Up until two months ago, if you asked anyone in New York was the biggest story of 2020 was, most would have answered that it was the untimely death of the soon-to-be NBA Hall of Famer Kobe Bryant. Bryant, 41, his teenage daughter, and 7 others (including the pilot) were killed when the helicopter they were traveling in crashed into a mountainside northwest of Los Angeles on January 26th. Within a matter of hours, mourners flocked to the Staples Center (which is where Bryant’s Lakers called home) as makeshift memorials quickly popped up around Southern California and around the world.
The recent passing of actress Valerie Harper was world’s apart in quite a number of ways. Diagnosed with lung cancer in 2009 as it later spread to her brain, she remained resilient during her ordeal as she continued to act as she appeared on Dancing With The Stars as well as penning an autobiographical book entitled I, Rhoda. Although she had acted on stage, screen, and Broadway and was an Oscar away from being an exclusive member of the EGOT club, Rhoda remained Harper’s most memorable role up until her death a week after her 80th birthday last August.
Spun off from The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Rhoda was possibly the quintessential New York Sitcom of the 70’s, with the exception of All in the Family or maybe even The Odd Couple. Like the latter of it’s contemporaries, it was set on the Upper East Side of Manhattan as Rhoda Morganstern moved back east and attempted to settle down in the city of her upbringing. During it’s run of four years and change on CBS, it only cracked the top ten in ratings it’s first two seasons and seemed to have lost it’s way after that. Most people would remember it today for it’s easily-hummed theme and the episode that aired on October 28th, 1974.
That hour-long episode, titled Rhoda’s Wedding, was the most-watched sitcom episode of the 70’s and drew such national media attention that even Howard Cosell brought it up during that night’s Monday Night Football telecast. Although the marriage didn’t last, several memorable scenes show Rhoda scrambling into a subway station, waiting for a train on a subway platform with famed writer James L. Brooks (in a cameo appearance), traversing a Cross Bronx Expressway overpass, and crossing the Grand Concourse on her way to the wedding at her parent’s apartment.
It made for great television and just as importantly, an even better time capsule of what life in New York was like when the city’s northernmost Borough had Jewish enclaves and as society was reluctantly moving on from a blue-collar past to a white collar future. Rhoda’s outfits and demeanor were the epitome of the free-spirited 60’s that lasted into the decade of bell-bottoms and Halston but the transition become more evident as the series aged as Rhoda settled in, got divorced, and became the poster girl for feminism. Even the theme and accompanying montage changed every year as the ever-popular Broadway font turned out to be the only constant in the show’s opening and closing credits, with the skyline depicted and music used changing with the times.
Kobe Bryant also went from being second-fiddle to having the town to himself in the later stages of his duration in the limelight. Selected by the Charlotte Hornets with the 13th pick in the 1996 draft, an agreement was made beforehand that resulted in the Los Angeles Lakers trading for him in exchange for aging veteran Vlade Divac. Although he attended Lower Merion High School outside of Philadelphia, it was hard to imagine Bryant being anywhere but in Hollywood once his career took off. His work ethic, love of the game, natural style of play, and ability to step up in the spotlight quickly endeared him to the fans in Tinseltown, as well as around the rest of the league. Although teammate Shaquille O’Neal was the centerpiece of the Lakers dynasty that won the Larry O’Brien trophy from 2000-02, Kobe was integral to the success of the team during that span.
That became more evident once O’Neal was traded to the Miami Heat following the Lakers loss to the Pistons in the 2004 Finals. There was much speculated about the relationship between the two and whether one team was able to handle the both of them and their egos. After a few tumultuous seasons, that was put to rest when he lead them back to the Finals from 2008-2010, winning the title during his final two appearances in the championship round.
What was just as amazing during this run was what he did away from his home confines. On February 2nd, 2009, Bryant set the record (which still stands today) of scoring 61 points at Madison Square Garden. Much like Michael Jordon and LeBron James, Bryant rose to the occasion when the attention was on him, under the brightest of lights and on the biggest of stages. The feat was so revered and remembered that on the night of his passing, the lights outside of the World’s Most Famous Arena were tinged purple and yellow in honor of the team he played for during his entire 20 year-career.
Over the last two months, several notable New Yorkers like Anthony Causi of the New York Post and author William Helmreich have succumbed to the COVID-19 virus and it’s likely that more people of note will pass away from it before it runs it’s course in Gotham. The loss of those who left their mark on the Big Apple happens on a near-daily basis, with detailed biographical and anecdotal obituaries appearing in the local newspapers, just like in the months after 9/11. Some of the thousands of people who have been in my cab over the years might not even be here anymore, as their fares fade away into a memory that ends up becoming another New York story that I’ll take with me until my dying day.
Thankfully, we have lots of video footage, books, and firsthand accounts of what Harper and Bryant meant to the Big Apple. Neither of them grew up here (Harper was born in upstate Suffern) but like so many adopted New Yorkers, they came here from a different place and painted the town red – and purple, and pink, and gold, and lavender, and whatever other colors they donned in the prime of their careers. As with so many other people who have shaped my world, made me laugh, caused me to cry, and given me something to aspire to, I never met them but I felt lucky to be alive when they were at the peak of their talent and popularity. Like other transplants and visitors who have called The Big Apple home for a night, a career, or a lifetime, New York just wouldn’t be the same had it not crossed paths with either of them.