In the history of the NBA Finals, the MVP award has gone to a player from a losing team exactly once – the Lakers’ Jerry West in 1969, after the Bill Russell-led Celtics won in seven. In that series, West averaged 37.9 points, 4.7 rebounds and 7.4 assists. In the 2015 Finals, LeBron James is averaging 36.6 points, 12.4 rebounds and 8.8 assists, and has kept Cleveland in it virtually on his own.
Much has been made of that fact, yet, it seems to me that, with the exception of a few years in Miami, LeBron has always been alone. Even in last year’s Finals, he appeared to be the only hand on the deck of what quickly became a sinking ship. Beyond a lack of a supporting cast, he’s been saddled with coaches who can charitably be described as uncertain, men of a stature incapable of deflecting the media glare or bearing the bulk of responsibility for their failures. It’s down to LeBron. It always has been. Since he first came into the league at the age of 18.
LeBron was unlucky to come up at a time – 2003 – when ruthlessness was a quality not much admired, and his personality emerged within those strictures. He became a man in the refracted gaze of an increasingly gotcha media, forced to reconcile an abstract image of himself with his own conscience. Had he a larger capacity for public rage it might have saved him a lot of trouble and not a little heartache. The world expected to be pleased by him, and for better or worse, he mostly gave it what it wanted. It’s a testament to his strength of character that he’s persevered with a sense of himself intact.
Yet, how much of himself remains heading into tonight’s Game 6? Watching him play in these Finals has often brought to mind what F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote in The Crack-Up, his withering expose of self-frailty in the long 3 a.m. of the soul: “One should…be able to see that things are hopeless and yet be determined to make them otherwise.” That said, there are no noble defeats – in basketball, or life. And whatever I or anyone else might suggest, no one knows this better than LeBron.
A sour truth is a truth nonetheless, and as Camus said, once admitted, it can hardly be relinquished. But that doesn’t mean it must be crushing. “I feel confident because I’m the best player in the world,” LeBron said after the Cavs’ Game 5 loss. That’s another truth, one that in LeBron’s case is sometimes ladled out with a nervous, unfounded skepticism. The Warriors have a battle ahead of them tonight. LeBron still has everything to prove. Fair or not, that’s a burden he will shoulder all his life. He can handle it, even in the face of overwhelming odds and presumptive defeat.