time, were translated into "soft" and used as an indictment, especially as the Mavs started losing early in playoffs and seemed to be getting further away.
Until Sunday, that is.
Not only did Dirk lead his team to a championship, David Stern handed him the Bill Russell Trophy as the best player in The Finals. It will be viewed as the moment of his ascendancy.
It was not. It was more gradual, done in moments of honesty with himself after 2006, on random Thursdays when he worked on his already-good game, in July when he decided to stay in Dallas because he felt loyalty while LeBron took his talents to South Beach, in Portland and LA and OKC when he played defense and blocked shots and called out teammates. And finally against Miami and LeBron and D-Wade.
There is karmic retribution in this, of course. How else do you explain them winning Game 6 in Miami other than the karma train finally pulling into the station?
"Dirk and Jet have had to live for five years with what happened in 2006, and as of tonight, those demons are officially destroyed," Mavs coach Rick Carlisle said.
The irony is Dirk was having an awful night, one of those ugly shooting nights so rarely associated with him. His shot would not fall. And during a timeout, Terry turned to him.
"He said to me, 'Keep pushing. Remember '06,'" Dirk said.
And then, with game on the line, he delivered. He scored 10 points in the final 71/2 while LeBron wilted again and D-Wade grew careless and a Heat team that had coronated themselves in July crumbled.
To quote you, Mr. Wade: Basketball players are remembered for what they do at the end. And the reason the Heat lost the championship Sunday was because LeBron and you were not the greatness Nike and ESPN told us you were.
You eschewed team. The Mavs embraced it.
You worshipped yourselves. The Mavs believed in each other.
You were dissected. The Mavs were ignored.
You were "Hollywood as hell." The Mavs were fundamental as hell.
And LeBron is now where Dirk was in 2006, everybody calling him a choker and soft. The hype beast the Heat created will now devour them with questions and doubt. And LeBron will learn what Dirk did, how hard it is to wear that mantle.
And so Dirk will not pile on, not like D-Wade did.
Carlisle came the closest to actually calling Miami and, really, all of us out for getting so caught up in "The LeBron and D-Wade Show" that we missed the story. We missed what Dirk was doing with the Mavs. Carlisle actually went on a good rant about this, so good I wish I could type in every word.
Instead, I will share my favorite part.
"Come on. How often do we have to hear about the LeBron James reality show and what he is or isn't doing?" Carlisle said. "I'm so proud of what our team stood for. I kept having people come up to me the last three or four days. 'Hey, there's billions of people rooting for you guys.' And we could feel it. We knew it was very important that we won this series for those reasons. Because of what the game is about, and what the game should stand for."
Because on its very best day, the game is about a guy like Dirk refusing to quit, to give into the doubt, to fail. And his guys, like Carlisle and Terry, backing him up. And not about an egomaniacal athlete named LeBron.