If the only man to win Most Valuable Player of the NBA Finals in a losing cause had had his way, he would have perpetrated what today would spark panic of a terrorist attack in New York City.
Jerry West still is the only player to hold the ignominious distinction of winning Finals MVP without winning the Finals, after Cleveland Cavaliers star LeBron James was sent home without any hardware by the Golden State Warriors on Tuesday night. Some have called James’ omission a snub. Others have called it worse.
But West? Even if West felt he deserved the prize in 1969, he certainly wasn’t eager to claim it.
“I was rewarded, if you can call it that, with the MVP award,” West wrote in his autobiography, “West by West.” “I went to New York not long after to pick up my booby prize, a brand-new, souped-up Dodge Charger — green, no less.
“I felt like putting a stick of dynamite in it and blowing it up, right there in Manhattan.”
Keep West’s reaction in mind as the fallout from the Warriors’ six-game victory over the Cavs and Andre Iguodala’s subsequent Finals MVP honor is turned over and re-analyzed in the coming days. Well before Stephen Curry and the gang climbed the makeshift stage on the court at Quicken Loans Arena, a campaign was building to name James the series’ MVP, win or lose. ABC television analyst Jeff Van Gundy said it would be an outrage otherwise.
The statheads were up all night and into Wednesday morning parsing numbers to show James was the “real” MVP. James’ legion of fanboys swept onto Twitter once it became obvious their guy would lose in the Finals for the fourth time in nine years. James himself rankled his haters after Game 5 when he declared, “I’m the best player in the world.”
Yet as much breath and keystrokes will be wasted on the issue (and are being wasted here), the fact of the matter is, who the hell cares?
It says so much about sports in the 21st century that after the Warriors polished off one of the finest seasons of all time, the focus is instead on the individual prowess for the game’s biggest star. The cult of personality overshadows the achievement of a collective, a one-man roadshow who hand-picked his team twice dominates the conversation over an organically grown gang of perfectly matched role players and two of the greatest shooters the game has ever seen in Curry and Klay Thompson.
James was transcendent, for sure, but as The New York Times correspondent (and big sports fan) Binyamin Appelbaum noted, “The value gap between winning and losing is too large for any losing player to overcome.” This sets off all sorts of arguments over the semantic definition of “value,” but throw out spreadsheets and algorithms, and ask West about the emotional “value gap” in winning that ’69 MVP award and the unfathomable eight championship series in which he went home a loser. It makes sense, actually, that if James was the best player in the series, Iguodala gets the MVP for reining James in just enough for the Warriors to win.
It’s ironic, in a way, that the Finals MVP trophy is named after Bill Russell, the greatest champion in NBA history, who almost religiously eschewed individual honors in the name of the team. One shudders to think what Russell would have done with an MVP award bestowed on him in a losing cause; West’s idea of exploding a car on 8th Avenue would have looked tame by comparison.
Yet here we are, 46 years after West received one of the most bittersweet rewards in sports history, worrying whether a player almost nobody questions is the best on earth didn’t get the equivalent of a shiny pat on the back. No MVP trophy can change the fact the Cavs lost and the Warriors won, and that’s all that matters.
Thumbnail photo via Bob Donnan/USA TODAY Sports Images