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CBSSports.com Senior Writer

No questioning Nowitzki's greatness, ring or no ring


MIAMI -- Dirk Nowitzki hoisted himself up the stairs and onto the interview stage Monday, using the handrails to support himself like a gymnast as his feet swung up to the top step. "Like a gymnast" doesn't really do it justice, though. Like a kid was more like it.

Nowitzki is enjoying this moment, this trip back to the NBA Finals that he admitted wondering if he'd ever get to take. He's embracing it with the carefree joy of a child spending a day off from school in the park under sunny skies.

Pressure? Legacy? Being labeled as another in a long line of greats never to win a championship? Dirk simply lifts the interview microphone out of its stand, leans back in his chair like a lounge singer and answers every question with ease. As much as Nowitzki has accomplished in his 13-year career, this is perhaps the most impressive feat: He has won respect and admiration from everyone in basketball without making his chase for a title into something with life-or-death consequences. He hasn't let it define him, consume him or detract from his incredible career.

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He was asked a question Monday about the gaping hole in his resume, and he nodded in a non-threatening way, started off with his trademark, "Well, you know ..." and captivated his audience the way his talents have captivated the basketball world.

"Well, you know," Nowitzki said, "there's been a lot made of what's my legacy without it, with it. I'm not really worried about all that. I'm trying to be on the best team. I'm trying to win it for this organization and for the owner and for myself and for the team. That's really all I'm worried about. I'm not worried about my legacy without the ring or with the ring. I'm living in the moment."

He is living in a moment that he thought, and hoped, would come much sooner. After the Mavs squandered a 2-0 lead and lost to the Heat in the 2006 Finals, Nowitzki thought he'd be back the next year. And the year after that. And the year after that. Like teammate Jason Kidd, who thought his first two trips to the Finals with New Jersey were merely dress rehearsals, Nowitzki kept coming back year after year -- and kept coming up empty.

"I think what you learn pretty quick in this league is that you can take nothing for granted," Nowitzki said. "There's a lot of things that play into a great season -- injuries, the team and just the whole surrounding. The year after the Finals, we won [67] games. We thought, 'This was our year.' You run into a hot matchup or a bad matchup for you, some hot players, and next thing you know, you're a first round exit. In this league, you never know."

That first-round exit in '07, against those damnable Warriors and their Nellieball, could've sent Nowitzki hurtling down the fast track out of Dallas to seek greener pastures elsewhere -- namely, to a place with an easier path to the championship, to a conference that didn't include Kobe Bryant. But he stayed. Before LeBron James announced his "Decision" to cherry-pick championships with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh in Miami, Nowitzki quietly agreed to a four-year, $80 million extension with the Mavs last summer. Maybe that's where the respect and admiration come from with Dirk. He didn't high-tail it out of town when things got tough.

"Well, you know," Dirk said, "ultimately that's where my heart was at. I almost felt like we had unfinished business after '06. I had a great meeting with Mark [Cuban] there in free agency. All I needed was reassurance that he was going to keep going and keep building around this team, and keep putting all his resources for us to hopefully be up there one day."

The Mavs are up there again, and it is just Nowitzki's luck that fate has dealt him another difficult hand. Standing in the way are the anti-Dirks, James and Wade, who saw the midpoint of their careers passing them by with one title between them and seized a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to merge their talents in that quest for more. How greedy, how gluttonous, how un-Dirk-like -- and how inconsequential, according to Dirk.

"I don't know what it's being looked at," Nowitzki said. "We as players, I don't think we really care. We are facing a very tough team, a very good team with a bunch of closers and leaders. And so we've got to just go from there and bring our best game. But we as players, we're not really worried about who are the good guys or the bad guys, what the fans want. That's not going to matter to us anyhow."

I guess there is one thing Dirk and LeBron have in common: They've both lost in the Finals once. For LeBron, it fueled him -- and ultimately caused him to flee to a place where he'd have as many chances as possible to fill the void. But Nowitzki? Well, you know ...

"You hear it all the time," James said. "They always say, 'To go down as one of the greats, you have to put a ring on your resume.' I mean, as an individual, you have those dreams and you have those goals. You want to be a champion. Do you care as much as people say about your career as far as your body of work? I don't know. You look at Dirk's numbers, they speak for themselves over his 13 year career. You look at my numbers so far in my eight year career, you know, it kind of speaks for itself as well.

"As individuals, myself and Dirk, we both are competitors, and we both know the ultimate feeling is to win -- to win a championship," James said. "Not for whatever everybody else thinks, but for the people we have around us. That's our teammates, our organization, our families -- to be able to have that moment and have that feeling."

Four wins from now, only one of them will have it. And well, you know, however it turns out, we'll all still like Dirk. We'll give him credit for who he has been -- the best European player ever in the NBA, the best-shooting big man ever, and just an all-round swell guy.

"We have another chance, and I'm going for it," Nowitzki said. "Everything after that will fall into place the next couple of years. We can talk about my legacy once my career is over. I'm really just focused on winning and being on the best team left standing."

Before joining CBSSports.com, Ken Berger covered the NBA for Newsday. The Long Island, N.Y., native has also worked for the Associated Press and can be seen on SportsNet New York. Catch Ken every Saturday, when he hosts Eye on Basketball from 6-8 p.m. ET on cbssportsradio.com

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