LeBron James is on the brink of losing another NBA Finals.
Unless the Cleveland Cavaliers win four of their next five games against the greatest regular-season team in league history -- a Golden State Warriors group that has lost consecutive games just once all season -- he will begin his summer with suffering once again.
And should that happen, the man who will understand what James is going through perhaps better than anyone else in the world will be celebrating that loss, as he works for the Warriors as an executive board member.
However, it won't be all joy for him. You see, the thing is, Jerry West is a LeBron James fan.
"With him, the negativity that surrounds him, honestly, to me, I think is so unjust and so unfair," West said. "Take him off of the team and see how these teams do. That's all you have to do. Take him off. And it frustrates the heck out of me when I see some of these players who play this game at an enormously high level get criticized because their teams quote, 'Can't win the big one.' The damn guy gets his teams there every year. He wins. For people to criticize him, I think that's why he really resonates."
It was the first round of the playoffs: The Warriors were fending off the Houston Rockets in Texas while the Cavs were in a series of closer-than-expected games with the Detroit Pistons in Michigan when West got word that James was reading his autobiography, "West on West," for the third time.
LeBron's interest in the book -- which details West's struggles and his acquired wisdom on and off the court -- is fitting, given that the 78-year-old Warriors executive has always admired the 31-year-old superstar with whom he shares one major thing in common: losing on basketball's biggest stage.
Two more Golden State wins would drop James' all-time mark in the Finals to 2-5, inching him toward the 1-8 Finals record West amassed during his career in the 1960s and early '70s.
Long before James' nickname, "The King," took on any sort of ironic meaning, much like West's "Mr. Clutch" just wasn't the same after he lost his first eight Finals appearances -- all against the Boston Celtics and twice in Game 7s that went down to the wire -- the pair met on the set of a Nike commercial in 2003.
"I was really impressed with, for a young man of that age, how quick he was," West said. "There was a joy in him that sometimes you don't see in athletes. I think if you look in his eyes -- I always say you can talk to some people and look in their eyes and not see anything. With him, you do."
And in James, West now sees a bit of himself.
"You do your best, you try your best, you play your best and you're still not good enough to get your team to where you want to go, and that's [to be the] last man standing," West said. "And it's not one guy. It's a group of people."
In the summer of 2011, after James and the Miami Heat lost to the Dallas Mavericks to drop his personal Finals record to 0-2, he sought counsel from both West and Isiah Thomas to find out how they dealt with the pain of losing.
"I talked to him," West remembered. "I did talk to him personally about that. And I said: 'Jesus Christ, you think you're frustrated? How would you like to get there eight times and not win?' I told him, 'I wanted to quit.' In the height of my career, I wanted to quit. I was so angry, so frustrated."
While quitting wasn't on James' mind in July 2015 after the Warriors beat the Cavs a few weeks earlier, having won Games 4, 5 and 6 after James had pushed Cleveland to a 2-1 lead, getting away sure was.
He took his wife and three kids on vacation to Hawaii, and it was there on the Big Island that he ran into another Warriors executive, general manager Bob Myers.
Myers, a longtime sports agent before joining the Warriors as an assistant GM in 2011, was coming off the first Finals appearance of his career -- albeit in a front-office capacity -- and was spent. He found himself getting swallowed up in the rigors of draft preparation, free agency and summer league scouting, without properly embracing his team's title run.
"I said, 'We got to celebrate. We have to celebrate this championship. We can't just keep moving without acknowledging what happened,'" Myers shared of his conversation with his wife, Kristen.
Myers, a trim 41-year-old former UCLA forward, still regularly plays basketball. Relaxation and roundball go together for him, even when he's on a tropical island.
"My wife goes, 'Why don't you go see if anyone is playing basketball?' And I said: 'Nobody is playing basketball in Hawaii. And if they are, they're not going to be very good.' And so I went off and I just shot around by myself and she was at the pool with my two daughters and I came back. And my wife definitely knows about [the NBA], but she's not watching SportsCenter every night and doing that. She's taking care of the kids. So, I got back to the pool and she said, 'I think LeBron is in the pool.' And I kind of said to my wife, 'LeBron is not here.' And then I kind of looked over and I said, 'Oh my God. He is. It is him.' And my wife looks at me and says, 'I told you there would be someone here to play with!'"
Myers refrained from asking the four-time MVP to a game, but he did approach James at the pool.
"We talked a little bit," Myers said. "It was nice to hear from his perspective. I mean, I respect him. The fact that he's been to that level so many times and for me to experience -- not as a player, but from my position -- to see how hard that is and then to come back year and year again and go for it ..."
Myers' voice trailed off, long enough to ask him what it's like to be intertwined with James. It had been nearly a year since his chance meeting with James, and their teams are meeting once again in a high-stakes Finals rematch that will either mar his Warriors' 73-9 record-setting season or further complicate James' legacy.
"I thought about that because we were on the precipice of losing in the [Western Conference finals], and I thought if we did, what does 73 mean?" Myers said. "I think we individually have to decide what things mean to us. Because if not, somebody will tell us what it means.
"But I thought, and for me personally, I can value the fact that LeBron's done it so many times. I think that's unbelievable. And I hope he does [value it]. But some people won't. But that's their choice, and we live in a world where everybody has an opinion.
