Basketball courts

20 Years After September 11, Basketball Courts Across 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 stock analyst at Fred Alger Management after graduating from Columbia University. He was 23 years old.

Describing the sight of this spectacular office to her grandmother, Ugolyn said, “From here I can see the whole world.


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

The Tyler Ugolyn Foundation honors what its namesake was best known for: instilling a gracious character in emerging athletes. The charity sponsors basketball clinics for inner city children to help them improve their skills on and off the court. Ugolyn started a similar youth program in Harlem during his college days.

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

The association’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 am amazed at the number of people who 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 tasked with choosing a senior to wear number 34 – Ugolyn’s number. The chosen player is not necessarily the sportiest person on the team, but someone who brings an energy that inspires and uplifts other students in the program.

“It became something that high school kids had to achieve… (and) would play into the way you molded yourself,” said Tiffany McGarrity, whose son Luke wore the jersey during the 2019-20 season. “Victor will be following each of them each 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 grade school, remembers the “wacky things” they got involved in 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 think we’d text it today.”

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

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

In December, Ridgefield High School will host the inaugural 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 that the kids playing right now, who weren’t even alive then, remember that,” McClellan said.

The tournament’s alignment 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 pm on December 2, 2020. If you do the math, the date digits add up to 34. And in 2018, on the morning of September 11, Cassels was driving behind a car. with the “COEUR-34” license plate.

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

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

One of Columbia’s Ugolyn peers wrote, “Tyler connected with people sincerely, (and) took the time because he cared about people. … He treated me like I was important. … He used his gifts and talents for good, and for that I will always honor him. When we walked around campus, her spirit represented something that I valued, and her spirit lives on and continues to make an impact, and for that we have all been blessed.

Brian Koonz contributed to this story.

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