DALLAS (AP) — The face of the Dallas Mavericks laughed, sang and even seemed to tear up.
For Dirk Nowitzki, the only thing that could come close to being an NBA champion for the first time was celebrating it with the fans in his adopted hometown of Dallas.
An expected crowd of 250,000 crammed downtown Thursday morning for a parade in the team’s honor, with another 20,000 or so filling the arena for a rally filled with emotional moments.
After waiting 31 years for the franchise to be atop the NBA, fans honored it in a way that many said was worth the wait. The Mavs beat the Miami Heat in Game 6 Sunday to capture the best-of-seven series, 4-2.
Nowitzki was the unquestioned star of the show, drawing the loudest cheers from start to finish — usually chants of “M! V! P!” There were German flags in the crowd, a sign calling him “Der Kaiser” and cut-out letters that spelled “Thank you Dirk.”
After the parade and before the rally, Nowitzki and his teammates went to the balcony of the arena and spoke briefly to the crowd. Nowitzki capped it by leading a rousing rendition of their new favorite song, “We Are The Champions.”
More singing came during the rally, when team owner Mark Cuban serenaded Nowitzki with “Happy Birthday”; he turns 33 on Sunday. Nowitzki got into it, too, pretending to conduct.
But this day had two other emotional crescendos for Nowitzki.
The first came when coach Rick Carlisle said, “You’re looking at the best basketball team on the planet. It’s also very clear we have in our presence the greatest basketball player on the planet.” The overhead jumbo board showed a close-up shot of Nowitzki wiping his eyes.
When it was Nowitzki’s turn to speak, his teammates and Cuban were among those standing and chanting “MVP.” Nowitzki bit his bottom lip and looked down. He was too overcome with emotion to answer the first question from co-emcee Chuck Cooperstein.
“It’s been an amazing ride, an amazing journey,” Nowitzki said. “It’s been a lot of ups and a lot of downs. This is the top of the iceberg. It feels absolutely amazing.”
He relived his journey from a 19-year-old draftee with a bowl cut and a bad earring “just a bad look,” he said with a smile — to the greatest player in team history, a former league MVP and the newly minted finals MVP.
“I didn’t really know what to expect,” he said of his early days in Dallas. “It’s been an amazing ride and you guys have been with me every step of the way. This is for our fans!”
Another highly charged moment came when it was Cuban’s turn to speak.
The rambunctious billionaire determined to do things his way seemed awed by the moment, surely thinking about his own journey from a fan who used to buy scalped tickets to buying the club in January 2000.
When Cooperstein joked about this being “a long way from Reunion Arena,” Cuban just shook his head, lips pinched.
In came Carlisle to the rescue.
He grabbed the microphone and discussed something he said to the players a few days before, about the difference between success and fulfillment.
“Mark has had obvious success,” Carlisle said. “The thing you have to understand is, to him, it doesn’t matter the cost, it’s to be able to bring this moment to you. So, thanks.”
They hugged as fans stood and cheered. There were chants of “Thank you Mark,” and Cuban wiped his eyes several times. Once he felt composed, the guy who loves being the center of attention motioned for quiet.
He had a story to tell.
“The day I bought the team, but it had not yet been announced, I went out with some friends to have an adult beverage,” Cuban said. “I go into this bar and I see this tall, German, goofy-looking guy — with his bowl cut, earring — and I know I’m going to be his boss the very next day. He has no idea.
“So I walk up to him and say, ‘Yo. Let me buy you a beer.’ He just looks at me, shakes his head and walks away.
“The next day, we’re at (the practice facility). I’m supposed to get introduced to the team. I walk in the door and I walk up and I just look at him and he just shakes his head. That’s pretty much been our relationship for 13 years.”
The video board cut to Nowitzki several times during the anecdote and he couldn’t stop smiling and laughing.
There were all sorts of funny moments during the rally.
Brian Cardinal, a backup nicknamed “The Custodian,” came on the stage with a broom and dustpan. With a stogie in his mouth, he tidied up a bit, then waved his arms to loud applause. He cupped a hand to his ears, asking for them to be louder, then went back into the tunnel.
Jason Kidd was the first player to speak and he talked about it being “a dream came true when I was drafted by the Mavericks in 1994.”
“I just didn’t know it was going to take 17 years to win a championship,” he said. “We’ve got one championship, now we need to go and get another championship.”
Tyson Chandler upped expectations.
“I hear they do things big in Dallas,” he said. “So if we do it big, it can’t be just one.” He held up a hand and started flipping up fingers and counting, “One, two, three, four, five.”
Jason Terry wore dark glasses and a Mardi Gras-style blue necklace. He did his traditional flying airplane motion to wild cheers, then flexed his right biceps to show off the tattoo of the trophy he added in October and vowed to scrub if they didn’t win it all.
Terry and Nowitzki are the only holdovers from the Mavericks’ only other finals team — in 2006, when they blew a 2-0 lead against Miami. So this title is especially sweet for them.
“Not only the way we did it, who we did it against,” Terry said before the rally. “We’ll never forget it. We’ll never forget ’05-06 and we sure as heck won’t forget 2011.”
Fans filled the downtown streets starting early Thursday, despite temperatures approaching 90 degrees by noon. The plaza around the arena was filled to its 3,000-person capacity about two hours before the parade even began.
Franchise founder Donald Carter and his wife, Linda, for whom he started the club as gift, were in the lead vehicle, a white convertible.
“Fantastic,” Carter said.
At the end of the parade, those who rode along said they were overwhelmed by the turnout — people as far as they could see.
“I’m numb,” said Donnie Nelson, the team’s president of basketball operations.