By Frank Pingue
(Reuters) - Dallas Mavericks forward Dirk Nowitzki was labeled a "soft Euro" by critics early in his career but the grossly misguided perception ultimately fueled the towering German to become one of the NBA's greatest scorers.
The label is laughable now considering Nowitzki, already the highest-scoring NBA player born outside the United States, has blossomed into a win-at-all-costs warrior who redefined the power forward position and is closing in on a scoring milestone.
Nowitzki is 48 points shy of becoming only the sixth NBA player to reach 30,000 career points, a feat that would put him in the company of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Karl Malone, Kobe Bryant, Michael Jordan and Wilt Chamberlain.
Barring injury, the 38-year-old former NBA Most Valuable Player should reach the mark sometime over the next week and join Malone and Bryant as the only players to score 30,000 points with one franchise.
"Dirk Nowitzki is probably one of the most tough-minded NBA players I've been around," Toronto head coach Dwane Casey, who was an assistant coach for the Nowitzki-led Mavericks team that won an NBA title in 2011, told Reuters. "You're not going to shake him, you're not going to get into his head, his psyche."
Nowitzki, who is averaging 13.6 points per game this season, will get his next shot at reaching the milestone later on Friday when Dallas host Memphis in the opener of a five-game homestand.
The German's rise up the all-time scoring charts was not one that many predicted when he made his NBA debut in 1998 when some said he was too soft, not strong enough, couldn't rebound and had a style of play not suitable for the NBA, where the world's best basketball players ply their trade.
Perhaps some of the "soft" criticism directed at the 7-foot (2.1 meters) Nowitzki was because unlike other players his size, he relied more on his shooting ability rather than mixing it up down low to provide an intimidating presence.
Nowitzki's arsenal and accuracy continued to improve as he blossomed into one of the NBA's uniquely unstoppable players, a perennial All-Star who defied the parameters of his position.
"He's one of the players you almost have to tell to get out of the gym. He'd come back in at night time ... and stay until 10 o'clock at night," said Casey.
"Back in the day he used to have (fitness equipment) in his living room. A lot of people have TVs and pool tables, he had a Precor. ... so he's one of the most dedicated, hardworking stars I've ever been around."
Nowitzki's durability and consistency were on full display in the 2011 NBA Finals, a best-of-seven series in which he produced some of the more defining moments of his career against a Miami team featuring LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh.
With Dallas trailing the series 1-0 and down 15 points late in Game Two it was Nowitzki, playing with a torn tendon in his left middle finger, who rallied his team to victory.
Five days later, with his team needing a win to avoid going down 3-1, a fever-stricken Nowitzki was at it again, this time shrugging off three miserable quarters before a stunning finish.
"He's one of the best. As far as tight situations, you can't think of nobody better to get the ball to than Dirk," said Casey. "His size, his toughness, his strength. You look at him and he looks slender but he probably has one of the strongest cores you can have. You can't knock him off balance."
(Reporting by Frank Pingue in Toronto. Editing by Steve Keating)