After Game 3 of a series against the Toronto Raptors that the Cleveland Cavaliers would go on to sweep, LeBron James asked the media, "What else do I have to prove? I've won championships, I won my first one and I've won for my teammates, I came home and won. There isn't anything I have left to prove."
In the Raptors series, James became the first player in NBA history to score at least 35 points in every game of a four-game sweep, and that sweep followed a sweep of the Indiana Pacers. In the playoffs so far, James has topped 30 points in seven of the eight games he's played and is averaging 32.8 points, 9.8 rebounds and 9.0 assists per game.
For someone with nothing left to prove, he's working the broom awfully hard.
Sports talking heads were understandably apoplectic about James' statement. It is, after all, their job to manufacture pearl-clutching on a daily basis, but the idea that an athlete with no self-imposed expectations or acknowledgment of stakes could be playing perhaps the best postseason basketball of his career is extremely uncomfortable to people steeped in sports culture.
Throughout his career, James has been forever saddled with narrative baggage: Could he live up to the lofty ceiling predicted for him? Could he make his early teammates (who were basically a bag of spare parts) better and win a championship in Cleveland? Could he do it in Miami and, once he did, could we really count it because of Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade? When he returned to Cleveland, could he finally get that ring for his hometown? And most recently, now that he's answered all the questions about his career, can he just go quietly into that good night?
But the answer to that last question is no. At the ripe old age of 32, in his twelfth straight postseason, he is not going quietly, but nor is he raging against the dying of the light in the manner of Kobe Bryant. If late-period Kobe was furious Achilles, constantly spoiling for a fight, late-period LeBron is more Odysseus, home at last. We long in almost equal measure for the triumph, the fall and the picture perfect exit. Whichever we get, we tend to like it better than the idea of peace and quiet. Peace and quiet isn't very sports.
Here in America, we're taught that when the hunger goes out, there's nothing left to play for. The talking heads insist he still has something to prove because he hasn't "caught up" to Jordan, then follow it up by saying it's impossible for him to ever "catch" Jordan. This is how you perpetuate a narrative. They, however, are caught in the grip of basketball samsara – the ineluctable cycle of pain and pleasure driven by grasping after a reward that can't be realized within the cycle itself.
But LeBron has seen through the wheel of life and death. He has become a basketball bodhisattva and the mainstream commentariat doesn't know how to deal with it. More than Jordan and Kobe – who crafted their legacies in one place – James has been on a journey. He left, was treated as an outcast, grew up, returned home, brought glory with him and, in the process, emptied himself of desire. Like any bodhisattva – and pointedly unlike Jordan and Kobe – the thing driving him forward through his career has been bodhicitta: a recognition that personal enlightenment comes from a wish for the same for all sentient beings.
Viewed through this lens, his decision to go to Miami and his decision to return to Cleveland suddenly appear not as contradictory, but of a piece. The first degree of bodhicitta – coincidentally the way of the king – is doing things for your own benefit, but with an understanding that your benefit depends on the well-being of those around you. This is LeBron going to Miami. The second degree is the path of the boatman: you carry people across while carrying yourself as well. This is LeBron returning to Cleveland. And the third degree is the way of the shepherd, who places the need of his flock above his own.
This is where LeBron is now, with an understanding that his work producing points, rebounds, assists, steals, whatever, provides material benefit for his people – his teammates, the Cavaliers franchise, his fans, even sports – without desire for his own material benefit. He is delaying his buddhahood until everyone (or at least everyone in Cleveland) attains enlightenment. At least in terms of basketball, James has removed himself from the karmic cycle, no longer reacting or responding to his desires.
Does that mean he's desireless, though? Maybe not precisely.
"I'm not free, because my passion for this game is so huge," he insisted at the same media sessions. "It's enormous, and my desire to be great is ridiculous. My desire to be great, to be great at this game I love so much, that trumps everything else."
James now awaits the winner of the Washington Wizards vs. Boston Celtics series that is tied at three games apiece, and will be figured out tonight. He's been waiting since Sunday, actually. On Tuesday night, he took in a taping of American Ninja Warrior in Cleveland. After a season of hand-wringing about his decision to occasionally rest, he's now making his own rest by summarily sweeping opposing teams. He is neither burning out, nor fading away. It’s not that he doesn't need to prove anything, it’s that, basketball-wise, he doesn't need.
Whatever the rest of the playoffs brings, the new basketball bodhisattva abides, loving the things of the world without being in love with them. The truth of the Dharma reveals itself in the simplest acts, whether that's counting grains of rice or tending a rock garden. Or sweeping.