What Dirk Nowitzki Taught Me About Focus

Playing basketball

Despite having played sports at various times in my life, I’m not a huge sports fan. (At least not like many people I know.) I can’t tell you who plays for which team with the exception of the superstars. Much of this lack of sports awareness is because I’ve been busy writing, studying and entrepreneurship-ing for the past several years and can rarely find the time to sit down for a game. But I’ll tell you, I was GLUED to the NBA Finals last night.

There was a ton of press going into this season about the Miami Heat. With Lebron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh publicly declaring that we were witnessing the inception of a dynasty, the press about their new collaboration was difficult to ignore. But last night that would-be dynasty seemed to crumble a bit as Dirk Nowitzki and the Dallas Mavericks out-hustled, out-strategized and just flat out-played the dynamic trio. The hero of this whole affair? Mild-mannered Dirk Nowitzki, the 13 year veteran and notoriously media-averse star of the Dallas Mavericks.

I won’t delve into backstory and drama that led up to last night’s game. There’s already been a ton of that today. In the midst of the write-ups bashing James, decrying the Heat and celebrating the Mavs, one tiny article on the USA Today website first caught my eye, then had me jumping up and down a la Tom Cruise on Oprah. (Yeah…sorry for the dated reference but until someone tops it…)

The headline: Dirk Nowitzki Has Lots of Game, But No Agent.

The article goes on to describe how Nowitzki has had exactly one endorsement deal – with Nike – in his career, and how he negotiates all of his business arrangements himself. The most amazing quote of the article – the one that had me bouncing on the couch – was this:

Nowitzki explained his decision not to pursue endorsements to Bloomberg by saying, “I always wanted to be a basketball player. Nothing more, nothing less.”

Wow. In a world of “get what you can while you can” and “diversifying” and “personal branding”, Nowitzki has chosen instead to focus on what he does really well – play basketball. Sure, he’s making millions to do it, but just think of how much more he could be making if he was willing to cash in?

While the future is yet to be written, and Nowitzki has every right to change his mind, I think his stance holds a few lessons about the importance of focus and understanding vocation.

1. Diversifying sometimes means doing more things less well. If you choose to try to do too many things at once, you may kill the goose that laid the golden eggs.

2. Understanding your vocation is essential to brilliance. There are a lot of ways to make a living, but truly brilliant work tends to result from a deep understanding of the vocation, or calling, that’s being lived out. Nowitzki knows he wants to play basketball. It’s not a means to some other end, it IS the end.

3. Don’t talk about what you’re going to do, just do it. The reason there were so many Heat haters is that they had declared their dominance before it was manifest. The reason Nowitzki has so many supporters is because he largely kept his mouth shut and just did his job. Your work should speak for itself.

I’m disturbed that Nowitski’s attitude is so noteworthy to me. This means that I’m growing more cynical about the marketplace and that stances like this are so rare that they stand out. But if more of us would adopt this attitude, I think it would open new doors for expression, focus and true brilliance. That’s my goal. I’m going to spend some time thinking about how I can better focus on my vocation, and I hope you’ll join me.

(Photo credit: ricardodiaz)

Share your thoughts:

Please keep your comments civil and on topic.


  1. Willem Heesbeen

    In my view, the agent/sponsor/media combo is too powerful for most athletes to push back. When ca$h is involved, who can resist .. let’s be honest. The weakness sits in the leagues/teams/coaching where players get too much space to play with and become prima-donnas with a lack of obligation .. just entitlement. Whoever cracked the code to get ‘guaranteed money’ into the sports contract toolbox should be jailed for killing professional sports.

  2. Cameron Plommer

    Lebron James could learn a thing or to from Dirk about being a great basketball player.  Seem like James isn’t that concerned with being a great baller.  The guy could be unstoppable if he put in the hard work to develop a real game (not one based off his freakish athleticism).  Instead he would rather do commercials, endorsements, movies, etc.  I’m so happy for a guy like Dirk that did all the right things. 

  3. Want

    A good character to point out Todd.  Thank you.  As I watched game six, I pointed out to my son that both Dirk Nowitzki and Jason Kidd have stood out in the league as very humble men with truly great character.  We were very glad to see them be recognized and win along with the rest of the team.

    • Hvs_scots

      Let’s not forget Jason Kidd being arrested for hitting his wife on more than one occasion. I understand what this post is trying to say, but sometimes diversity is good. Some people are skilled in a variety of areas ( Leonardo Da Vinci / renaissance ?) . People just need to do what’s right for them as long as they don’t hurt others, sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.

      • Todd Henry

        Yeah – absolutely true. I’m not making any kind of moral endorsement of anyone or saying that there’s some universal, unchanging principle at work here. Everything could change tomorrow. I just thought it was refreshing to hear someone say “I just want to play basketball. That’s really why I’m here.” I think that kind of focus – even if it’s temporary – is really admirable.

  4. Sam

    I saw the game, first one all season and feel the same way. I wathed him get the Bill Russel award and smiled.

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I'm Todd Henry.

I'm Todd Henry.

I write books, speak internationally on productivity, creativity, leadership, and passion for work, and help people and teams generate brilliant ideas. More

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