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Winning The MVP, Losing The Game: A Conversation With Chuck Howley

LeBron James dominated the NBA Finals, but didn't win MVP honors. We talked to Chuck Howley, the last player to win MVP in a losing effort, about how it feels.
Photo By Malcolm Emmons- USA TODAY Sports Copyright Malcolm Emmons

Aside from forcing a Game 7, LeBron James made about as good a case for MVP honors as a player from a losing team can possibly make. Yes, in the end, seven of the eleven voting media members instead went with Andre Iguodala, the do-it-all wing and die-hard fan of Paulo Coelho's "The Alchemist" whose return to the starting lineup proved to be just what Golden State needed

Those seven reporters who voted for Iguodala weren't on the same wavelength as ABC commentator Jalen Rose, who said on the air before Game 6 that too many fans "dumb down" criteria for Finals MVP to a consideration of only top players from the winning side. "Pay attention to the basketball game. The numbers that he's putting up are amazing," Rose added, referring to LeBron's record-smashing line, which stood at 45.7 minutes per game, 35.8 points per game, 13.3 rebounds per game and 8.8 assists per game after the confetti had settled late Tuesday night in Cleveland. It will likely be some time before we see a performance like this again, but not enough to change a peculiar and longstanding trend in American sports. No one in America's most popular team sports has won MVP honors in a losing effort since Richard Nixon was President. LeBron was not just unable to overcome the Warriors, he wasn't able to unseat Chuck Howley, either.


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In 1971, Howley's Dallas Cowboys played against Baltimore in what still stands as the ugliest Super Bowl of all time, a true turd of a contest that featured a combined 11 turnovers between the teams and a battery of penalties and mishaps. The Colts won, 16-13, despite turning the ball over seven times. Howley, who grabbed two interceptions, led the way.

When Jerry West, Howley's fellow West Virginian, won the Finals MVP in the 1969 NBA Finals despite losing to Boston, he received a Dodge Charger as part of his prize. To the Laker's horror, it was colored green, "probably intended for a Celtic," West wrote in his memoir. "I felt like putting a stick of dynamite in it and blowing it up, right there in Manhattan."

It's been widely reported that Howley refused the Super Bowl MVP award after the game, but Howley insists he did not. "I don't refuse an award like that. Not at all," the native West Virginian said in a telephone interview. "I was quite, I guess, dumbfounded that I had won. It was just something that was hard to accept, winning and losing the ballgame. I would much rather have won the game and played as well."

These days Howley lives in Dallas and works in the cattle industry. After being "hit by too many linemen" over his 13-year career, he says he has been suffering from dementia the last five years. Howley was a five-time First Team All-Pro and is his league's version of Sidney Moncrief - an outstanding defender with a strong case as the best player in his sport not yet inducted into its Hall of Fame.


Howley and I talked before Game 6 about winning, losing, and winning an award that, he says, "meant a lot to me"—if not quite as much as a championship ring.

A portrait of the artist as a young man. — Photo by Dick Raphael-USA TODAY Sports

How did you find out you were Super Bowl MVP?

I was in the shower. I think some of my teammates said "Congratulations," and I said "For what?" It's one of those types of things. It was hard. I would much rather been the one to win the ballgame, but we didn't. I was very satisfied with the award, but it took a while for it to sink it. You don't lose the game and then settle for it.

What exactly was the award? A little trophy?

I believe it was. I'm not sure. It's here in the house somewhere.

I've heard that you also received a vehicle, a Dodge Charger, for winning the MVP, just as Jerry West did for his. True?

I didn't keep it very long. I'm not used to driving a hot rod. And that is kind of what that car was. It was like a sports car to me.

What do you think of the NBA Finals so far?

I watched one game, [Game 5] on Sunday night I believe. That was some wonderful basketball … That game went back and forth, back and forth. And the thing is, you always like to see that kind of play in a championship game. They were all playing a fantastic game.

LeBron James has been putting up even greater numbers than West in these Finals. Do you believe he deserves the MVP award?

Yes I do.

Let's go big picture here. You were the last MVP from a losing pro team in one of the three major team sports. Hakeem Olajuwon was perhaps the last at the college level when he was the MVP of the '83 NCAA tournament although his team lost. But nothing like this has happened in men's sports for 32 years now. Why do you think stars from losing teams used to be given MVPs but it never happens anymore?

I think you can look at it from a standpoint that if you play an outstanding ballgame, usually you win the game. If you don't win the game, it doesn't happen very often for someone to be on a losing team and be the MVP. It's difficult to accept something as an MVP and be on a losing team, but at the same time you know you played a good game. You just don't think of it that way.

With greater exposure nowadays, do you think there is more to lose, in terms of bad publicity for a league, if a losing player were to be awarded an MVP but refuse to accept it? Do you think that's a factor in why this doesn't happen anymore?

No, no, it's not something to refuse. But, sure, it crosses our minds. "Hey, we lost a game and I don't really deserve this."