SAN ANTONIO -- The NBA Finals this year is different from most others, if not all others, for what it's missing: a sense of extreme desperation.
Nobody really has to win this championship ring. Not LeBron James, who has two. Not Dwyane Wade, who has three. Not Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili, who also have three. Not Tim Duncan and Gregg Popovich, who have four. And not Pat Riley, the Heat president, who has a jewelry store.
OK, well maybe Greg Oden. But you get the idea. The 2014 Finals between the Spurs and Heat is about greed, pure and simple. The main principals, all fierce competitors, want more, that's all. This isn't about a restless young superstar getting his first title, or some old guy's last chance. Remember when Michael Jordan won for the first time and his reaction? He was desperate after several years of coming up short, and you could tell. He grabbed the Larry O'Brien Trophy in the locker room, hugged it like a mother does her firstborn, and there was more liquid falling from his eyes than the champagne bottles. Even more touching, his father stood behind him, rubbing his son's shoulder, massaging all the desperation away.
And not to break off into an extended hockey conversation, but remember when Ray Bourque won the Cup with Colorado? That was desperation. Poor guy spent 21 years in the NHL, set career records for goals by a defenseman, and finally won the Cup in what was his final skate. Took him 1,612 regular season games and 214 playoff games. He waited longer than any Cup-winning player in history. His beard was Rip Van Winkle-ish. That's an extreme example, but point made: The 2014 Finals doesn't have a Bourque or a hungry Jordan. The 2014 Finals, therefore, won't have a loser. Nobody will walk away from this with an empty stomach, no matter what.
And so, this series between the Heat and Spurs, with seven championships between them, is a Legacy Series, where a half-dozen special people, should they win, can make a stronger case for their specialness when they walk (make that strut) into the Hall someday.
Of all those mentioned above, LeBron is the least desperate, even though he has only two rings. That's because -- and you can never take these things for granted -- almost everyone on the planet believes he'll at least double that before he retires, if not triple. He's only 29, durable, still in his prime and the unquestioned best player in basketball. Any team he's on is instantly a contender. Remember, he took the Cavs to the 2007 Finals, and he's a more refined all-around player now compared to then.
For LeBron, this is about padding his ring total so he can pass Kobe's five (likely), then pass Jordan's six (possibly), then pass Russell's 11 (just kidding). At this stage of his career, rings weigh twice as much as MVPs in terms of legacy-building which, at least right now, is more of a topic of conversation among basketball folks than LeBron.
"To be in this position, to be able to win a third straight, it's a blessing," he said. "I couldn't ask for more. This is an opportunity to do what I've always wanted, and that's to continue to win championships. That's what I'm here for. My legacy will speak for itself after I'm done playing."
Wade's an interesting case. Five years ago he was the face of the Miami franchise, more decorated than LeBron and a great player in his own right. The feeling in 2010 when they hooked up was LeBron needed Wade, and now that perception has clearly flipped. Wade is an aging and somewhat injury-prone second banana who still carries a superstar's pride and every now and then will deliver like one. He seems reborn in this post-season and is limp-free; still, his peak is in the rear view.
From here on, Wade wants his ride into the sunset to be golden in more ways than one. To collect rings on the back end of your career is a major bonus. If he retires with, say five, Wade could answer only to Jordan and Jerry West as the best two-guard in league history.
Duncan's primary desire to win a fifth ring is to quench his dry thirst. It's now seven years since his last one. Also, to win a ring when you're 38 and still a primary option on your team, if not the primary option, would put him in a special place. You know how many players have done that? Nobody really. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was 41 when he won his last title, but "Cap" was clearly on fumes then, barely holding on, playing because he needed the money. He was the Lakers' fourth leading scorer and rebounder. It was Magic Johnson and James Worthy's team.
"I think it was back in 2008 when I first heard someone say Tim's gotta win another title, it's his last chance," said Ginobili. "And then I started hearing the same thing every year after that. Well, we're back here again and he has another chance. He keeps giving himself and us those chances and he's showing no signs of letting up."
Bill Russell was 35 for his final title, so was Wilt Chamberlain. Bob Cousy was 34 and Hakeem Olajuwon 32. And so, Duncan is attempting to go where few great basketball senior citizens have gone before.
You know what's weird? Parker is only 32. It seems like he's been around a lot longer, but he came into the league in 2001 as a 19-year-old. He and Ginobili would become the most decorated foreign-born-and-raised players, by far, with a fourth ring. They would become pioneers when you also consider their success on the international level. Their Hall credentials would be unquestioned.
In the world of NBA coaching, Red Auerbach stands slightly above Phil Jackson, who has more rings. Who's next? Well, a fifth ring would tie Popovich with Riley and John Kundla.
"I don't think he's worried about where people place him," said Duncan. "His desire, like ours, is to get another one. So we're back here again and we'll hopefully walk out with another one."
Riley is the only man to win rings as a player, coach and executive (Jackson is attempting to do the same, but good luck with the Knicks). If he wins this series, then gets the Big Three to return while somehow freeing up money to sign a decent fourth, Riley could collect rings well into his 70s.
"Obviously he's been super and bought great success to his franchise," said Popovich. "It doesn't matter what role he plays, he's going to set a vision, he's going to set a tone. Everyone around him is going to understand what's expected. They will be allowed to do their jobs, and what you see now is what he's established. He's at the top of the heap."
There is a hint of revenge factor bubbling inside the Spurs. They knew how close they came a year ago. Two missed free throws, and a rebound that went against them, and a Ray Allen three-pointer, all in the final 28 seconds of Game 6, cost them a fifth title. It was the most painful of tortures, to go through an entire summer suffering from opportunities lost, and then rebuild your confidence for an entire season just to get this chance.
"It was a bad experience," said Ginobili. "It lingered with me for two months, but not much longer. In my career, I've lost (Olympic) medals, more championships, lots of things. Obviously, none as close as that one. All you can do is work hard to get back to the same situation and try to do a little bit better next time. So here we are."
If the Spurs want to cling to that agony and claim to be the more desperate team, the Heat know the feeling. Three years ago LeBron embarked on a summer of soul searching because he couldn't post up J.J. Barea and Miami lost to Dallas in the Finals. He came back a different player and the Heat haven't lost a championship since.
So this is a series against the Haves and the Haves, each team looking for one more title and at times searching for motivation in weird ways. Like when LeBron reached by saying Duncan and the Spurs "hated" the Heat simply because Duncan liked San Antonio's chances.
"I don't know what I said that was so bad," Duncan said, bewildered by the fuss. "If he wants to find fuel in that, so be it."
The best thing about Spurs-Heat II is how, although nobody involved has to win another championship, their approach and mindset says the exact opposite. Every coach, player and executive involved appear to be starving for a ring, that's how badly they claim to want this one.
It's this type of desperate-like desire that keeps giving them chances to win, year after year.
"Having tasted (championships) is all the fuel you need to want to get back and win another one," said Duncan.