IT'S PROBABLY the most negative label in sports - "Soft."
I'm not sure what its true definition in sports is because "soft or being soft" tends to evolve depending on whom you want to tag with it.
Dallas Mavericks forward Dirk Nowitzki has that label.
Depending on whom you ask, Nowitzki, a former NBA Most Valuable Player, is soft because he's from Germany and plays a passive-aggressive European style; because he is a 7-footer but doesn't like to mix it up in the paint; because he crumbles under the pressure of the playoffs and takes the Mavericks flaming out with him.
It's all a bunch of hooey, and most of it is generated from American stereotypes about what basketball players look like and how that should translate into the style they play.
Seven-footers are supposed to be guys who play with their backs to the basket, mix it up down low and provide an intimidating presence.
They aren't supposed to play the game 18 feet from the basket.
But if it makes that player into one of the top 10 players of his generation, which Nowitzki is, why not?
Why would anyone want to change Nowitzki's game when it has been so successful in the NBA?
"When you're a big guy and you're a jump shooter, that's automatically a label of being soft," said Nowitzki, who scored 48 and made 24 of 24 free throws in the Mavs' victory over the Oklahoma City Thunder in Game 1 of the Western Conference finals on Tuesday.
That's just prejudicial thinking.
The reality is that a "soft" player couldn't have accomplished anything close to what Nowitzki has in his career.
How is it "soft" to average 23 points and 8.4 rebounds in a 13-year career during which he has played at least 73 games in every season except his rookie one?
How does a "soft" player make 10 consecutive All-Star teams, All-NBA first team four times and All-NBA second team five times, and be named the 2007 MVP?
A "soft" player cannot.
People say Nowitzki, 32, is the best European player in NBA history, and that is true.
But "European" is an unnecessary qualifier that actually works to distract from how great a player Nowitzki has been over the last decade.
If we consider active players with at least a 10-year resume in the league, Nowitzki is right there with Kobe Bryant, Tim Duncan, Shaquille O'Neal, Kevin Garnett, Jason Kidd, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen as the best players.
Only O'Neal, Garnett, Duncan and Bryant have made more All-Star teams.
Historically, Nowitzki ranks 23rd on the NBA all-time scoring list with 22,792 points.
He scored 1,681 points this season.
If Nowitzki averages 1,500 points over the final three seasons of his current contract, he will move into the top 10 ahead of players like Moses Malone, Elvin Hayes, Oscar Robertson, Jerry West, Allen Iverson and Charles Barkley.
At some point, Nowitzki will become the first European player inducted into the Naismith Hall of Fame strictly because of his NBA career.
If that translates into playing "soft," then put Nowitzki on my team.
Are Philadelphia fans glad the Sixers passed on the "soft" Euro kid and selected "St. Louis-hard" Larry Hughes a spot before Nowitzki in 1998?
Much of Nowitzki's reputation comes from the fact that despite Dallas winning at least 50 games for 11 consecutive seasons, the Mavericks have not won a championship.
Whether it is fair or not, Nowitzki, as the Mavs' superstar player, pulls the heaviest baggage.
That's just the way things work.
But in Nowitzki and the Mavericks' defense, they play in the same division as the San Antonio Spurs, who have won four NBA titles since Nowitzki was drafted.
The Los Angeles Lakers, who are also in the Western Conference with Dallas, have won five titles in the same span.
San Antonio and the Lakers, the two teams Dallas has to get through just to get out of the West, have played in 11 of the last 12 NBA Finals.
Dallas made it to the Finals in 2006, but that is when Nowitzki's "soft" label went viral.
After the Mavericks won the first two games, the Miami Heat, led by Finals MVP Dwyane Wade and O'Neal, won four straight to take the title.
Nowitzki, the regular-season MVP, averaged 22.8 points and 10.8 rebounds in the Finals but was said to have come up small during Dallas' greatest moments of need.
Again, that's the criticism that comes with being a star player, but the legacy of Nowitzki choking in the playoffs has been greatly exaggerated.
Through his career, Nowitzki has actually performed better against amped-up playoff defenses.
During the regular season, Nowitzki has career averages of 23 points and 8.4 rebounds in 36.5 minutes.
In the playoffs, Nowitzki averages 25.8 points and 10.6 rebounds in 41.4 minutes. His free-throw attempts also climb from 6.5 in the regular season to 8.8 in the playoffs.
During Nowitzki's time in the NBA, Reggie Miller, Iverson, LeBron James and Dwight Howard all lost in their only appearance in the Finals, but none of them was labeled "soft."
The difference is nothing more than American stereotyping of European players - labels that don't apply to Nowitzki.
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