"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."