"For us, 73 wins, some will say it doesn't mean anything if you don't win a championship. Well, I choose not to believe that. But that's what I choose to believe. I don't know if that's America or society, but it's a harsh world. You're judged harshly. But if you only play and only compete and only work in the NBA for that one reason, I think you're going to be unhappy most of the time. Because you can't win championships every year. You have to enjoy who you work with. You have to enjoy the competition, the relationships. And if you do set a record like we did, that has to mean something."
Even if James' Cavs lose the Finals this year, the 13th season he's completing was just as splendid as many of the 12 that came before it. There's no indication that he won't have a chance to be back in the Finals in the future and balance out his record closer to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's 6-4 mark or Magic Johnson's 5-4 than to West's dubious run, which is trumped only by the 0-8 mark of his old teammate, Elgin Baylor.
James' name already belongs with those other legends, in West's opinion.
"When he gets on the court, this guy plays. I mean, he plays," West said. "He's committed. All great, great players -- and obviously he's one of the most unique players we've ever had because of his size and his skill set. He's one of the smartest players, if not the smartest player, I've ever seen in my life.
"His ability to find people on the court, his ability to make huge plays in games -- and they may not be offensive plays. It's like chasing down guys, blocking shots. How many people, if you watch him, a lot of people just focus on guys scoring. You have to watch them move on the court. You have to watch their anticipation. And if you watch him, you say to yourself: 'My God. He's like three steps ahead of everyone mentally.'"
That will help him as his body slows down and he tries to continue to exert his dominance.
"This is one of the truly great players we've ever seen in our lifetime," West continued. "In our lifetime.
"Now, the greatest of all time, to me, that's so subjective. But his body of work -- my God, you should see the numbers across the board that he puts up there and people say, 'Well, he didn't do this, he didn't do that.' Is he playing with four other guys at any given time when he's on the floor? Sometimes teams are just not as good of a team.
"And it's just so easy to be critical today. But I so admire him. I just want you to know, I so admire him, OK? I really do."
Losing isn't always shameful. James averaged 35.8 points, 13.3 rebounds and 8.8 assists in last year's Finals and ending up receiving four of the 11 votes for series MVP, which went to Andre Iguodala, who in part got credit from voters for not allowing James to do even more.
"I just think it shows the excellence in his play," West said of the split vote. "Everyone always says you have to be on the best team, the team that wins. Oh, no, no, no. I disagree with that. I've seen other people in playoff series that I thought were by far the most valuable player in the series over others, and it's become en vogue to give it to the winning team. Some guys lay their fannies out there every night -- they play the game at such a high level and they give so much that, frankly, they don't get credit for it. And I think it's tragic sometimes."
West got credit for being the best player on the court, despite his team losing, twice. In 1969, he became the first and only Finals MVP while playing on the losing team. Ten years prior, he won the most outstanding player of the Final Four, but his West Virginia lost to California in the title game by one point.
West's take on losing-team MVPs makes one wonder whether praising James is West's way of preserving what's good about his career without it being overshadowed by his heinous Finals record.
But that theory loses steam when looking at his history of backing James, starting with last year's Finals when he defended James after he made a controversial statement about being confident because he is "the best player in the world," and dating all the way back to 2009 when he declared that James was already a better player than Kobe Bryant.
"I said it because I'm honest, OK? And I love Kobe Bryant as a player, OK? I was a seminal part of his life," West said. "And for me to say that, honestly, I was being honest. That's how I felt, and I didn't realize it would make a commotion. It wasn't anything directed toward Kobe Bryant. It wasn't a shot at him -- nothing at all. I just felt that he had become that dominant with his play. And if you look at the team, he gets all of the blame. He gets all of the blame."
"He's one of the smartest players, if not the smartest player, I've ever seen in my life." Jerry West discussing LeBron James
Praise from West would seemingly mean more to James than all the negative noise he hears.
"Obviously, every single day, that's what we all represent," James said in November when he passed West on the all-time scoring chart . "We all represent The Logo. You know, everyone -- media, myself, my teammates, organization, fans -- we all represent The Logo.
"To be able to pass a legend like himself, it's an honor, an honor for sure. I know how much he did for the game, what he meant to the game."
Myers said West's past struggles still affect him, even though he is in a wonderful situation in Golden State.
"I think what I now have a better sense of is the extreme pain he must have felt," Myers said. "Because not only is he competitive, he's a look-in-the-mirror guy instead of out the window, so he probably shouldered all the blame even though he scored a ton of points and did what he did.
"So, I think, to see him stay in it and still have a passion for it after having gone through a lot -- and some would say his career was unbelievably successful -- he would say the suffering from losing was the hardest thing he's ever been through. [I] understand that for him to pick himself up time and time and time again and compete, compete, compete -- that's pretty remarkable."
James has a personal nickname for West: The Godfather. Like the many times he's read West's book, James has also watched that movie on countless occasions.
Repetition, it would seem, is a theme in James' life, right down to his June date with the NBA Finals for the past six seasons.
And with every critic's cry when James falls short, West will be there once again with wise words full of understanding.
"To get there is the ultimate thrill," West said of the Finals. "At the end of the day, the team that loses is not going to be happy and all the questions and all the criticism is going to start over for everybody that's involved. Everybody."