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The 10 Stages of Coping With LeBron James’s Potential Retirement

LeBron’s greatness has been sports’ greatest constant for the past 20 years. What would the NBA look like without him? Even imagining that (inevitable) scenario is a tough pill to swallow.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

My first thought: Oh God, oh God, oh God. Don’t let it be true.

Could Monday night’s game really have been LeBron James’s last? After getting swept? Would he actually walk away without telling us first, so we’d know to cherish every second of his 40-point turn-back-the-clock tour de force in Game 4?

LeBron, at the end of the final postgame press conference of his 20th season, hinted as much. A question about the recent past, and his evaluation of his performance this season, morphed into a reflection on an uncertain future:

“I got a lot to think about, to be honest,” he said. “Just for me personally, going forward with the game of basketball, I’ve got a lot to think about it.”

I’m as guilty as anyone: Despite my best efforts, I’ve become so used to the metronomic certainty of LeBron’s greatness, that I have indeed taken him for granted. For the better part of 20 years, he has been the single most dominant player of my lifetime, as consistent, as reliable, as easy to take for granted as water running from a tap. His dominance has simultaneously jumped off the screen and become etched into the NBA background. It’s impossible to imagine a basketball world without him, because for the past 20 years he’s hardly ever been missing from it.

It’s heart-shattering to think he could walk away from the game on a whim, with no farewell tour, no long goodbye.

My second thought, which feels simultaneously like the most logical, educated take, and a coping mechanism: there’s no way LeBron James, who is both calculated and could never be accused of hating attention, would retire without the theatrics of a farewell tour. This has got to be a leverage play. He’s probably trying to pressure the Lakers into signing his former teammate and friend, Kyrie Irving, who sat courtside during Game 4—or at the very least, remind them, as he reminded us after the game, that he doesn’t “play for anything besides winning championships at this point in my career.” His 40-point performance, one assist shy of a triple-double, might actually be part of this larger performance. If anyone could pull it off, it’s the guy who simply decided he was going to score 38 points on the Thunder to break the all-time scoring record because his family was in town and the restaurant reservations already had been made.

My third thought: Shit. He has already broken the all-time scoring record. And like he said, he’s not playing for anything besides championships anymore.

My fourth: Maybe LeBron thinks his best chance to bolster his legacy with a fifth ring just passed him by. The post-deadline Lakers were a revelation, churning out the fourth-best net rating in the NBA and making the Western Conference finals after a 2-10 start. But their offseason checklist is deep, starting with retaining restricted free agents Austin Reaves and Rui Hachimura. Lonnie Walker IV and Dennis Schröder will also seek paydays, and D’Angelo Russell could sign elsewhere. This run felt like catching lightning in a bottle—especially as it pertains to Anthony Davis’s health—and it’s unclear how much of it the Lakers can recapture.

Over the course of his career, James has gone from trying to prove himself worthy of the hype to becoming increasingly comfortable with his greatness, despite the barbs people will always throw his way. This culminated, in my mind, when he said that delivering Cleveland its first title after mounting a 3-1 comeback against the Warriors “made me the greatest of all time.” At this point, he’s proved it to himself, and he seems unconcerned with proving it to anyone else.

Fifth: It’s been a pretty great ride, hasn’t it?

The contours of his all-around potential were apparent in his 25-point, nine-assist, six-rebound, and four-steal rookie debut in 2003. He scored 25 straight points against Detroit and led the Cavs to the Finals in 2007. He jostled with and fell to Paul Pierce and the Celtics. There was the infamous Decision special, an early misstep in the making of a media aficionado. There was the epic nadir: Miami’s Game 2 collapse against Dallas, the ensuing Finals loss, the you’re-still-broke-and-I’m-still-LeBron defiance at the peak of his career, and the turning point in Game 6 of the 2012 Eastern Conference finals, the single most important game of his career. We got LeBron the point center and LeBron the defensive lynchpin, changing the size, shape, and speed of the game under the tactical genius of Erik Spoelstra. We got the return to Cleveland—featuring LeGM, the stern teammate and power broker, who practically traded rookie Andrew Wiggins by way of not mentioning him in his homecoming letter. We watched him, as a Laker, sign long-term deals and relinquish control, honoring the decisions of his front office and coaching staff. We got 38,388 points and then 264 more this season. We got 65,699 minutes, including the regular season and playoffs. We got to see a kid become a man, a father, a champion. And hey, we got Monday night.

Sixth: Was this season the real farewell tour? The cumulative impact of all these years was captured in a single moment when he broke the all-time scoring record. It was a lifetime achievement of sorts, an opportunity for James to thank everyone who supported his journey. Maybe, in hindsight, it was a form of closure, as the rest of us reflected on his impact, on the passage of time, and a reminder that while the end wasn’t here, it was near. Have we been saying goodbye this whole time?

Seventh: Maybe he’ll pull a Tom Brady, get foot surgery, change his mind, and come back in 2024 to play with his son, Bronny James. That would be a classic LeBron move, and a cool feather in his cap.

(I’m coping again.)

I’m also reminded of something James once told Chris Ballard, in an offseason story for Sports Illustrated last season about the prospect of playing with his son. It was striking, even then, how consumed he already seemed to be with the next act of his life. But that’s what playing in L.A. was all about: being near his family, his production company in Hollywood, setting the stage for life after basketball. “I’m a visionary,” James told SI. “But I’m also a guy that lives in the moment.”

Eighth: Maybe he’s just really tired. Who among us hasn’t considered an entirely new life path when all we really needed was a nap?

Ninth: After the game, a source close to James expounded for ESPN’s Dave McMenamin, walking him through James’s playoff experience. “LeBron really felt the effects of the travel, and the physicality against Memphis,” McMenamin relayed on SportsCenter. “And then he said the second round against Golden State brought back some old demons about all those Finals matchups they had that LeBron was on the losing side of a few of them. That was an emotional toll that it took on him.”

The past—even if you learn from the regret, even if you seize the revenge—still accumulates and stings.

“And then you get through Golden State,” McMenamin continued, “you feel like you have everything you had to give, you left it on the court against the Denver Nuggets, and you still get swept.”

James himself reflected Monday night on how difficult this season was, in the beginning of his answer that led to the rumination on his future. “It’s all about availability for me, and keeping my mind sharp and things of that nature. Being present on the floor, being present in the locker room and bus rides and plane rides, things of that nature. It was challenging. It was a very challenging season for me, for our ball club.”

Through the course of his answer, James kept pausing, saying, “I don’t know.” He sounded a little lost in thought, like he was coming to terms in real time with the fact that even he can no longer take his presence, physically or mentally, for granted. LeBron delivered a few good punchlines in the movie Trainwreck, but if he can really act with this much depth, boy do I have an idea for his next career. I’m reminded of one of my favorite Mad Men quotes from Betty Draper: “I’ve learned to trust people when they say it’s over. They don’t want to say it, so it’s usually the truth.”

My 10th and final thought, and probably my best guess: It’s probably a little bit of everything. He’s tired, and he’s at the age when he has to at least entertain the possibility of the end, even if he does ultimately reconsider. Maybe the right roster (read: a championship contender) could reenergize him. I don’t think anyone knows what’s really going to happen next, including him. I think LeBron’s telling the truth when he says he doesn’t know. But for the sake of NBA fans, I hope he’s lying to us one last time.