Saturday, June 18, 2011

The Hero with a Thousand Faces: Dirk Nowitzki and The Living Monomyth

In the week since Dirk Nowitzki and the Dallas Mavericks won the NBA Championship, a great many things have been said about the way the trophy was won. If we put aside the media-favorite talking points (LeBron choking, veterans winning, "good" vs. "evil", etc.), then the story of our hero begins take center stage.

In Joseph Campbell's seminal work, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, the journey of the archetypal hero is dissected and laid bare. Few (if any) American sports figures have had careers which track so eerily closely to the formula of Campbell's monomyth as Dirk Nowitzki.

As a foreign born player, Nowitzki was primed to complete the first section of The Hero's Journey, The Departure

  • The Call to Adventure - The hero starts off in a mundane situation of normality from which some information is received that acts as a call to head off into the unknown.

    • Dirk’s basketball ability is noticed outside of Germany. FC Barcelona Bàsquet offers to sign him. 
  • The Refusal of The Call - Often when the call is given, the future hero refuses to heed it. This may be from a sense of duty or obligation, fear, insecurity, a sense of inadequacy, or any of a range of reasons that work to hold the person in his or her current circumstances.
    • FC Barcelona’s request is rebuffed; Dirk wants to stay home and finish school.
  • Supernatural Aid - Once the hero has committed to the quest, consciously or unconsciously, his or her guide and magical helper appears, or becomes known. More often than not, this supernatural mentor will present the hero with one or more talismans or artifacts that will aid them later in their quest.

    • Holger Geschwindner agrees to help Dirk as father-figure, mentor, and coach.
  • The Crossing of the First Threshold - This is the point where the person actually crosses into the field of adventure, leaving the known limits of his or her world and venturing into an unknown and dangerous realm where the rules and limits are not known.

    • Dirk is drafted 9th, and agrees to leave Germany to play in the NBA.
  • Belly of The Whale - The belly of the whale represents the final separation from the hero's known world and self. By entering this stage, the person shows willingness to undergo a metamorphosis.

    • Dirk arrives in the United States and signs with the Dallas Mavericks 

As Dirk entered the NBA, a new set of challenges and opportunities wold prevent themselves

  • The Road of Trials - The road of trials is a series of tests, tasks, or ordeals that the person must undergo to begin the transformation.

    • Numerous playoff losses, with Dirk's trials hitting their nadir in the loss to Miami in the 2006 Finals
  • The Meeting with the Goddess - This is the point when the person experiences a love that has the power and significance of the all-powerful, all encompassing, unconditional love that a fortunate infant may experience with his or her mother. This is a very important step in the process and is often represented by the person finding the other person that he or she loves most completely.

    • Mark Cuban buys the Mavericks, and commits to building a winning team around Dirk
  • Woman as Temptress - This step is about those temptations that may lead the hero to abandon or stray from his or her quest, which does not necessarily have to be represented by a woman. Woman is a metaphor for the physical or material temptations of life, since the hero-knight was often tempted by lust from his spiritual journey.

    • Dirk becomes engaged to Cristal Taylor, a con artist who claimed to be pregnant with his’s baby. After Taylor is jailed, Dirk overcomes her temptation and recommits to basketball.
  • Atonement with the Father - In this step the person must confront and be initiated by whatever holds the ultimate power in his or her life. In many myths and stories this is the father, or a father figure who has life and death power. This is the center point of the journey. All the previous steps have been moving in to this place, all that follow will move out from it. Although this step is most frequently symbolized by an encounter with a male entity, it does not have to be a male; just someone or thing with incredible power.

    • After the officiating in Game 5 of the ’06 Finals, Dirk understands and accepts David Stern’s power in the NBA.
  • Apotheosis - When someone dies a physical death, or dies to the self to live in spirit, he or she moves beyond the pairs of opposites to a state of divine knowledge, love, compassion and bliss. A more mundane way of looking at this step is that it is a period of rest, peace and fulfillment before the hero begins the return.

