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 Tuesday, 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 nine-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," he said. "It's heartbreaking still to me. I was trying to be positive and be really happy, but it's going to take awhile 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 3-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 two-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 three 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. The result might have been different, otherwise, because of how poorly Nowitzki played in Dallas' first-round elimination by Golden State, one of the biggest upsets in NBA history.
Stern dismissed the idea of Nowitzki's victory prompting a change in voting to include some or all of the playoffs. It's worth noting that five of the previous seven MVPs did not lead their team to the championship; however, it had been 25 years (Houston's Moses Malone in 1981-82) since an MVP failed to win a single playoff series. "It happens," Stern said. "The beauty of sports is you take nothing for granted. Obviously Dirk was disappointed with the way the season ended, but he should feel quite good about his place in history for the season he led the Mavs to." Nowitzki takes a lot of pride in how far he's come in his career. He thanked his first coach, current Warriors coach Don Nelson, for daring to "have a 7-footer dribble up the ball and shoot 3-pointers" and credited Johnson for helping round out his game during the last two years. "Once you're at this stage, I think everything that you've put into it comes through your mind - all the hard work, all the hours you put in," he said. "It's just very fulfilling." Nowitzki started playing basketball when he was 13. A few years later, he began working with Holger Geschwindner, the captain of West Germany's 1972 Olympic team. Their plan to get him into the NBA was creating a 7-footer who could shoot 3s. Once they succeeded, they kept tinkering, adding skills every year. Even after turning Nowitzki into an All-Star and now an MVP, they're still building. He leaves today for about a month of traveling, then he'll head back into the basketball laboratory. "I still feel like there's a lot I can pick up," said Nowitzki, who turns 29 next month. The one thing he can't change for at least a year is his growing reputation for playoff failure. "I understand there are a lot of stars in history and present who are great players and never really won a championship. As of now, I'm in that category," Nowitzki said. "The only good thing is ... I feel like I'm in the prime of my career. Hopefully I've got a lot of great postseason runs left."