Posted: Friday June 17, 2011 1:49PM ; Updated: Friday June 17, 2011 6:05PM
Ian Thomsen

The Sixth Man (cont.)

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The World

Dirk Nowitzki became the first non-American to lead his team to an NBA title.
Dirk Nowitzki became the first non-American to lead his team to an NBA title.

Via Dirk Nowitzki. It won't receive much notice within the U.S., but Nowitzki became one of the most important players in basketball history when Dallas finished off Miami last week.

Nowitzki became the first non-American to lead an NBA team to the title. This was the last frontier for world basketball, and Nowitzki is its champion.

Tim Duncan (Virgin Islands) and Hakeem Olajuwon (Nigeria) won NBA championships after being raised outside the 50 states, but each was transformed by three or four years at a U.S. college. They had been channeled through the American system before they arrived in the NBA.

GALLERY: NBA Finals MVPs over the years

Nowitzki's path was entirely different and groundbreaking. He arrived in the NBA as a 7-foot German with an entirely foreign, perimeter-based style of play. After the Mavericks acquired his rights as the No. 9 pick in the 1998 draft, Nowitzki had serious doubts about moving to the NBA as a 20-year-old. He was afraid for good reason: No one in the NBA played the way he did, and no foreigner had ever succeeded in the NBA as a young, highly chosen draft pick. There was no example for him to cite, and no concrete reason to believe he could be the first of his kind.

Think about all of the negative labels that have been ascribed to European players over the years -- that they're too soft, unathletic and uncompetitive to deal with the best American-raised stars. Those stereotypes were reinforced when Nowitzki's Mavericks surrendered a 2-0 lead to Wade's aggressive Miami Heat in the 2006 Finals. Nowitzki spent the next five years working to improve his low-post game and leadership skills with the hope of earning another chance to prove he's worthy.

Now that he has finished what he started, Nowitzki has raised the hopes of every young player in every corner of the planet. They, too, can now aim to become the best player in the world, regardless of where they learn to play basketball. LeBron's blend of skill, size, athleticism and vision make him the most talented player this sport has ever seen, according to many experts, and last week he was beaten by an underdog from the German second division.

The impact of Nowitzki's breakthrough cannot be overstated. He has accomplished something that was considered impossible 20 years ago. At that time no one could imagine a U.S. "Dream Team" losing in the Olympics, and no one could imagine a non-American beating the best of America -- Kobe Bryant, Kevin Durant and LeBron, one after the other -- to win the NBA championship.

This is one of those triumphs that will bring out the best in everyone. It will inspire millions of potential NBA players on foreign continents, and it will demand responses from Bryant, James and Durant (whose own style of play has been influenced by Nowitzki).

"You're looking at the best basketball team on the planet," coach Rick Carlisle told Dallas fans during the Mavs' victory rally Thursday. "It's also very clear we have in our presence the greatest basketball player on the planet."

Nowitzki cried when he heard those words, but they were no exaggeration. I am certain he is too humble to recognize what he has accomplished. That same humility enabled him to fulfill himself as no other non-American has done before. Others will follow from Europe, Asia and Africa, and they will be inspired by Nowitzki. He will always be the first.

The List

The modern champions. Since Magic Johnson and Larry Bird entered the NBA in 1979-80, all but one of the championships has been won by these 14 players. If you didn't have one or more of these dominant stars -- the criteria being that they played to an MVP level while leading their championship teams -- then you weren't going to win the NBA title. (The lone exception is the 2003-04 Pistons, who didn't have an MVP-level scorer but prevailed with a quartet of All-Star talents in Ben Wallace, Rasheed Wallace, Richard Hamilton and Chauncey Billups.)

Dirk Nowitzki (1)

Kobe Bryant (5)

Kevin Garnett (1)

Tim Duncan (4)

Shaquille O'Neal (4)

Dwyane Wade (1)

Michael Jordan (6)

Hakeem Olajuwon (2)

Isiah Thomas (2)

Magic Johnson (5)

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (5 in this era, 6 overall)

Larry Bird (3)

Moses Malone (1)

Julius Erving (1)

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