By Brian Windhorst | ESPN.com
MIAMI -- After midnight Wednesday morning, about an hour after the San Antonio Spurs humbled the Miami Heat in Game 3, LeBron James trudged to the podium wearing a workout shirt and shorts.
James' outfits for his on-camera arena arrivals and postgame news conferences are picked out well in advance on the advice of stylists. But this apparently was his form of protest. He wasn't thrilled to be tugged to the interview room after a 111-92 loss when he had seven turnovers, the most he's ever had in 20 career Finals games.
"There we go," James said when asked about the turnovers, "it's a new storyline for LeBron."
This devil-may-care attitude after such a loss -- the Heat weren't all that rattled considering this is the fifth time they've fallen behind the Spurs in the Finals over the last two years -- is just the latest example of how James has attempted to move criticism, justified or absurd, into his psyche's trash folder.
It may come off as a mixture of arrogance and aloofness, but it's truly nothing of the sort. It's taken him a long time to find this frame of mind.
Some of it dates back to a midsummer day in 2011, when Jerry West's phone buzzed with an unpleasant request: a frank conversation about the most miserable days of his life.
West hates talking about much of his past and tries to avoid thinking about it, part of a lifelong process of walling off the failures that so often defined his Hall of Fame playing career. But the voice on the other end of this call was pained, too, and reaching out for a shoulder to cry on.
James takes pride in mentoring younger players; it's something he's actively sought to do as he grows into one of the game's elder statesmen. So long as his phone is on and it's not during a playoff series, James is in contact year-round with a wide range of young players from high school kids to college stars to his own contemporaries.
When it comes to being mentored, though, James is quite the opposite. He rarely has sought the council of elders -- at least when it comes to basketball. Sometimes on business matters he will go to Jay Z or Lynn Merritt, the Nike executive with whom he has a long and strong relationship. On investing, he sometimes reaches out to Warren Buffett.
"No one has had the same path I've had so I will just go my own way and take the experiences as they come."
That is a quote from James' rookie season in 2003, and he hasn't changed his philosophy much since. It's one of the reasons he never developed a relationship with Michael Jordan or Kobe Bryant.
After losing the 2011 Finals in six games to the Dallas Mavericks, he broke down and reached out to West and Isiah Thomas, looking for help in coping with the lowest point in his career.
"First, I was flattered he called, but then I told him, 'I won most outstanding player in college and MVP of the Finals in years when my team lost, and do you know how that felt?'" West told ESPN.com this week. "'It felt like I wanted to quit basketball forever, that's what it felt like.'
"But I also told him, 'Do you know what kept me going? When I would sit in those losing locker rooms in that despair, I always wanted to feel what was on the opposite side.' And I was convinced LeBron was going to get there and I told him so. I was convinced he was going to get there multiple times."
The week following the Heat's Finals loss in 2011 was miserable for James, his poor fourth quarters making him the scapegoat for the defeat. The eight-point performance in Game 4 that year effectively became the low point of his career. He called the week after losing Game 6 the worst of his life.
"I don't know if you know the story of Jerry West, the multiple times that it took for him to get over the hump," James said. "I had to ask questions."
West lost the first eight times he played in the Finals, twice by a single basket against the Boston Celtics in Game 7s. In 1969, he became the only player to win Finals MVP on the losing team. In 1959, he won the most outstanding player of the Final Four, but West Virginia lost to California in the title game by one point.
Finally in 1972, West was a Finals champion.
James met West at a commercial shoot for Nike back in 2003, but they didn't really know each other. A student of the game with an expansive knowledge of history, James knew West was a man who could relate. So he tracked down West's number, swallowed his pride, and called.
"I told LeBron a story," West said. "After we lost in '69, I was in Santa Monica and I was going for a run with a friend down San Vicente Boulevard. We ran past this guy and this character yells at me, 'You're a choker.' I truly wanted to kill him. I was so, so mad. I couldn't get over it. You know, LeBron was dealing with this every day of his life because of social media and, oh my God, how does he deal with it? I said I had to get past it because I knew I was killing myself to win and I knew LeBron was killing himself to win.
"Looking back, I wished I had someone to reach out to when I was in those dark times, someone who could relate to having the ultimate goal in your life to win and then falling short."
James also called Thomas, who had been a confidant to him and several of his close friends for years. The two had become closer after both moved to Miami, Thomas to coach Florida International in 2009 and James when he signed with the Heat in 2010. Before Thomas won his two titles with the Detroit Pistons, he suffered several bitter playoff defeats, losing in Game 7 to the Boston Celtics in the conference finals and then narrowly losing Game 6 and Game 7 in the 1988 Finals to the Los Angeles Lakers.
"I tried to tell him that he was on a long journey and to explain what sort of challenge it is to make that journey, that heartbreak and heartache comes with it," Thomas told ESPN.com. "He was so down when he called. It was really a low point for him. I told him that, you know, you just got beat by a guy who has been on his own journey. Dirk [Nowitzki] had so many failures before he got there, but that he had to go through them, and that is now where LeBron was.
"All the criticism was weighing so heavily on him so I told him something that Coach [Bob] Knight taught me: Losers have the biggest voice because there are so many of them; there aren't a lot of champions. He just had to stay on that journey, no matter what people said about him, and maybe he just needed to hear that."
Although he's grown to the point of being open to asking for help, his overall philosophy hasn't changed much.
"Even though I've got so many great words from Isiah and Jerry West, you can only live in your own life and on your own path and make your own course, and I've been fortunate enough to do that," James said.
But the confidence level he's developed over the three years since he took the advice is unmistakable.
"In terms of being a leader and being a great teammate, he's knocked the cover off the ball," Thomas said.
"I play for my teammates, our team, the city of Miami, my friends and family, and I gave it all for that," James said. "At the end of the day, win, lose or draw, I'm satisfied with that. I don't get involved in what people say about me and my legacy, I think it's actually kind of stupid."
That's an oversimplification and a bit of a defense mechanism. James does care about his legacy. He just doesn't let the times when he hasn't delivered dominate his life like he let them three years ago, or like West and Thomas let them at times in their careers.
If James hasn't already, he will be passing along some of the wisdom shared with him during those tough days. He said he was planning to save some of it for a book that he wants to write at the end of his career.
In the meantime, though, the numbers remain in James' phone in the event they're needed again. And West and Thomas quietly appreciate that they were able to help a future Hall of Famer when he came calling.
"My friend Pat Riley calls [LeBron] the B.O.A.T., the 'best of all time,'" West said. "I told Pat, 'You better call him the boat, because he carries a whole bunch of people across the sea to promised land.'"
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