Often lost in the euphoria of confetti blizzards and champagne showers of an NBA Finals triumph is the crushing despair just down the hall.
Just last June, an exhausted LeBron James sat behind the microphone not long after his fourth career loss in the finals. He had done everything he could have possibly done for the short-handed Cavaliers He had been trying to end Cleveland’s 51-year championship drought, and it wasn’t enough.
In a moment of unbridled honesty, James wondered if it was all worth it.
“I’m almost starting to be like I’d rather not even make the playoffs than to lose in the finals,” James said after the Cavs lost to the Warriors in six games. “It would hurt a lot easier if I just didn’t make the playoffs and I didn’t have a shot at it.”
James has won two championships, but a year later his Cavaliers are on the brink of heartbreak again. Now the Cavs head back to the Bay Area trailing Golden State 3-1, with the Warriors eyeing a second straight title in a year in which they won a record 73 regular-season games.
Whether the Warriors finish the Cavs off again in Game 5 on Monday night or James orchestrates one of the great comebacks in sports history, somebody will be left in anguish.
Falling just short after coming so far can be gut-wrenching, an experience that can haunt a player long after his days on the court are over.
“It’s just like here’s a store window, OK? And when you’re little, there’s candy behind that window,” said Lakers legend Jerry West, who went 1-8 in the finals in his Hall of Fame career. “And you can almost touch it but you can’t get there.
“I’ve often said there’s more great stories in losing locker rooms than winning locker rooms. Great stories. And no one cares to go there because this country relishes, as everyone does, they relish winners. But there’s devastated people in that other locker room. Devastated. Unfortunately that’s been the case for me many years.”
West last played an NBA game in 1974, but when he is asked about his finals record, his eyes turn as cold as they were when he was staring down Bill Russell and the Boston Celtics all those years ago.
“To me, about three (of his losses) I didn’t want to play anymore,” said West, now an executive board member and consultant with the Golden State Warriors. “I just didn’t want to do it. It took so much out of you.”
James has spoken with West over the years about managing the pain that comes with losses on the biggest stage. The victories may be remembered, but the defeats are never forgotten.
Former Pistons guard Chauncey Billups has never completely shaken the loss to San Antonio in the 2005 finals. Billups, who earned the nickname “Mr. Big Shot” for his clutch play throughout a 16-year NBA career, likened the pain to mourning.
After winning the title in 2004, Detroit was on the verge of a second crown when Spurs forward Robert Horry interrupted any plans for a parade by making a 3-pointer to win Game 5.
“That was one of the darkest days in my career, man,” Billups said before Game 4 in Cleveland, recalling Horry’s shot as if it had just happened. “That was rough and tough for me. That loss hurt me more than losing Game 7. We thought we had the game won, it was over.”
The Pistons would drop the series in seven games, losing on the Spurs’ home floor when the NBA used a 2-3-2 format.
“Man, Game 7 was tough,” said Billups, a five-time All-Star. “That was a tough, tough ride home. You got all your family there. It’s emotional and you never, ever forget about that day — when and how it happened, who spoke in the locker room. You never forget about any of that. You remember that stuff much more than what happened after you win it. It’s so tough.”
Billups said his recovery was slow.
“It takes awhile,” he said. “But what happens is you end up having to. It’s like losing someone, man. You grieve. You spend the proper amount of time on it and you move forward. It takes time, though, it’s real tough.”
For some players, like West, the bitter taste never leaves.
“Even today it bothers me,” West said. “No fun to get there that many times and not to get the results you want, regardless of how you played.
“In the playoffs, the best players are supposed to play better. I did. It made no difference. We weren’t good enough, obviously.”