The greatest and most ambitious goal in the history of the NBA is now at risk. The most unlikely of comebacks is the only thing that can save it.
This is what LeBron James confronts as he and his team return to San Antonio down 3-1 in the NBA Finals to a Spurs team that has outclassed the Heat at almost every turn. No team in the history of the game has surmounted such a Finals deficit. If LeBron is unable to make sure the Heat become the first team to change that, his goal to be the greatest player of all time will be lost.
Even before the Spurs took hold of this series and made it their own – even when many believed the Heat would win their third straight championship – the idea of LeBron surpassing Michael seemed so daunting.
But it also seemed possible.
It was something worthy of watching, of wondering about, of tracking as his career unfolded. It was like Tiger chasing Jack: By no means certain but very much a salvageable dream.
That was always the ambition of LeBron, the force behind his self-endorsed proclamation of being “The Chosen One,” the powerful subtext that fueled all the hate and love and pressure: He coveted not to Be Like Mike, but to be Better Than Mike. Emulation was for guys like Kobe Bryant. LeBron wanted to supplant, to become the legend that transforms you into the greatest the game has ever seen. That is no small goal.
“That’s my goal,” he told me before the regular season began. “That’s my personal goal. I’m critiqued a lot. But I put more pressure on myself than anyone. I’m my biggest critic. I want to be the greatest of all time. And that’s the type of pressure I put on myself. And what that means to me is that I want to maximize the potential that I have to play this game as long as I can and play it at a high level. And at the end of the day, like I said, when I throw my shoes over top of that wire, you guys can list me where you want to.”
I’ve argued recently there was a real chance we all might list him No. 1 when that time comes.
I compared LeBron’s run at Jordan to that of “Mad Men” trying to supplant “The Wire” as the greatest television show of all time. I thought both LeBron and “Mad Men” were unlikely to end up as the G.O.A.T in their respective spheres. I also thought it would be close enough that, in both cases, I might end up being wrong. I welcomed it, either way. To see something chase history is its own special kind of unfolding that transcends the medium itself – sports, entertainment, whatever it is.
Yet now, such a short time later, with so much road left to go, LeBron’s clearly stated goal seems close to being over. How can you pass Jordan, who went 6-0 in the NBA Finals and was the MVP each time, if you sit at 2-3 in your own Finals appearances?
Short answer: You can’t.
I’m not sure you can even if you, say, rattle off three more. That’s just five rings, the number Tim Duncan will have if the Spurs close out this series. Which would make The Big Fundamental 2-1 in the Finals against the King.
Passing Michael isn’t like becoming the all-time points leader, or the guy with the most rings. It is as much about measurable basketball accomplishments as it is the alchemy of the game – a strange brew of the fans’ memories; the subjective nature of greatness and how others interpret it; the hard stats and black-and-white accomplishments; and the feeling you get in your gut when you start parsing the greatest one or two or three or four in the history of anything.
But LeBron must hit one certain number to even be in the conversation: Six rings. That’s what Jordan’s legacy has been gilded with. It is hard to win one. It is so hard to win three in a row. The Heat are learning that, and we are all getting a healthy reminder as they do.
But six? In the modern era? It is air so rarified very few whiff it, let alone breathe it in deep as they survey all they’ve conquered.
So LeBron – putting aside the 2-3 Finals record he could soon have – can’t squander the chances to get any. Not anymore. Not if he wants to pass Jordan.
Not that this is LeBron’s fault. It’s not. The cramp game? It happens. The man’s body wouldn’t go. The Spurs shooting a Finals-record 75 percent in the first half of Game 3? LeBron can’t guard everybody, even if Dwyane Wade has made it necessary for him to try and guard at least two guys at once.
But fault doesn’t matter. You want to be president? Get the votes, excuses be damned. You want to be Hemingway? Write – the hangover, the heartbreak, or the seduction of fame and its distractions notwithstanding. You want to be Jordan? Get it done. Stockpile championships.
That’s the other thing the greatest players of all time do: The impossible. Or at least what seemed impossible until they went out there, rewrote the game or at least our thinking of it, and in doing so carved their own legend.
No team in the NBA Finals has been down 3-1 and come back to win the series. Never.
Here, now, is LeBron’s challenge: Mount the greatest Finals comeback of all time. Coax, anger, inspire, carry, motivate or lead Wade, Chris Bosh and the rest of this underperforming Heat team to a new history. Whatever it takes. Win it all.
Do that, and LeBron James can still pass Michael Jordan. Do that, and the gap closes as much as not doing so closes the door.
But if he can’t – if the Spurs do win this series – the most daunting and ambitious hope in the NBA may expire before our eyes. And LeBron James, his supreme talent notwithstanding, will almost certainly be left not just in second place this season but chasing, at best, second place all time.
Bill Reiter is a national columnist for FOXSports.com, a national radio host at Fox Sports Radio and regularly appears on FOX Sports 1. You can follow him on Twitter or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.