Basketball courts

20 years after 9/11, basketball courts across the country embody Tyler Ugolyn’s ‘warm heart’

Number 34 has been worn by many notable NFL players – Bo Jackson, Hirschell Walker, Walter Payton. If the number is synonymous with greatness, it rings more than true for a late Ridgefielder who also found success wearing it, but his game was basketball.

On September 11, 2001, Tyler Ugolyn was on the 93rd floor of the North Tower of the World Trade Center. He worked as a biotech equity analyst at Fred Alger Management after graduating from Columbia University. He was 23 years old.

Describing the view from this spectacular office to his grandmother, Ugolyn said: “From here I can see the whole world.

This beautiful morning turned into one of the most painful days in the life of the Ugolyns, said Victor Ugolyn. But her son’s death created a ripple effect that continues to have a positive impact.

The Tyler Ugolyn Foundation pays tribute to what its namesake was best known for: instilling a graceful character in promising athletes. The charity sponsors basketball clinics for inner city kids to help improve their skills on and off the court. Ugolyn started a similar youth program in Harlem during his college years.

“We’re basically doing everything Tyler would do if he was still around,” Victor Ugolyn said. “Tyler had a warm heart. He was everyone’s friend.”

The charity’s most visible gifts are the basketball courts they have built across the country. Each is called “Tyler’s Court”. The first was built at Ridgefield High School, Ugolyn’s alma mater.

“I’m amazed at how many people play on this court almost every night, even in bad weather,” said Andrew McClellan, head coach of the Ridgefield High School basketball team.

Each season, McClellan is responsible for choosing a senior who will wear number 34 – Ugolyn’s number. The chosen player is not necessarily the most athletic person on the team, but someone who brings an energy that inspires and uplifts other students in the program.

“It became something for high school kids to achieve…(and) would play off of how you modeled yourself,” said Tiffany McGarrity, whose son, Luke, wore the shirt during the 2019-20 season. “Victor will follow each of them every year, (and) the boys carry that story with them – they carry on Tyler’s character and sportsmanship.”

Ugolyn’s remarkable character was not only apparent in basketball. Kirk Cassels, Ugolyn’s best friend since elementary school, recalled the “goofy stuff” they got into growing up in Ridgefield.

As he talked about the activities that filled their afternoons – tennis lessons, class projects, Super Mario 64 battles – Cassels said, “I’m thinking about what we would send today.”

Every September 11, Cassels remembers his late friend by posting number 34 on social media. He viewed Ugolyn’s legacy as an imitable force that gave generations of student-athletes a purpose.

“There will be kids that I’ve never met, never will meet, who don’t know I exist and vice versa, (who) will be out there on a lot just because Tyler existed,” Cassels said. “Energy does not die, it converts.”

In December, Ridgefield High School will host the first Tyler Ugolyn Memorial Tournament, which was scheduled to take place last winter. Organizers plan to discuss Ugolyn’s legacy with attendees.

“I think it’s important for kids who are playing right now, who weren’t even alive at the time, to remember,” McClellan said.

The tournament roster with the 20th commemoration of 9/11 feels like kismet, something Cassels has encountered more than once since Ugolyn’s death.

Her son was born at 3:41 p.m. on December 2, 2020. If you do the math, the numbers for the date add up to 34. And in 2018, on the morning of September 11, Cassels was driving behind a car. with license plate “HEART-34”.

“Little things like that will always bring me back to his legacy of greatness,” Cassels said.

Ugolyn is survived by his parents, Victor and Diane, and his brother, Trevor. In the 20 years since the attacks, the family have received dozens of letters detailing their son’s mark on the world – which he had very much at his feet.

One of Ugolyn’s Columbia peers wrote, “Tyler connected with people with sincerity, (and) took the time because he cared about people. … He treated me like I mattered. … He used his gifts and talents for good, and for that I will always honor him. When we passed through campus, his spirit represented something that I appreciated, and his spirit endures and continues to have an impact, and for that we have all been blessed.

Brian Koonz contributed to this story.

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