Athletes are not role models, but he was.
In 1993, Charles Barkley and Nike teamed up for an infamous commercial where the future NBA Hall of Famer famously said, “I am not a role model.” Barkley won the league’s Most Valuable Player award that year, and is just as well-known for his off-court activities as he was for dunking a basketball.
"Just because I dunk a basketball doesn't mean I should raise your kids,” Barkley added.
Whether or not professional athletes –or anyone elevated to celebrity status in our imperfect world– have such an obligation is a question asked since people became “stars” in the first place. I’ve never read a pro basketball player’s contract, but I imagine there are, at most, stipulations to participate in team activities and/or community events. However, I highly doubt in any print, fine or not, does it say, “you are a role model.” Yet there is the almost mandatory expectation to be on good behavior.
It’s a catch-22 no athlete will ever win. When they are behaving like us regular folk, they are role models for the millions of children who watch them on television every night and follow their careers and personal lives religiously.
But when Michael Jordan’s gambling problems. or Barkley’s propensity for getting in trouble off the court came to light, these same figures are damned and put to the proverbial slaughter for abusing their fame.
Public figures aren’t afforded the luxury of privacy and the first blip of a transgression dooms them. Most of them have no desire to be public figures but are often forced into playing the role. It isn't for everybody.
Being a good person is an easy task. Being a role model is not. Athletes have no contractual obligations to influence the next generation, yet are a primary motivating influence on today's youth. It's a slippery slope any person in the public eye has to navigate. But athletes don't have to be role models.
Not everyone is brought up in a situation like mine where all the tools to be a model citizen are at hand. Barkley grew up in the discriminating terrain of Birmingham, Alabama. I was raised with far more than I could ever ask for in Plano, Texas.
After retiring in 2000, Barkley has transformed into an unexpected renaissance man. He joined TNT in 2001 as a studio analyst and quickly rose as not only one of the most respected voices in the industry, but a political connoisseur. Not all athletes are role models. It’s just the way it is. Charles Barkley wasn’t.
But Dirk Nowitzki was.
Born and raised in Würzburg, Germany, Dirk Nowitzki would have loved to grow up and be a professional handball player like his dad. Mom played professional basketball, but he didn’t take to it. When he was 15, he caved in after people called him a “freak” on the handball and tennis courts for his colossal stature. Soon, he was discovered, and subsequently trained, by former German international basketball player Holger Geschwinder.
The rest, as they say, is history.
Nowitzki journeyed to America in 1998 after being selected by the Dallas Mavericks with the 9th overall pick in the NBA Draft. 21 historical years later, he is the only player in league history to play at least 21 seasons with one team. He is one of five to play 21 at all. He has an MVP award, has been an All-Star 14 times, is the sixth all-time leading scorer and reached the top of the basketball world as a champion in 2011.
On April 9, after a Mavs game against the Phoenix Suns where Nowitzki scored a season-high 30 points in 33 minutes, the 40-year old officially retired in an emotional postgame ceremony. His own childhood role models were in attendance to pay tribute.
Larry Bird, Scottie Pippen, Shawn Kemp, fellow German Detlef Schrempf, and a certain Charles Barkley told personal anecdotes about the future Hall of Famer before Nowitzki officially put an end to his career in front of the fans and city he gave his heart and soul to for 21 years.
From 2001 to 2012, when I was nine to 19 years old, the Mavs were in the playoffs every season. In 2006, they came within two games of the title but faltered. In 2011, they did it. Dirk did it. I felt like I did it.
Where this really hits home for me is that I watched both the 2006 and 2011 NBA Finals from a hospital bed.
In early 2006, I began to display symptoms of an unknown ailment. I was diagnosed with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder in 2007 and spent the confusing days of medical limbo at Children’s Hospital in Dallas. My parents tried waiting until the end of the playoffs —these games were that important to me— but the mental health of their 12-year old took precedence.
I checked out of separate hospitals in 2006, 2007, 2009 and 2010, but there is no cure for OCD so, in 2011, I ended up at the McLean Hospital all the way in Boston. I watched Dirk and the Mavs capture the franchise’s first championship from the recreation room and then had to promptly report for curfew.
Obviously I didn’t sleep.
My Dallas Mavericks memories are decorated with angst, heartbreak, emotional crisis and just general anxiety (which doesn’t help with that subsequently identified disorder). There was a moment of triumph at the top, anchored by the heroic efforts from my idol Dirk Nowitzki, who also supplied a treasure chest of prized memories scattered over 21 years that I will hold dear forever.
Having that big German dude at the epicenter of these cherished moments is an added bonus. Not only is Nowitzki an all-time sportsman, he is truly an all-time person. Few people or athletes as accomplished as he are the type of human being that Dirk is. Whether or not it’s because he’s too much of a goofball, a foreign outsider or the rare celebrity introvert, what made growing up with Dirk Nowitzki so special was not that he was the source of so many great sports moments, but that I can honestly say my childhood hero isn’t only that because he could dunk a basketball.
He was a great player. One of the greatest ever, in fact. But he’s an even greater man.
Not all athletes are role models. But Dirk Was.
Happy 41st to number 41.