In the run up to Thursday's Game 1 of the NBA Finals between the Miami Heat and San Antonio Spurs, it has been mentioned several times that MVP LeBron James has seen this matchup before. In 2007, as the 22-year-old leader of the Cleveland Cavaliers, James faced a vastly superior Spurs team that swiftly dispatched the Cavs in a four-game sweep.
The result wasn't terribly surprising, and it's possible that the series is the least remembered NBA Finals of the past 20 years for anyone other than the participants and Spurs fans. Nevertheless, James himself still carries hurtful memories of the series, and he's using them as motivation for this one, too.
"It's been a while since I've seen the series," James said on Wednesday. "It was tough. We ran against a team that was more superior, more experienced, more better -- that's not even a word -- better than we were at the time.
"I have something in me that they took in '07; beat us on our home floor, celebrated on our home floor. I won't forget that."
LeBron's reaction is sensible and in many ways indicative of how the best athletes respond to disappointment. Despite his youth, James expected to perform well in his first NBA Finals. When he didn't, he understood that he would have to improve various aspects of his game, build new skills, and take his job altogether more seriously.
That said, there's something a little irrational about this response. In 2007, no observers expected the Cavs to give the Spurs a serious challenge for the title — their season was already a major success just for having topped the experienced Detroit Pistons to win the East. Just making it that far represented meaningful progress, to the point where turning it into a mark of shame seems like making too big a deal of it.
Yet that's exactly why LeBron has been able to reach the heights he has. For a top-level athlete, turning these understandable failures into huge deals is necessary. They become fuel for progress. The clear favorite took something from LeBron, and he hasn't forgotten it. It doesn't make logical sense, but that quality doesn't define a competitive edge.