    • Despite winning 67 games and the league MVP, Dirk and the Mavericks lose in the first round of the playoffs, the biggest upset in NBA history. Dirk and his mentor Holger, travel to the Australia to rest, rejuvenate, and find peace.
  • The Ultimate Boon - The ultimate boon is the achievement of the goal of the quest. It is what the person went on the journey to get. All the previous steps serve to prepare and purify the person for this step, since in many myths the boon is something transcendent like the elixir of life itself, or a plant that supplies immortality, or the holy grail.

    • Dirk wins the 2011 NBA Finals over the heavily favored Miami Heat. The ’06 loss is avenged against the ultimate foe. Dirk has achieved the goal of his quest.
Some thoughts:
  • For obvious reasons, only a foreign born player could fit Campbell's archetype so literally. When one considers that Dirk is one of the few All-Stars in the four major sports not from the Americas, the list of potential "fits" for The Call, The Refusal, and The Crossing becomes very small. 
  • The relationship between Dirk and Holger is unique in the four major sports. Has any other person in sports so effectively developed and mentored a superstar from hatchling to champion? Since Dirk began playing basketball seriously at 16, Holger has been his coach, father-figure, mentor, and pseudo-agent. When each season ends, no matter the result, Dirk and Holger head to Germany to hit the gym. When Dirk arrived in the US at 19, Holger rented Dirk an apartment, bought him furniture, and leased him a car.  When Dirk went soul-searching after the 2007 playoff loss to the Warriors, only Holger went with him to Australia. When Dirk was a free-agent in 2010, the Mavericks didn't talk to an agent, they went and talked to Holger. (Dirk is, to my knowledge, the only NBA superstar without an official agent or business manager.) Holger is the amalgamation of Earl Woods, Red Auerbach, and Maverick Carter; he is the closest thing to Supernatural Aid that we're likely to see in sports.
  • Dirk's Road of Trials is well documented. Bob Sturm of The Ticket likened Dirk's cycle of hope and failure to Charlie Brown trying to kick the football only to have it pulled away at the last second.
  • Mark Cuban is certainly a polarizing figure in the sports world, but few would argue that he hasn't done everything to help his team win. From facilities, to players, to trades, to speaking his mind, to shutting up; Cuban has tried everything to help Dirk chase a championship. Cuban may not fill the Goddess role in the traditional romantic sense, but the love and support between Cuban and Dirk is undeniable nevertheless. 
  • Unlike Cuban, Cristal Taylor played her role as Temptress in the traditional sense. Taylor very nearly married Dirk despite her questionable goals and criminal history. Dirk was blindsided by her arrest and was reportedly crushed to learn the truth about his would-be fiance.
  • After the Mavericks' loss to Miami in the '06 NBA Finals, Mark Cuban very seriously considered selling the team. Cuban was convinced that Stern would never allow Dallas to win a championship with him as the owner. Dirk convinced Cuban not to sell, and together the two of them begrudgingly accepted Stern's role and power in the NBA, completing the Atonement.
  • After the crushing loss to Miami the previous year, Dirk led the Mavericks to a 67 win season and was named the league MVP. Despite playing his best in the regular season, Dirk and the Mavericks were embarrassed by the Warriors in six games. After the loss, Dirk disappeared to Australia with Holger. Naming this trip Dirk's Apotheosis is admittedly a stretch. In the few articles in which Dirk discusses this trip, he tells of visiting landmarks, drinking whiskey, camping, and playing the guitar. He never reveals what, if anything, he learned or discovered while in Australia.
  • Dirk's quest for a trophy was the reason he left Germany in the first place. The Ultimate Boon, indeed.
No matter how closely the rest of Dirk's career follows The Return in The Hero with a Thousand Faces,  his quest for a championship has been absolutely heroic in every sense of the word.

Dirk Nowitzki is unlike any hero we've seen in sports. He is a living monomyth: a legend come to life.