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Legend of Nowitzki grows

NEW YORK — With a joyous postgame locker room Wednesday night at the Barclays Center as a backdrop, Dallas Mavericks forward Dirk Nowitzki took a step back in time.

All the way back to his NBA roots.

It was the 1998-99 season, and Nowitzki’s rookie year wasn’t going all that well. In fact, he stumbled around so much that season that many thought he was just another 7-foot stiff with two left feet who wouldn’t amount to anything in the NBA.

Many also thought the Mavericks made a major blunder when they passed up a sure thing in Kansas All-American Paul Pierce in the 1998 NBA draft to acquire the unknown Nowitzki in a draft-day trade with the Milwaukee Bucks.

Some 18 years later, on a rainy night in New York, Nowitzki passed Shaquille O’Neal and became the No. 6 all-time leading scorer in NBA history.

In the process, Nowitzki talked about how surreal this moment was for him. He made his patented fadeaway 18-footer from the right corner and moved him past O’Neal on the scoring charts with 9:51 remaining before halftime of a game the Mavericks won 119-118 in overtime.

“I always say when I was 20 years old I never expected this,” said Nowitzki, who finished with 22 points. “I would have said you’re absolutely out of your mind if you would have told me this 18 years ago.

“I come in here with a bad haircut and a bad earring, and not knowing (the NBA game), and the first year all these ups and downs and doubts creeping in, did you make the right decision. It was tough for me at the beginning, but once I started feeling comfortable off the floor, I just always wanted to keep working.”

Nowitzki worked so hard at his craft that many describe him as a self-made superstar.

Nowitzki even jokes about how slow he is, how he doesn’t jump high, and how he is void of the type of gravity-defying athleticism that’s showcased on ESPN on a nightly basis.

None of that matters to Nowitzki, who has scored 28,609 points. The only players ahead of him are Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (38,387), Karl Malone (36,928), Kobe Bryant (32,897), Michael Jordan (32,292) and Wilt Chamberlain (31,419).

When those names were called off to Nowitzki after Wednesday’s victory, he interrupted the reporter, smiled and said: “That sounds pretty good, huh? That sounds really good. It’s a dream come true.”

For Rick Carlisle, it also has been a dream come true for him to be able to coach a player of Nowitzki’s stature.

“You run out of accolades,” Carlisle said. “It’s such a tremendous feat and such a tremendous individual.

“This franchise has been extremely lucky. Reggie Miller played for one franchise and had multiple opportunities to go to other places for more money. Dirk has had those same opportunities and has been loyal to (owner) Mark (Cuban) and loyal to the fans and the organization.”

One of the reasons guard Wesley Matthews left Portland via free agency this past summer and signed a four-year, $70 million contract with the Mavericks was the opportunity to play with a legend such as Nowitzki. Matthews knew Nowitzki was still crafty enough to draw double teams, which in turn would leave Matthews open for jump shots.

So when Nowitzki was greeted during a timeout with one hug after another from his teammates and coaching staff after his milestone shot, Matthews knew this was a moment he would always treasure.

“It’s great to be a part of something like that,” said Matthews, who had 17 points against the Nets. “It’s not every day you see something like that.

“I’m extremely grateful to be a part of it, I’m happy for him and it was a lot of great moments tonight. We wanted to win this (game) for a number of reasons — that being one of them.”

The Mavericks know it would have been more exciting had Nowitzki been able to surpass O’Neal during a home game at American Airlines Center. But after Tuesday’s 103-99 loss in Toronto, the Mavericks needed every minute from Nowitzki against the Nets to get back on the winning path.

“Dirk was great and (it’s) unbelievable that he’s sixth all time,” Chandler Parsons said. “It just shows you how hard he’s worked and what a career he’s had.”

It’s a career that centered on Nowitzki going back home to Germany every offseason, and coming back to Dallas with a new wrinkle added to his game.

He became the master at implementing another element that would make him even more difficult to guard.

“I was a gym rat,” Nowitzki said. “I always try to be in the gym and get better, and try to improve for the next season.”

Nowitzki acknowledged his ability to stay relatively injury-free as playing a huge role in climbing the scoring charts. The only major injury the 37-year-old had was when he missed 29 games during the 2012-13 season after undergoing surgery on his right knee.

“I think there’s a lot of great players that had their careers cut short, and that’s why they didn’t score more points than they probably should have, because they were held back by injuries,” Nowitzki said. “I was really, really fortunate.

“The most I missed was my knee surgery was 29 games. Other than that, I was always there for this team and for this franchise, so I guess I was a little fortunate as well.”

Dallas' Dirk Nowitzki recently became the No. 6 all-time leading scorer in NBA history. AP PHOTO