Before LeBron James even plays this latest career-defining game, it's clear that he has lost. More specifically, he has lost the right to lose.
Some athletes retain that right. It was never more evident than in the wake of this year's U.S. Open, when Phil Mickelson came up short once again in a major he has never won. Mickelson started the final day with the lead, but, by the time he reached the 18th hole, he needed a birdie to force a playoff with Justin Rose. He got a bogey.
It might not be fair to call Mickelson's final round "choking" when all day long the course was dispensing birdies as if they were winning lottery tickets. But it certainly wasn't clutch. And he hasn't been universally condemned for it.
Mickelson has won four of golf's major events, and it doesn't feel like enough the way LeBron's sole championship doesn't feel like enough. LeBron might make a billion dollars in salary and endorsements by the time he's done, but it's clear he hasn't banked enough good will. That's the difference between Mickelson and LeBron. Perhaps that's the lesson, as well.
The Washington Post's Thomas Boswell, as definitive a voice as you'll hear when it comes to the challenges of golf and the mental toll it takes, let Mickelson off easy for this latest Sunday letdown. He cited Mickelson's demeanor, his candor in describing his final-round shortcomings, his maturation in his two decades on the tour and concluded: "Faced with the worst experience his game could offer … Phil Mickelson showed the absolute best in himself."
USA Today's Christine Brennan said of the six-time U.S. Open runner-up: "Nice guys don't always finish last. At the U.S. Open, they keep finishing second."
The first adjective the New York Post's George Willis used to describe Mickelson was "endearing."
Do you think any of that treatment awaits LeBron if he loses the NBA Finals? Not a chance. You know why: The Decision, The Celebration and mostly all of that talent that has led to a collection of MVP trophies.
But it's interesting whom we allow to have "mitigating circumstances." LeBron has paid for the building and refurbishing of basketball courts and playgrounds all over the country, including the $42,000 he gave to my hometown Boys & Girls Club. He gives away bicycles. He took a moment in the playoffs to acknowledge Bella Rodriguez-Torres, a 10-year-old girl who died of cancer, with a note written on his sneakers. It was a small gesture that meant a great deal in South Florida. You know none of that will come into play should LeBron lose.
And yes, it would go down as a loss for LeBron, not the Heat. You'd think that he, not Mickelson, was the one playing an individual sport. Mickelson never had anyone else let him down the way the rest of the Cavaliers did when LeBron averaged 38 points, 8 rebounds and 8 assists in the 2009 Eastern Conference finals.
The best thing Phil has going for him could be the way he handles defeat. He doesn't lash out the way LeBron did after the 2011 NBA Finals loss (when he basically said the haters would have to wake up and return to their miserable lives the next day).
If the Heat lose, he might want to prepare a better concession speech.
But that still won't feel like enough. It would be an epic leftdown if, when LeBron hangs 'em up, the best we could say about him is he handled losing well.