January 30, 2020

I’m not even much of a basketball fan, so why did I find myself with a lump in my throat at the news of the most recent TMZ tragedy – the death of Kobe Bryant?

This past Sunday morning, I was four hours into my nursing shift, when I could see my coworker running to a group of others, cell phone in her hand, and her face as pale as a ghost. One by one, I saw each of my other coworkers put their hands on their face, yelp, and give a range of “shocked” reactions that would seem exaggerated in acting school. I ran to see what all the drama was about. My mind raced, was our country just attacked? Did a coworker of ours just die? I then saw the headline. TMZ was reporting on the tragic helicopter death of recently retired basketball superstar Kobe Bryant, along with unnamed others. Really? Do we even trust TMZ to report the news? A moment later this was also confirmed by Fox News. Okay, this seemed to be a real story. But why did this elicit SUCH a strong reaction from everyone around me? We learn of celebrity deaths on a regular basis. Sure, this was before his time, but we also learn of premature celebrity deaths at least a few times each year. I messaged a few friends who are basketball fans the news, and told my wife Adi. I felt bad for the tragic situation but still did not understand why everyone around me was reacting as strongly as they were. A few minutes later Adi called me on the phone to tell me she was in the valley and had earlier heard helicopters and sirens, clearly about this crash. I opened my mouth to respond, and something strange happened – I cried. I could not quite get the words out of my mouth to discuss this new tragic celebrity death. My voice was cracking, and I found myself surprised that I was having an emotional response. Over an athlete in a sport I did not particularly follow. Whose past, since 2003, I am well aware causes heated arguments. And yet…I was tearing up.

My friend Mike replied and told me that Kobe had four daughters, and that he was crying over the horrible news. Adi told me, “oh yes, Kobe has four daughters, and one of them is named Natalia, even I know that” (our own daughter is named Natalia). Wow, my wife who has even less interest in sports and basketball than myself knew things about Kobe Bryant. Then an hour or so went by, and some friends started to message me that one of Kobe’s daughters may have also been on board the helicopter. At this point, a sense of dread entered the pit of my stomach, PLEASE GOD let that be a false rumor. I was caring about this? Yes, I was now invested. How strange, because I read about celebrities constantly, and I can barely remember examples of being emotionally affected by one, but here I was, joining in the shared emotion of my coworkers that day, and my friend Mike. More messages came to me, from dozens of friends. They were men and women, locals and people from the east coast, and most of them were expressing their horror at the news story. What was happening? By the end of the day I had at least a dozen different people tell me that they were in public areas such as supermarkets and drug stores that day, and everyone was talking to each other – strangers – about this, and many saw men and women with tears on their face. The last time I could remember this many people contacting each other with this level of collective grief was 911, but this was just one helicopter with one celebrity and eight others. Why were we being so affected? I could throw a dart on a week last year and find tragedies with higher death tolls.

I am not a psychologist, nor do I have any sociological expertise other than my nursing background, but here is my attempt at explaining this collective phenomena of mourning someone we don’t actually know. We are a divided society. Most of the time, wherever we are, we disagree. Especially during this age of social media, we have found a way to disagree with each other more than ever, because those disagreements are now far LOUDER than ever before. No matter what your politics are, everyone else is wrong and ignorant, and sometimes even stupid and evil. Or at least that’s how people frequently feel about those who disagree with them.  Jews are experiencing Anti-Semitism. Okay that’s literally ancient news. But now Jews can’t walk down the streets of New York without hearing news of another daily, local attack on one of their own. Racism forever permeates, misogyny will likely never know an end, and most of society feels the fractious nature of their differences rather than celebrating what makes us unique, and what we have in common. Most of us feel less safe, our nerves feel less calm, and all of us look forward to election season coming to an end, while also fearing what that outcome may be.

Along comes Kobe Bryant. A celebrity we have all heard of. Many of us huge basketball fans, and many more just casually aware of his superstar status, and yes none of us forgot about the allegations. But this country, and certainly this city needs a hug. It has been overdue for so long. And more importantly, we need to hug each other. We have been feeling the divisiveness for long enough, and we were handed a collective opportunity to bond and embrace one another. Tomorrow we can go back to slamming our heads against the wall at how frustrated we are with all of the angry differences that divide us, but today we pause, hug each other, and cry. Kobe and his daughter, and the seven other victims of this horrible helicopter tragedy have given that to us. Regardless of what did or did not occur in 2003 in his hotel room, the vast majority of people were remembering the many kindnesses he provided. Some remembered his kindness as a father, and proponent of female athletes including his own daughters. Others remembered him donating his time, money and resources to countless important charities. Others remembered the happiness they felt when he won “them” an NBA Championship, the ecstasy of victory that it provided. And then so many of us looked at each other, and tears filled our eyes. Those  coworkers of mine who were crying and reacting that way? Different ages, different religions, different races and different politics. Did not matter. We were incredibly sad. Together.

Last night I had the coincidental privilege of being at the first athletic game since Sunday’s tragedy. The Grammy’s performed that same night in the Staples Center, but the first game held there ended up being an LA King’s hockey game, my first hockey game since 2007. My friends Matt & Shira were kind enough to bring me and my (earlier-mentioned) friend Mike. It was not until we were arriving that we realized, this is Kobe’s memorial! And the outside of the Staples Center, four days after the crash, was more crowded than Times Square. Every square inch of space provided was overflowing with flowers, posters, jerseys, basketballs, and candles. The photo above shows one stretch like this, and there were at least four others. The last time I can remember this outpouring of memorials in my lifetime was when Princess Diana died. I can still remember where I was when hearing about her car crash. Everyone old enough tells me they can remember where they were when they found out about JFK’s assassination. And something tells me that this will be another rare event that people will forever remember, at least for those of us in the City of Angels. The hockey game began with a touching tribute to not only Kobe and his daughter, but they also individually showed each and every other passenger of the crash. They asked for 24 seconds of silence, where I could hear sobbing in various places surrounding me, including my own. Mike asked if I was crying, I said yes and he gave my arm a loving squeeze. After the tribute the entire stadium burst into a deafening chant of Kobe, Kobe, KOBE, KOBE!

This athlete who I had never met, had a beautiful daughter who I had never met, who had friends with family members who I had never met, and all of them now had names and faces that I knew; and our city full of different faces, voices and opinions, at least for the moment, had become closer in experiencing our collective mourning.

Boaz Hepner grew up in LA in Pico/Robertson and now lives here with his wife and baby girl. Thus, the neighborhood is very important to him. He helped clean up the area by adding dozens of trash cans that can still be seen from Roxbury to La Cienega. When he is not working as a Registered Nurse in Santa Monica, he can be found with his wife and daughter enjoying his passions: his multitude of friends, movies, poker and traveling.

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