DALLAS - As a teenager in Germany, Dirk Nowitzki stayed up late to watch the NBA Finals and got up early to watch All-Star games. He worked on his shot every day and came home to a room with a poster of Scottie Pippen on the wall.

Barely 20 when he was drafted, Nowitzki wasn't sure he was ready for the NBA. Even after his rookie season, he wondered "if I had it, if I was going to make it in this league."

"I just kept on working, kept learning, kept my confidence up as much as I could," he said.

Nowitzki smiled as he shared those memories yesterday, standing a few feet from an NBA MVP trophy with his name etched into it.

Having long since conquered his doubts, Nowitzki put a permanent stamp on his career by winning this award - the first for a European, for someone who didn't go to high school or college in the United States, and for a member of the Dallas Mavericks.

It also was the rare instance of the honor going to a player who couldn't get his team out of the playoffs' first round, but commissioner David Stern, Dallas coach Avery Johnson and Mavericks owner Mark Cuban did their best to keep the focus on the things Nowitzki did right this season and throughout his 9-year career.

Stern praised Nowitzki as "an iconic, elite athlete from Europe who has not only learned to play our game, he's mastered it." Cuban became emotional talking about his star player's work ethic and desire.

"You don't have to encourage him to get into the gym, he's the guy you have to lock out," Cuban said. "He's not the guy who you wonder if he cares, he's the guy who hurts so much when things don't go the way you want. That's what makes him an MVP. He's an example . . . that you don't have to fit a certain role, a certain model, but if you work hard enough and care enough, anything is possible."

About the only person dragging the mood down was Nowitzki.

"Even when I heard I was MVP, I was sad to watch all these playoff games and know that we're not a part of it," Nowitzki said. "It's heartbreaking still to me. I was trying to be positive and be really happy, but it's going to take a while for it to really sink in."

Nowitzki led the Mavericks to 67 wins, a total eclipsed by only five teams in NBA history. He was the team's top scorer (24.6 points per game) and rebounder (8.9 per game), and averaged a career-high 3.4 assists. He also was the only player in the league to shoot better than 50 percent from the field, 40 percent on three-pointers and 90 percent on free throws.

He was listed first on 83 of the 129 ballots, garnering a total of 1,138 points, to end the 2-year MVP reign of his close friend and former teammate Steve Nash, of the Phoenix Suns.

"I'm extremely proud of him and happy for him," Nash said. "I think it's really well-deserved. Hopefully he gets a chance to enjoy it regardless of their playoff outcome, because he had a phenomenal year and he really deserves it."

Nash finished second with 1,013 points and 44 first-place votes. He could have joined Larry Bird, Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell as the only players to be named MVP in 3 straight years.

Kobe Bryant, of the Los Angeles Lakers, got the remaining two first-place votes. San Antonio's Tim Duncan was fourth and Cleveland's LeBron James was fifth.

The vote was based on regular-season play, with ballots due before the playoffs started. *