CLEVELAND: The answer never changes despite variations of the question. Ask LeBron James what it means to pass a certain milestone or accomplish a historic feat and he’ll bring up that bottle of wine and that conversation he’ll have one day with business partner Maverick Carter.
That’s going to be some conversation when it finally occurs. In this moment, James always insists he doesn’t have time to truly reflect and enjoy his staggering accomplishments. Those will come another day, with that nice bottle of red and Carter by his side. At least, that’s how it has been for 13 years.
Only now, as James prepares for his sixth consecutive trip to the NBA Finals, perhaps that is finally changing. Perhaps now James indeed is learning to savor these moments of life. He was emotional during the on-court interview after the Cavs eliminated the Toronto Raptors in six games and appeared to be fighting back tears. It was a rare glimpse at a different side of the Cavs’ star, who typically maneuvers through interviews easier than he does opposing defenses.
Two days before that moment, his closest ally on the team said that emotional trait was precisely what he had to learn to harness. It’s part of what he learned during four years in Miami.
“Early in his career he was physically strong and excelling physically,” James Jones said. “But as far as managing his emotions and his teammates’ emotions and the city’s emotions, he had to grow up.”
James never shed a tear publicly during either of his two championships with the Heat. The first was a jubilant celebration and the second was stoic LeBron as he held both the championship trophy and the MVP award. So how will he react should he end Cleveland’s 52-year title drought in a matter of weeks? Anything is possible.
“We’re going to go out and give it our all and we’re going to live with the results,” James said. “I know our city deserves it. Our fans deserve it. But that gives us no sense of entitlement. We’ve still got to go out and do it.”
James’ march to six consecutive NBA Finals hasn’t been matched in any sport since Bill Russell’s Boston Celtics in the 1960s. Wayne Gretzky’s best stretch was five Stanley Cup Finals appearances in six years with the Edmonton Oilers. Hall of famer Mike Bossy guided the New York Islanders to five consecutive Stanley Cup Finals appearances in the early 1980s.
The Buffalo Bills, led by quarterback Jim Kelly, went to four consecutive Super Bowls in the 1990s and lost them all. Mickey Mantle took the New York Yankees to five consecutive World Series appearances in the 1960s. But six? With two different organizations? Forget it. Not since Russell and the Celtics.
“He’s a winner,” Cavs coach Tyronn Lue said. “Getting to the Finals six straight times is not easy. We talk about it all the time. A team like OKC, a great team, went to the Finals against Miami [in 2012]. You always think, ‘We have a chance to make it next year.’ It’s been a long time since they made it back.
“It just shows that Bron has been a proven winner throughout his career.”
Not everyone shares that opinion. James has taken criticism for a 2-4 Finals record that could slip to 2-5 in a couple weeks. This is, of course, without the context of those teams. The 2007 Cavs were a flawed team that reached the Finals solely because of James. They had little chance against the powerhouse San Antonio Spurs and were ultimately swept.
Similarly blaming James for the Cavs’ loss to the Golden State Warriors last year is inconceivable since he dragged a wounded roster to within two victories of the title and nearly won MVP of the series in the losing effort.
Regardless, Michael Jordan was 6-0 in the Finals, Magic Johnson was 5-4 and Tim Duncan is 5-1. The hall of famer that best compares to James is Jerry West, who went just 1-8 in his career and indeed won an NBA Finals MVP award in a losing effort, a feat James nearly duplicated last season.
Jones, who has joined James in all six of those NBA Finals, doesn’t pay any attention to the critics.
“For someone who has never been there, it’s really irrelevant. They have no context and it’s always easy to criticize something or someone when you can’t do what they do,” Jones said. “If you look at the guys who never won championships, who are 0 for 0, they’d tell you they’d give it all up just to have the opportunity to go 0 for 1. They sacrifice just to get the opportunity to do it and they still don’t get there.
“But I’ll tell you what: When you’re on that stage hoisting that trophy, it doesn’t matter how many times you’ve fallen. All you know is at that point, you know you’re on top of the mountain.”
Jason Lloyd can be reached at email@example.com. Read the Cavs blog at www.ohio.com/cavs. Follow him on Twitter www.twitter.com/JasonLloydABJ.