As blood trickled from the back of his head, and a panicked LeBron James wandered around as if he avoided an assassination attempt, two thoughts came to mind: Would the moment when James stumbled and crashed into a camera on Friday become the latest in a long line of disappointing, championship-ruining events in Cleveland sports history? And what would the NBA finals be without James making people watch, gasp, argue and appreciate him for never being dull, for never letting you turn away?
As for the former, the impact of that unfortunate fall in the first half of the Cavaliers' 103-82 loss to the Golden State Warriors won't be known until one of these teams wins two of the next three games. Rocking a black fedora after the game, James explained the cuts he sustained from a collision with a cameraman didn't require him to undergo concussion protocol but did result in a little head ringing and some stitches.
"Obviously, you can't see them," James said, offering little humor in the midst of his pain. "I had a slight headache, which I think every last one of you guys would probably have if you ran into a camera. You might have a little bit more than that . . . I'm fine."
James joked before the first finals practice in Oakland that people are tired of seeing him in the finals for the fifth straight year. But he belongs on this stage every year because no other athlete is more fascinating, more polarizing and more capable of keeping an audience captivated by his every movement.
This series has been about the best player in the game defying the odds of playing with a depleted team led by a rookie coach, of him nearly averaging a triple-double while making 40-point efforts appear routine against the league's best defense. The underdog Cavaliers' two wins came after they lost Kyrie Irving to a broken kneecap and James has his franchise closer to a title than it's ever been - in the most unlikely of circumstances, with a collection of role players playing above their heads, against the league's most valuable player and a 67-win team.
The record television ratings ABC is experiencing is the result of James, the prodigy turned playful wunderkind turned reluctant villain turned champion turned self-appointed savior for Northeast Ohio. James' first finals appearance at age 22 was a forgettable dud not worth mentioning, but the five since he entered his true prime have been beyond memorable.
"I mean, this is the biggest stage. It's being covered by everyone in the world, and you should be happy to go out and compete," James said. "It shouldn't matter what everyone is talking about or what everyone is putting pressure on you or things of that nature. It means nothing . . . in the scheme of things. You go out and you play, and you've been playing basketball your whole life. You live with the results after that."
James had that bizarre disappearance against Dallas in 2011, when the moment became so big that a season spent wearing a figurative black hat caused him to implode and later lash out at his peasant haters. There was his own personal discovery of his greatness a year later, as he dominated Oklahoma City. Ray Allen spared James another potential meltdown with a series-saving three-pointer and James finally finished off the Spurs with a game 7 performance that stands as his best to date. Severe cramping became too paralyzing to overcome last season, setting off another round of corny jokes and irrational assessments of his toughness.
Through it all, James is the memory that lingers - not Dirk Nowitzki's incredible scene stealing performance or the Spurs turning heartache into a beautiful brand of unselfish basketball. If he is able to lead the Cavaliers to an upset of the favored Warriors, it would be the greatest accomplishment of his career, given his depleted supporting cast. If he comes up short, James will be hailed for giving the best team in the league more than anyone could have expected.
James' most die-hard fans want to see him challenge the ghosts of the greats while his most strident detractors want to see him fail in the most spectacular fashion imaginable. Fortunately, James has offered ample fodder for both sides, always succeeding in driving the conversation toward him.
James is the best reality show going, his life played out on NBA Jumbotrons, television debate programs and social media. He has sent fans and reporters into a frenzy in the finals about his supposed secret motivation to win a title this season, inspiring conspiracy theories and guessing games all over. He understands his role in crafting the LeBron James story and can play up to his audience with dramatic, highlight- and camera-friendly reactions - such as falling to his knees after an exhaustive performance in the conference finals or a well-timed ball spike and guttural scream after game 2 against the Warriors.
He is also intelligent enough to decide whether he wants to play along or simply avoid any potential gotcha moments.
"I know what you're getting at," James said when a reporter sought to ask a follow up question to one of his responses. "You can write it however you want. I answered it the way I wanted to."
The blood and the rare, relatively poor performance - 20 points on 7-of-22 shooting - in a game 4 loss that tied this best-of-seven series at 2-2 was evidence that James remains a mortal man - despite what the first three games may have intimated. James grew weary and his tired teammates didn't have enough energy in supply to help him out, especially after he bumped into Andrew Bogut, landed and his momentum carried him into one of the many instruments that have made him an internationally-recognized icon.
Over the next few days, the arguments will rage over whether Bogut nudged James too much, if the baseline cameramen are too close to the action, or even if James should bring back his headband. But it won't change how the centre of the discussion will continue to be the centre of this series, win or lose.
When asked to describe the challenge he faces the rest of the way, James downplayed it by saying that it doesn't compare to the pressure he felt before he needed a road win in Boston in 2012 to win his first title.
"Now that's pretty challenging," James said. "So I've been through a little bit in my pretty cool career."