By Jason Keidel
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A funny thing could happen to King James on his climb to history’s throne…
The San Antonio Spurs, an incongruous team with three stars but no egos — a vast contrast to their current opponent — have been to the NBA Finals four times with Tim Duncan and won them all. They beat LeBron James in one of them, which surely isn’t lost on James or San Antonio.
James gets a mulligan for losing to the stoic Spurs in 2007, since he was the best player at every position on his Cavaliers club.
But should James lose to San Antonio this time, as the profound favorite, then he will surrender more than the NBA title. He will forfeit any shot at sharing the mystical “best ever” designation with Michael Jordan.
On Thursday, Mike Francesa spent the bulk of his show debating fans over the best players in NBA history. Francesa said that championship rings aren’t the only metric to measure greatness, that some sublime players have few to no rings while some subpar players have a half-dozen.
That’s true. But it’s also incomplete. The algorithm used to define dominance has several variables, like timing and luck. But rings do matter, more than he indicated, and more than in any other team sport, because one basketball star has an inordinate impact on the game.
There’s a reason that nearly all the greatest players in NBA history have won world titles. We can count on one hand, maybe two, how many of history’s Top 50 don’t have a ring, whereas baseball and football are festooned with eternal bridesmaids.
And James, a self-styled student of the game, whose peripheral vision transcends the hardwood, knows he can’t blow this series and fairly face history arguing that he’s the GOAT.
Jordan went to six NBA Finals, won six NBA Finals and was MVP of six NBA Finals. (He also had a penchant for playing six games in his six series, but that’s another matter.)
At 1-2, James is straddling the symbolic line between great and greatest. We’re being told that James is a more complete player than Jordan, evidenced by his triple-double on Thursday night. But the Heat lost. And Jordan didn’t lose when he played his best.
Jordan was also the best defender in basketball, a crown that never quite fit King James. We can parse his passing skills and his rebounding superiority, but when he ditched Cleveland for South Beach and promised enough rings to make Liberace blush, he taped a bull’s-eye to his broad back.
We can forgive his nauseating televised “decision” on ESPN, when he gave Jim Gray a lap dance. And we can forgive the premature parade the team held in its arena, beaming and boasting while confetti fluttered around the Big Three — which isn’t looking so big these days — where James belched his bromides about winning “five…six…or seven” championships before winning one.
It had the specious feeling of a young man in the middle of amorous relations on a woman’s couch, lost in the moment and ready to say anything to finish the deal.
Of course, Miami could still win this series, and it is still favored to do so. But win it must. James’ legacy is on the line, because June is when legacies are built. Just ask Jordan.
We have a habit of projecting ethereal qualities upon our childhood heroes, sprinkling faerie dust on top of already embellished biographies.
But Jordan is the rare athlete upon whom no superlative is superfluous. He was, for an ephemeral magic moment, perfect. James isn’t there yet.
Will he ever be? The answer starts on Sunday.
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