OAKLAND — “No.”
LeBron James had walked into the media interview room at Oracle Arena before practice Saturday wearing a hat with a picture Kermit the Frog sipping tea — the “that’s none of my business” meme — and was asked if Sunday’s NBA Finals Game 7 would define his legacy. He had a one-word answer. The reporter tried to follow up with, “You don’t see it that way?”
In the social media/sports talk radio hot take world we live in now, there is a desire to define a player’s legacy as it happens, rather than sit back and wait until his career is over (or nearly over) to look back at the body of work. Nobody has dealt with this like LeBron. Although the one person who might relate is Stephen Curry, he and his Warriors have are dealing with the same thing.
LeBron is right. The outcome of this unpredictable Game 7 Sunday night will not define his legacy — the man already has two titles, four NBA MVPs, two gold medals, is high on the list of impressive NBA scoring and win records, and is arguably the most physically gifted player ever to play the game. For that matter, Curry has back-to-back MVPs, a ring, is considered the best shooter the game has ever seen, and regardless of what happens Sunday someday we’ll show our kids and grandkids YouTube clips (or wherever we show videos then) of Curry’s step-back 28-foot threes with amazement.
However, the crucible of Game 7 will help shape the legacies of both men and both teams.
No Game 7 in recent memory has had these kinds of legacy implications. What we think of at least one of these men will be different after Sunday night.
For LeBron it would bring a new level of validation — he bet part of his legacy on bringing a championship to Cleveland, the first one that city had seen since Lyndon B. Johnson was president, the first Ford Mustang rolled off an assembly line, and a young fighter named Muhammad Ali had just taken the heavyweight boxing crown from Sonny Liston (and changed his name from Cassius Clay). LeBron would have brought the promise of rings anywhere he went, but going home to Cleveland — for a variety of reasons — he has staked part of his legacy on ending the city’s title drought. He tells us in his Samsung ads it’s all about winning one for The ‘Land.
And he would do it in spectacular fashion — dominating on both ends of the court to lead the first 3-1 comeback in NBA Finals history. He would add another Finals MVP to the resume (he should do that win or lose Sunday). He would do it knocking off the guy in Curry who has stolen the mythical “best player on the planet” belt from him. It’s the kind of performance that should silence critics (but it won’t because LeBron’s haters don’t live in a world of reason or nuance).
One the other side, a win for Curry and the Warriors would bring a different kind of validation — this team desperately wants to be considered one of the all-time greats. They won a title, they won 73 games, and if they win when you and your buddies sit on barstools discussing the greatest NBA teams ever — Jordan’s Bulls, Showtime Lakers, Russell’s Celtics — you will at least have to put this team in the conversation. They have built the perfect team — with the perfect point guard in Curry — for the way the rules are enforced and the game is played today. This is a team that would be very good in any era, but a win gets them in the conversation with the greats — a validation they are very hungry to have. If they lose?
“It’s either win the whole thing or bust for us…” Klay Thompson said after Game 6. “So it would be a great season, but at the same time to us, the players, we’re so competitive, we’d feel like we failed.”
That brings pressure. A lot of pressure.
How teams handle it will go a long way toward determining a winner Sunday night.
“If you don’t feel pressure in a Game 7, you’re probably not human,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said “I told our guys that. Of course they’re going to feel pressure. Of course there’s going to be some anxiety. But how lucky are we to feel that pressure? You could play on a lottery team your whole career and just make a bunch of money and go watch Playoffs every year.”
LeBron approaches it differently.
“You don’t put too much more added pressure on it because it’s a Game 7,” LeBron said. “One thing we all know is it’s the last game of the season, so it’s not like you’re preserving any energy, be out there saying, okay, I’ve got to keep my body ready for the next game. There’s no next game. So look forward to the challenge. I mean, it’s a Game 7, but I don’t put too much more added pressure on it.”
There is no right or wrong approach, only what works for that player, that team.
But only one team will emerge from that crucible on Sunday night with the chance to crow about their legacy.