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Unbreakable: A Retrospective Look at the Injury History of Dirk Nowitzki

“He’s soft.”

That’s the verbal criticism that always stung with the most potent venom.  Sadly for any Dallas Mavericks fan set on defending Dirk Nowitzki, it’s also the one his critics seemed to resort to first. 

It was hard to argue against Nowitzki’s shooting stroke or offensive prowess that was a nightmare for opposing coaches. Instead, his doubters would question his toughness and fortitude. Maybe it was the fact that he was a European born player or perhaps it was because his style contrasted with other power forwards of his era, a list that included Rasheed Wallace and Kevin Garnett. Whatever the reason, it was an unfair perception that followed Nowitzki throughout his illustrious career. 

However branding Dirk as soft was and is, well, soft. An extensive look at the physical toll the NBA took on Nowitzki’s 7-foot frame reveals he was far from feeble. From the start of the 1999-2000 season until he claimed his lone NBA title in 2011, no other player played more minutes than Nowitzki’s 35,277. These minutes were accrued despite a laundry list of injuries that would have fallen a lesser man.

Mavs fans caught their initial glimpse of his resilience in Dirk’s first true playoff moment. Trailing three games to none against the rival Spurs in his first postseason venture, Nowitzki caught an inadvertent elbow from Terry Porter, knocking out one of his front teeth. Nowitzki hopped the scorer’s table, stuffed gauze into the gap in his smile and returned to the court, missing just 33 seconds of game action. He finished Dallas’ only win in the series with 30 points on 11-of-18 shooting.

Over the years Nowitzki would endure numerous ankle injuries but develop a reputation as a quick healer, determined to miss minimal time. New York Times writer Marc Stein often referred to Nowitzki’s ankles as bionic, marveling as Dirk’s ability’s to turn an ankle and never miss a beat. This was never more apparent than in March of 2008 when Nowitzki suffered a gruesome left ankle sprain against the Spurs. The injury was later diagnosed as a high ankle sprain and Nowitzki was ruled out indefinitely. For Dirk indefinitely meant four games as he returned to action 10 days later. The InStreetClothes.com/SMART database has 25 recorded ankle sprains for the Big German throughout his career with just 18 lost games attributed to these injuries.

Nowitzki missed just three games due to injury over his 15 postseason appearances, appearing in 145 playoff games. These three games were attributed to a patellar femoral sprain that occurred during the Western Conference Finals of the 2003 season. It was then that head coach Don Nelson opted to hold Nowitzki out to protect his up-and-coming superstar from a more serious injury. The decision was not popular with Mark Cuban but one even Nowitzki admitted was the correct call. 

Nowitzki suffered through more than just the standard sprains and strains that you would expect for a veteran with 21 seasons of experience. During the 2009-2010 season, Nowitzki missed just one game after a collision with Houston’s Carl Landry. The incident was far from normal as the impact left pieces of Landry’s teeth imbedded in Nowitzki’s elbow. It took the Mavericks medical team over 30 minutes to clean the resulting wound and remove the teeth fragments.

Even Dallas’ championship run was testament to Dirk’s durability. In what was his 13th season in the NBA, Nowitzki suffered a knee sprain in a late December win over the Thunder. He would miss nine straight games recovering, the longest stretch of his career up to that point. He would return in time to guide the team to the franchise’s second Finals appearance. However in the Finals, injuries would again rear their ugly head. In a Game 1 loss to the Heat, Nowitzki tore the extensor tendon in his left index finger. As a result, he was forced to wear a splint for the remainder of the series. If that wasn’t enough, Nowitzki developed a sinus infection the night before a pivotal Game 4. With the Mavs trailing 2-1, Nowitzki played through a fever reportedly as high as 102 degrees. He struggled through three quarters but dazzled in the fourth, scoring 10 of his 21 points including a clutch layup with 14 seconds remaining. Five days later Dirk and the Mavericks would win the franchise’s only title.

Nowitzki’s list of injuries includes ankle and knee surgeries that would slow him recent seasons. It also contains countless bumps and bruises left unseen to the public eye. When this year concludes, injuries or illness will have sidelined Dirk for just seven percent out of a possible 1867 total regular season and postseason games. This total doesn’t include his time spent leading the German National Team to an Olympic berth or his multiple All-Star appearances. Despite a myriad of injuries, Nowitzki persevered through it all and will finish as one of the best players to every play in the NBA.

“He’s soft.”

Far from it.