Today LeBron James spoke briefly about the grim saga of Derrick Rose, whose desiccated body drifted back to Cleveland this morning. LeBron’s comment was unremarkable in Rose-related insight, which it seemed explicitly crafted to avoid. But it was amusing in its insight on the human condition. In the middle of a routine interview LeBron smuggles in a hilariously bleak take about the possibility of one person ever being able to understand another.
Reporter: Do you understand what [Rose] is going through? I mean, obviously—
LeBron James: —It’s impossible. None of us can understand what someone is going through. It’s impossible. You can never—you just don’t know. So we support him. Whatever he’s going through.
James has toyed with this kind of rhetoric before. Here’s what he said about Chris Bosh’s persistent struggles with blood clots, back in May 2016:
“I’ve talked to him numerous times and just said there’s no way I could even say that I understand what he’s going through, because I can’t,” James said. “It’s just a tough situation for him going through that once again, for another year. But I think his health and his family is the most important thing.”
Here’s what James said after Derrick Rose tore his meniscus again back in 2015 with the Bulls:
“Last night after our game, after a huge win, we got some news that Derrick Rose was having surgery again on a torn meniscus ... It was terrible news to get, man. I could never know what he’s going through mentally or try to put my feet in his shoes and tell him, ‘Listen, I know exactly what you’re going through’ because I don’t. I’ve never been in this situation before.”
Here’s what James said in 2014 about his friend Carmelo Anthony’s struggles, after thumping him during yet another desultory Knicks season:
“I always feel for a friend of mine that goes through losing. You never want to see a friend lose,” said James, whose Cavaliers outlasted the Knicks, 90-87, at the Garden. “But at the same time, I’ve got so much to try to figure out on this side that’s it’s hard for me to kind of think about what he’s going through even though I see it.”
These are slightly different platitudes intended to satiate different reporters in different contexts, and I am admittedly mashing them together here in a way that amuses me. But there’s also a through-line, here.
Maybe James has reasoned his way from “We have imperfect access to other minds” to “It is actually impossible to empathize with another human being.” That latter stance might be difficult to deal with as a friend, partner, teammate, coach, or anyone else who simply wants the smartest living basketball player to try and understand where he or she is coming from, even if such an understanding can never be absolute. LeBron James has walked right up to the edge of what is possible in both basketball and human empathy. Seeing the former, he rose up to win four MVPs and three titles; seeing the latter, he recoiled, murmuring “Every man is an island.”