March 13, 2001

Odd couple: Adversity helped Nash, Nowitzki form strong bond

January 30, 2001

By Juliet Macur / The Dallas Morning News

Steve Nash didn't fit the image.

He looked like a rock star, a wayward skateboarder, a beauty school guinea pig, maybe. But NBA point guard? Definitely not.

When Dirk Nowitzki first saw him, Nash's hair was bleach blond with dark roots shamelessly peaking from beneath. His luminous locks jutted every which way like soggy cactus needles.

Nowitzki, fresh off the plane from Germany and nervous, took one look at his new teammate and was puzzled.

"I'll never forget it," Nowitzki said, recalling the June 1998 day that he and Nash were introduced as the newest Mavericks. "I mean, his hair. His hair. It was so weird. He wasn't like anyone I'd ever met."

Nash is still unique, but these days he has a sidekick - a 7-foot one.

Neither Nowitzki nor Nash expected it. One was an unlikely first-round draft pick from overseas, the other an unlikely return in exchange for a first-round pick.

They have shared struggles and home-court boos and, finally this season, the fruits of a team's turnaround. They have become integral parts of the Mavericks' transformation from pathetic to formidable.

Nash, finally healthy after two years of nagging injuries, is averaging 16.9 points, more than double last season's average. Nowitzki, finally accustomed to the NBA's brutish style of play, is averaging 21.5 points plus 9.4 rebounds.

"You've got to believe their friendship was born out of the controversy surrounding them when they first came here," acting Mavericks coach Donnie Nelson said. "To go through the grinder like Steve and Dirk did, to be booed on your own court, to be called every name in the book and have your name dragged in the mud? How can two people not bond together when they were both under a microscope?"

Their bond extends well beyond the workplace. Nash and Nowitzki, both single, are practically next-door neighbors and often drive to practice together. They go out to lunch and dinner together because their refrigerators are bachelor-esque and bare. And even though Nowitzki is skeptical about Nash's film tastes, they frequent the movies together.

"Our friendship is much more important than basketball," said Nash, who is 26, four years older than Nowitzki. "We'd be good friends if we met at the store, the library or wherever."

Their teammates realize that. It would be hard not to.

"They see each other like 20 hours a day," guard Michael Finley said. "It's a little scary."

Transition game

Nash and Nowitzki didn't see each other much after meeting 21/2 years ago at a Mavericks news conference that announced their arrival in Dallas. The next season was cut short because of the NBA lockout. They did get together that December, when Nowitzki came to town to work out.

Almost everything was different for Nowitzki when he arrived. A new job. New country. New language. New culture. The future was so uncertain and scary. And Nowitzki was so anxious.

He was about to make the transition from less-physical European basketball to the rough, merciless NBA. He hadn't lived away from home before. He was a lanky, shy 20-year-old who sounded as American as Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Nowitzki was apprehensive during that first trip, and Nash knew it. So Nash, a soccer buff, invited him over to watch a European match. They ordered a pizza, hunkered down in front of the TV and hung out like old pals.

"Steve's such a nice guy, so we got along great right from the beginning," Nowitzki said. "I would've felt really alone here if it wasn't for him."

When Nowitzki finally moved to Dallas, he rented a place in Nash's complex. Their friendship grew from there, with Nash acting as social director and Nowitzki going along with the plans.

They couldn't have conversations at eye level, with the 6-3 Nash craning to talk to his 7-foot friend, but that didn't put a crick in their relationship. Outside of the Mavericks, they didn't know anyone in town.

Nash's friends were scattered throughout the United States, Europe and Canada, his home country. Nowitzki's friends, including longtime girlfriend Sybille Gerer, were back in Germany.

"It's corny, but I wanted to be there for him because he was still assimilating to life in America, not just NBA basketball," Nash said. "People tend to forget that he's a young kid trying to figure things out."

Both arrived at the franchise with much fanfare. The pressure to perform loomed ominously.

Nash was expected to live up to the $33 million contract he received after being traded from Phoenix for a first-round pick, used by the Suns to land forward Shawn Marion. Nowitzki was expected to live up to the hype of being drafted ninth overall instead of Kansas All-American Paul Pierce. Coach Don Nelson subsequently said Nowitzki was good enough to be a Rookie of the Year candidate.

In the following years, though, the two players struggled. Nash played injured and short of full speed. Nowitzki had problems developing his inside game and defensive skills. The critics were relentless and unforgiving. A Reunion Arena crowd even booed Nash because he was considered a bust.

Finally at their best

Nash admits there wasn't much for the two of them to laugh about back then. But this season, things are different. The worries, boos and disappointments are long gone. Respect has come their way, finally.

"Mike [Finley] has always been the crux of this franchise, but the difference is those two guys," Donnie Nelson said. "They're why we're winning. Steve and Dirk have finally brought their A-games."

Don't think Finley hasn't noticed.

"It's been so much easier for me this year," said Finley, perennially the team's top scorer. "Now the pressure isn't all on me. I finally have some help."

