On Legends and Grief

I played basketball when I was in middle school. I’ve attended exactly one NBA game and one Harlem Globetrotters game. I have never participated in March Madness bracket. I don’t even know if I could name more than a dozen pro-basketball teams (are there even more than a dozen? I assume so, but I’m not sure…).

And yesterday, my heart was broken too.

I was at work when the news hit. I was teaching a class of twelve women how to knit chunky blankets. As soon as the first person mentioned the news, I pulled out my phone and went to Twitter to look for confirmation (because none of us trusted – or wanted to trust – TMZ as the sole source).

And there it was: Kobe Bryant was among nine individuals who perished in a helicopter crash in Calabasas, California.

I scrolled through all the posts on Facebook and Twitter. I saw the grief, the shock, the disbelief. The tributes. The reminders of his complicated history and the attempts at navigating the complexity of emotions involved in that. I saw people doubt their own emotions – He was just a celebrity. We didn’t really know him. Why are we so upset?

And I found myself completely unable to process my own feelings. Let me be clear about this: My knowledge of Kobe is tangential at best — I know he’s an incredible player, I know he’s an Oscar winner, and I know he’s had his fair share of problematic events. And I’m not a basketball fan by any means.

Yet, my heart was broken too.

I took a while to think about why. If I’m not from L.A., and if I don’t really care much about basketball, why was I so heartbroken over Kobe?

Here’s where I find myself now, and I am sharing this because I feel like perhaps it will resonate with others too.

What I’ve come to realize about myself is this: when someone famous dies, I am not only grieving that person. I am grieving any memories I have tied to that person.

To me, this is the piece that transcends the “I didn’t really know them. Aside from being sad because death and tragedy are always sad, why am I upset by this?

When Heath Ledger died, yes, I mourned his loss. I still sometimes think about what movies we could’ve seen from him. But, in a way, I also mourned the teenage kid who was coming home from a high school theater festival and stopped with her friends to see 10 Things I Hate About You for the first time. I mourned the distance that now separates those once-inseparable cast mates. I mourned the days when who was going in whose limo to prom were the biggest concerns on our mind. I mourned the innocence of sharing a large tub of popcorn and shoving three straws into an extra large Diet Coke.

When Nora Ephron died, I mourned her loss. I mourned every story of hers left forever unwritten. And I mourned the kid who watched Sleepless in Seattle for the first time and cried her eyes out. I mourned the girl who watched When Harry Met Sally for the first time and discovered her all-time favorite movie. I mourned the young adult who figured out that while Nora Ephron could spin one hell of a story, real life rarely resembles anything written by Nora Ephron.

So yesterday, when Kobe Bryant died, my heart was broken too.

Because in 2002, I was approaching the end of my freshman year in college at UCSD. For those of you who don’t know, UCSD has a lot of students who come from Los Angeles. They also have a lot of students who come from the Bay Area, especially Sacramento. And in 2002, the NBA Western Division Championship was between the Los Angeles Lakers and the Sacramento Kings.

Yesterday, when I heard that Kobe Bryant died, I also heard the giggles of my suitemates as we crowded together in our common area to eat rice bowls from Ocean View Terrace, our nearest dining hall. Yesterday, when I heard that Kobe Bryant died, I remembered us figuring out which floors/buildings must have Lakers fans versus Kings fans, because the shouts were so loud they reverberated through the walls across campus. Yesterday, when I heard that Kobe Bryant died, I could see the two guys sprinting across campus screaming KOBE! KOBE! KOBE!

And remembering all of that broke my heart a little bit.

I guess this is something I probably should’ve learned the first time I watched Pixar’s Inside Out.

Spoiler Alert: there’s an important pivotal moment when you realize that emotions died to memory can be “touched” by other emotions, and then the feelings swirl. A previously “Yellow” memory – one of joy – can be later touched by sadness and turn it “Blue” (or a swirl of colors).

And to me, that’s what happens when we hear about a famous person passing. Our brightly colored solid orbs are suddenly swirled with the news of the now, because memory and grief are complicated emotions that tango together.

So, in trying to process the complexities of all these feelings, that’s where I’m at right now.

And, of course, there’s the one quote that always comes to mind when I hear of a famous person – especially a famous sports person – has passed:

Heroes get remembered, but legends never die. Follow your heart, kid. You’ll never go wrong.” ~ The Sandlot