LeBron James looked hurt as he walked off the court after the Miami Heat's 117-104 loss to the Nuggets last weekend. He wasn't hurt in the same sense as teammate Dwyane Wade, who left the same game with a sprained ankle. James' hurt seemed deeper and more likely to nag at him long-term.
When James and Chris Bosh joined Wade in Miami two summers ago, the party started before any games did. When the Mavericks rebuffed the Heat in last year's NBA Finals, many fans rejoiced to see the symbol of athletic entitlement humbled.
Even while taking satisfaction in their defeat, though, there was a feeling in the back of almost everyone's mind that this was temporary. By year two, most people assumed, the Heat would figure it out and claim the franchise's second NBA title. For James, the elusive trophy would come by year three at the latest.
As the 8-4 Heat alternate breathless performances with flailing displays early this season and continue to struggle finding consistency, specifically at the end of close games, it may be time to start wondering a cruel possibility. What if these Heat never win a championship, and James in particular never gets his ring?
James has more to lose in this situation than almost any athlete in history. He may like to believe taking his talents to South Beach was solely a personal choice, but in reality it was a gamble. The gamble was that his boldness would translate into wins, and the only way to pay it off was with a championship.
Other star athletes have made such gambles before. Magic Johnson made a gamble with his pristine image when he spoke out publicly against Lakers coach Paul Westhead, leading to the Westhead's firing in 1982. Three NBA championships later, hardly anyone remembered that two of the Showtime Lakers' five titles occurred prior to Pat Riley's arrival.
John Elway made such a gamble in 1983 when he refused to play for the Colts, who had drafted him first overall, and specifically Indianapolis coach Frank Kush. Elway is now remembered for "The Drive" and his two Super Bowl rings, and his draft saga is such a distant memory that few fans even brought it up when Eli Manning engaged in the exact scenario with the Chargers in 2004.
For Johnson, Elway and Manning, only the ultimate team trophy could change the public's perception. Without extra rings, Johnson would be the David Lee Roth to Showtime's Van Halen. Elway would be Jim Kelly, except with 51 extra career interceptions. Manning might be known as the whiny No. 1 pick who got caught in the buzzsaw of sixth-round pick Tom Brady in the 2007 season.
James, at 27 years old, is already in the danger zone. Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, Tim Duncan and Shaquille O'Neal each won a championship before or during their 27th year, and all of them had been in the league fewer years than James has at this age.
Nine seasons into his NBA career, James is at the point when fans started wondering if David Robinson, Karl Malone or Charles Barkley would ever win a title. Two of those three never did.
Yet while the lack of a ring is a hole on Malone and Barkley's resumes, it would be a stain on James'. Malone was mocked for his failure in big spots, but with time most people have come to appreciate how he toiled for 18 years in Utah, where not a single star besides John Stockton ever wished to join him. Barkley was a controversial figure in his time, but in the current era, in which felons play quarterback in the NFL, Barkley's antics have a "those were the days" vibe.
Malone will be remembered for his relentless work ethic, Barkley for his ebullient personality. Without a ring, what will James be remembered for? Wearing a headband? Being a literal puppet in Nike commercials?
Oh, yeah: "The Decision."
That's why, as delicious as it was seeing James shuffle off the court after Game 6 last spring, I'm rooting for James to get his championship eventually. We endured 12 years of ridiculous commentary on Dirk Nowitzki's perceived lack of toughness and nine years of naysayers claiming Hakeem Olajuwon would forever be too raw to lead his team to greatness.
Another decade or so of the same annoying analysis of the world's greatest individual player might not be bearable. If James just wins one title, so we can all go back to appreciating his talent and just watching basketball, it would probably be worth it. Maybe that's why, despite their struggles, the Heat are still my pick to hoist the Larry O'Brien Championship Trophy this summer.
The South Beach big three will be together for at least two more seasons after this one, so the championship window is far from closed. Years go by quickly, though, and when 2015 comes many of us may look at a ringless James and wonder what happened.