In the Chinese tradition of Taoism, there are eight legendary xian who became immortal by following the way of Tao. Each of the Eight Immortals represents a different facet of humanity and had unique powers — as well as unique paths to immortality. For the 2014 All-Star Profiles, I took a look at the Eight Immortals of the NBA. Chris Paul is Iron-Crutch Li, a man who made the most of a body that wasn’t his and restored life to others.
It’s remarkable, really, that Chris Paul continues to play at this level. Paul’s history with knee issues is well-trodden territory, but that doesn’t make it any less impressive that the Point God has cemented his status as one of the top-3 players in the game as his body fights a losing battle against time. The corporeal form taken by Paul these days is not his. These are not his limbs, not his aches and pains. This is not the body into which he was born and that made him the talent that he is. Yet it’s what he has to work with, and as long as his feet can be placed one in front of the other, Paul will find a way.
Iron-Crutch Li wasn’t always Iron-Clutch Li, either. Born Li T’ieh-kuai, he studied Taoism from Lao Tzu himself. Studied isn’t a strong enough word for what Li did, actually; he threw his entire being into Taoism. His life was The Way. His resolve led to his being gifted the abilities to never be hungry or ill and to fly at amazing speeds while changing direction at will. And he was able to travel as a spirit to the realm of the Immortals to converse about Taoism and have giant Immortal parties. On one such ethereal journey, Li instructed his apprentice that he would likely be gone for a long time, to the point that it might seem as if he had perished. Under no circumstances, however, was Li’s assistant to burn his body until at least seven days had passed — for if Li had not returned in a week, it meant that he had finally joined the Immortals himself.
Six days passed with the apprentice diligently watching over Li’s body. At the beginning of the seventh day, the apprentice’s mother became ill and sent for him. Assuming that Li had become Immortal, the apprentice burned the body and went to his mother.
…just in time for Li’s spirit to return and find his body reduced to a pile of ashes. The only available mortal vessel was a crippled beggar who had starved to death. Li had little choice but to take on that form. Though he tried to exchange the body for another, Lao Tzu suggested that he make the most of the situation. He gave him a gold headband, an iron crutch, and a gourd that could restore life to the dead and health to the living. Li made the journey to the home of his apprentice, who Li found weeping over the body of his mother. Forgiving his assistant for burning his body, Li restored his mother to life with the gourd. From there, Li achieved immortality through his works, representing the sick and traveling the land to heal those in need.
Paul might not yet be reduced to a golden crutch, but he sure has the gourd of life. From the mouth of his gift flows the gift of eternal basketball youth, and he delivers it in the form of precision lobs and darting bounce passes. To play with Paul is to be free from want, to always have a remedy to what ails a team and an individual. Would Paul trade the body he has now for a more mobile version? Indubitably. But gone is his past self, reduced to ash by the flames of injury. He is who he is, and that will suffice. Where there’s Chris Paul, there’s a way.
The golden headband would be kind of neat, though.