Especially when it comes to 3-pointers. Nash and Nowitzki have such a knack for them that they were invited to participate in the NBA 3-point contest during All-Star weekend. Nowitzki's skill at making 3s, odd for a 7-footer, has become a pesky problem for opponents.

"I love Nowitzki's game," Sacramento Kings forward Chris Webber said. "I love seeing a big guy that can play outside, too. He makes defenders pay. And I've been seeing him on the [satellite] dish get some dunks lately, too."

Nash also gets his fair share of praise, particularly after leading Canada's Olympic team to a surprising quarterfinal berth in Sydney. In that emotional run, Nash blossomed. He finally was healthy enough to play aggressive basketball. He finally rediscovered the confidence that had waned.

"Sometimes it takes an experience that has nothing to do with the NBA to kick-start a player," Orlando Magic coach Doc Rivers said. "Steve Nash always had it in him, but he needed that confidence boost. You can see it was crucial. You can tell both he and Nowitzki are hungrier than ever because they want to prove themselves."

Mixing and matching

At first, Nowitzki and Nash spent time together out of necessity and boredom. Later they became inseparable. They were easygoing and cosmopolitan, so they meshed well. But by no means are they twins.

"They have totally different mentalities and different characters," said Dirk's mother, Helga, who recently visited from Germany. "Dirk is quiet, Steve is not. They have different tastes in clothing, but they're good for each other. They keep each other out of trouble."

They can't even stay apart in the off-season. Last summer, Nash visited Nowitzki in Wurzburg, Germany, where they played 3-on-3 with some of Nowitzki's old teammates and chowed on some of Mrs. Nowitzki's hearty home cooking. Later, Nowitzki and his girlfriend - who now lives in Miami - visited Nash in London, where they attended an England-Brazil soccer game at famed Wembley Stadium.

Back in America, with Nash's help, Nowitzki has assimilated pop culture just fine. He not only can understand trash talk but can string together street slang, too.

Whatz up, son? ... Chillin', chillin', chillin'...Ooh, I was ballin' out there!...

"Dirk is definitely a cross between MTV and BET," Nash said. "But he's never serious. He's always joking around. That's the real side of Dirk people on the outside never see."

While Nowitzki still is learning to deal with media attention, Nash - in his fourth NBA season - is an expert at it. The day that Nowitzki underwent NBA media training two weeks ago, Nash was the subject of a British NBA show. He calmly answered questions with a camera rolling nearby, including the unexpected: "So, Steve: How long have you been a slam-dunk hunk?"

That was a reference to a British tabloid headline hinting at a relationship between Nash and Geri Halliwell, a.k.a. Ginger Spice of the Spice Girls. The headline was, "Geri Sunk By Slam-Dunk Hunk."

But the prying query didn't make Nash blush. "Oh, I've always been a slam-dunk hunk," he replied, deadpan.

"You just can't startle him," Mavericks forward Loy Vaught said. "When you see Steve Nash, the first thing that pops into your head is, 'cool.' He's got that Clint Eastwood thing going. He talks kind of quiet with that raspy voice. He's never out of control."

Nash prides himself on having a lot of patience, a quality that helped him through his first two years with the Mavericks. It was a tumultuous time. For Nowitzki, too.

Evidently, Nash and Nowitzki have done enough to prove themselves to become sweethearts of the franchise. When they're announced at home games, the crowd erupts. Fans wave signs such as "Dirk, the unstoppable German Submarine" and "Steve Nash for President."

The sales of their Mavericks jerseys have doubled from last season. Nowitzki's No. 41 has become the hottest seller, with Nash's No. 13 tied for second with Finley's No. 4. When Nash recently missed six games because of a strained hamstring, speculation spread that the Mavericks couldn't win without him.

Still, Nash and Nowitzki are self-deprecating about their recent success.

"Neither of those guys have an 'I-told-you-so' attitude," team owner Mark Cuban said. "It's not like they hate the fans for treating them like they did. It's not their way. They're confident, but not cocky. The beauty of it all is that they play completely selfless basketball."

Same old, same old

Their teammates attest that it's true. Nash and Nowitzki haven't changed much. Nothing has gone to their heads. Not the winning. Or the scoring. Or the hoopla surrounding their developing star status. They're just the same old guys. The same old friends. Doing the same old stuff.

For Nash, that includes teaching Nowitzki about fashion. He dragged his friend to the store on a recent trip to Seattle, then wouldn't let Nowitzki leave until he bought new shoes. The beat-up, outdated Top-Sidersjust had to go.

"His clothes are just struggling," Nash said, "but he's trying to get over the hump."

As for the latest hairstyles, the two players have distinctive looks. Nash's, now his natural brown, has a nonchalant but spiky "I-don't-own-a-brush" swagger to it. Nowitzki's is longish, '70s-ish and sports a middle part. It's so long that it falls into his eyes during games, frequently annoying him but at least making a statement.

"If I learned anything from Steve, it's to have your own personality and not care what people think of you," Nowitzki said before letting out a laugh. "Would I have hair like this if I cared about how I looked? I don't think so."