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. LeBron James is Zhang Guo Lao, who rode a donkey that fit in his pocket and died at the temple gate before springing back to life.
It was tempting to simply write “LeBron James is good,” for this All-Star Profile. Maybe throw a video or two in the mix for good measure, then click “Publish” and move on to the next one. I mean, it’s LeBron. What more needs to be said?
But the fascinating thing about LeBron in 2014 is how we got to this point. In 2011, you might recall, things were pretty, pretty different. James wasn’t yet clutch; in fact, he was quite the opposite, unable to come through when the pressure was on. The Heat lost to the Dallas Mavericks in the Finals after coming together for the express purpose of winning as many rings as physically possible, and much of the blame for that defeat rightfully fell at the feet of LeBron. He and his teammates had invited themselves to dine in the hall of the emperor and regale themselves in imperial splendor, yet they’d perished at the gate.
For years, emperors made overtures to Zhang Guo Lao to come and dine with them. Hundreds of years, that is, as he claimed to be centuries old and a former Grand Minister to the emperor. Yet Zhang Guo Lao constantly declined. It wasn’t a matter of travel; Zhang Guo Lao had a white donkey that he rode backwards. His steed was capable of carrying him thousands of miles in a day, and when he was done, he could fold the donkey up and put it in his pocket.
(Someone who could get anywhere he wanted to go and put that aspect in his back pocket for when he needed it? Yeah, sounds like LeBron to me.)
And it wasn’t a lack of dinner conversation that made Zhang Guo Lao disinclined to join the royalty. Zhang Guo Lao was a practiced necromancer, and his magic was famed throughout the land. Emperors wanted Zhang Guo Lao to entertain them with his abilities. Zhang Guo Lao, however, was a bit eccentric, and he showed no desire to do so. Eventually, however, all of the requests wore him down, and he accepted an invitation to the royal court from Empress Wu. But as he approached the gates to the Temple of the Jealous Woman within the perimeter of the imperial grounds, he fell down dead, just shy of his meeting with the seat of power.
And that was that. The man with the stupendous abilities that defied explanation had reached his limit. Yet the next year, Zhang Guo Lao was seen frolicking in the meadow outside of his hermitage — and he had even more powers! He could turn birds to stone, drink poison as if it were water, and become invisible. And in 2012, of course, the Heat won their first title of the Big 3 era. LeBron had arisen with a new dedication to destroying his opponents in the post. Once the title was one, past failures were forgotten.
Zhang Guo Lao died, again, in his mountain retreat after some time, when he was done with this world and its pleasures. His followers buried him, but some were not convinced that Zhang Guo Lao, the legendary man whose magic defied death, was really gone. When they opened his tomb later to assuage those who thought he might be back among the living, they found it empty. He had risen to the realm of the Immortals.
The basketball public tried to bury LeBron. It didn’t work. Though he strives for more rings and a greater place in the history of the game, let there be no doubt — if one opens the tomb of 2011 LeBron, one will find only stone. That man is no more. Now, LeBron is Immortal.