OpinionOctober 7

‘Love you, too’

The NBA’s All-Star Weekend unexpectedly taught us all a lesson in love and empathy.

A basketball referee holds a ball during a timeout, in a stock photo. Credit: Ron Alvey/Shutterstock.
A basketball referee holds a ball during a timeout, in a stock photo. Credit: Ron Alvey/Shutterstock.
Erez Sherman. Credit: Courtesy.
Rabbi Erez Sherman
Rabbi Erez Sherman serves as co-senior rabbi at Sinai Temple, the largest Conservative synagogue in Los Angeles. He hosts a podcast, Rabbi on the Sidelines, about the intersection of faith and sports.

Some 5 million people tuned into the NBA All-Star Weekend to see Lebron James in his 20th All-Star Game, Mac McClung win the dunk contest, and the world’s best three-point shooters Steph Curry and Sabrina Ionescu square off.

All-Star games allow athletes to take a mid-season break, catch up with each other and their families, and prepare for the remainder of the season, hopefully ending in a playoff push. When the 2023 NBA season began, however, the world was a different place for some.

On Oct. 7, Ofir Engel, a high-school basketball player from Jerusalem, was visiting his girlfriend Yuval Sharabi at Kibbutz Be’eri in southern Israel. He was kidnapped by Hamas when the terror group attacked the kibbutz and was taken to the Gaza Strip along with Yuval’s father, Yossi, and 16-year-old, Amit Shani.

While the NBA season kicked off, Ofir spent 54 days in captivity—not knowing if he would ever see his family or home again, much less touch a basketball or watch a game. On Nov. 29, Ofir and Amit were two of the lucky ones released in a prisoner swap for jailed terrorists.

Yuval’s father remained captive and was pronounced dead on Jan. 16. Her uncle Eli is still captive, while her aunt and two cousins were murdered on Oct. 7.

Basketball has always been a huge part of Ofir’s life, which included training with Tamir Goodman, the “Jewish Jordan.” It so happened that last weekend, as a form of respite, a few moments to take his mind off the trauma that haunts him daily, Ofir and Yuval were treated to a trip to the NBA All-Star Weekend at the Gainbridge Fieldhouse in Indianapolis by former NBA agent Happy Walters and sports journalist Emily Austin.

Ofir watched his athletic heroes shoot, pass and dunk. He took photos on the court and lived every kid’s basketball dream. The weekend, however, was not about basketball. Rather, it was about the world witnessing the humanity and goodness that we have to offer each other and how a basketball can help change the world we live in to the world in which we want to live.

Ernie Johnson, the longtime host of “Inside the NBA” and six-time Sports Emmy Award winner, was once again at the center of All-Star Weekend, interviewing celebrities and giving in-depth analysis of the season in progress.

As a rabbi and host of the podcast “Rabbi on the Sidelines,” I had the opportunity to interview Johnson in February 2022. We spoke about his deep faith, the challenges he faced in two battles with cancer, as well as the miraculous story of his adopted son Michael, who suffered from muscular dystrophy but lived an amazingly full life and passed away in 2021 at age 33.

While a ventilator helped him breathe and a wheelchair helped him traverse the world, it was Michael’s love that permeated the soul of every person he met. Michael, who could barely speak, would always say, “Love you, too,” no matter who you were and before he even had a conversation with you. He would not only say these words but would teach you how to say them in sign language.

Ernie Johnson is a man of faith, a man of moral clarity and a man who defines empathy and kindness. His son Michael taught his father this day after day. And “love you, too” was once again on display at the NBA All-Star Weekend.

As the game concluded on Sunday evening, Ernie became aware that Ofir and Yuval were in the arena. As the cameras shut off, Ernie invited them to the TNT set. They embraced, shared their story and took a photo now spreading widely in social media circles.

The picture shows Ofir, the released hostage; Yuval, still grieving for her father, aunt and cousins, and praying for the release of her uncle; and Ernie Johnson. They are all making the sign with their hand: “Love you, too!”

In a speech to the Alabama Crimson Tide football team, Johnson shared with the athletes two lessons that Michael shared with the world. First, there is value in everybody. When you step away from your own agenda, you notice that you can make someone’s life better today. We all love to cheer for the home team, but there’s a much bigger team we all belong to that seeks to make life better.

Second, Johnson teaches “be a better human.” Johnson often wears a t-shirt with those words when he is not wearing his famous colorful bowties on air. He wore it during my podcast and he wears it at the motivational speeches he gives.

On Sunday evening, there was no need for a T-shirt. “Be a better human” was taught by Johnson’s actions.

Just hours after meeting Ofir and Yuval, Johnson posted the photo he took with them. He said, “I was not expecting my All-Star Weekend to conclude with this meeting. And I don’t have the words to describe how impactful it was.” He signed the post, “Love you, too.”

If only Ofir and Yuval could say those words to her father, her aunt and her cousins. If only we could say those words to the hostages—who must come home now.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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