Friday September 11th, 2009

On September 11, 2001, I'd never heard of Tyler Ugolyn.

I didn't know he'd played basketball at Ridgefield (Conn.) High or Columbia University. I didn't know he was a devout Catholic who prayed before meals. I didn't know one of his nicknames was Monkey; that he dreamed of one day having a tattoo; that he loved his truck -- a black Typhoon with the vanity license plate PHOON. I knew nothing.

I was just a writer, working for Sports Illustrated in New York City, living less than a mile from the terrorist attacks at the World Trade Center, walking around in a daze like every other Manhattan resident. At some point, while drifting through Union Square Park a day or two after the nightmare, I was handed a flyer with Tyler's photograph on it -- one of thousands of lost faces. "We hope he's alive and well," a young woman told me. "If you see him ..."

Shortly thereafter Bill Colson, Sports Illustrated's managing editor at the time, e-mailed an APB to the entire staff. "We have to do an issue this week," he wrote. "We need to find athletes who were affected." Like many of my colleagues, I loathed the idea. What did 9/11 have to do with sports? What could possibly be the connection?

I was, however, a young writer trying to hold on to a job. Hence, I started Googling the names of some of the victims to see if they had any ties to sports.

Andrew Zucker -- nothing.

Lynne Morris -- nothing.

Mike Zinzi -- nothing.

When I entered "Tyler Ugolyn," I discovered an athlete -- a former high school star who had spent two seasons on the bench at Columbia. "I'll try contacting his family," I told Colson. "Just to see who this guy is."

My life has never been the same since.

I can't forget that call. Ever. I asked to speak to one of Tyler's parents, and Victor Ugolyn, his father, came to the phone. This was less than a week since the loss of his son. I was nervous and uncomfortable. I explained who I was -- that I was a writer for Sports Illustrated, a New Yorker; that I hated calling under these conditions, but I wanted to pay tribute to his son.

"You know," Victor said, "I don't think I can right now. It's too soon. I hope you understand."

Of course.

A few minutes later, the phone in my apartment rang.

"Is this Sports Illustrated?" the voice said.

"No," I replied. "It's Jeff Pearlman. I'm the reporter for SI."

"Oh," Victor said, followed by a long, awkward pause. "Well, I was thinking. I don't know if I want you to write anything, but what if I just tell you a few things about my son. Just to see."

"OK," I said.

Thus began a 45-minute conversation. Thus began a lifelong bond.

Tyler Ugolyn, a 23-year-old employee of Fred Alger Management, Inc., stood worthy of admiration. He was charitable -- he started a basketball program for underprivileged kids from the Bronx. He was hard working -- his goal was to play Division I basketball, and he made the team at Columbia. He had dreams -- he wanted to work on Wall Street, and he did. He made mistakes -- on his 21st birthday, he and his friends accidentally kept the bathroom sink running and overflowed much of the Trump Plaza Hotel in Atlantic City. He was eminently human in his flaws and failings, yet strove for great heights. Mostly, he was a good, fun guy with a lot of life in front of him.

All one has to do is visit the guest book on his Web site:

• KAT: "Hey T-Y, I heard that dire straits song you used to sing and I thought of you dancing around with your fist pumps. It was cracking me up. It also made me think of that unique."

• HATHAWAY: "Tyler, I was boating yesterday and spent a lot of time looking out at the beautiful blue water and thinking of you and your amazing spirit. I love you and miss you."

• LIZ: "I miss you so much Tyler. I hear your laughter ... your soft calming voice. I can feel your arms around me, I can smell your hair and clothes. You are very much alive in my heart and in my own private world. Not a single day goes by where I don't talk to you. Some nights I can't wait to fall asleep because I know you'll come to me in my dreams and I'll be able to see your smile again."

At the conclusion of our talk, Victor paused for a long time. "I guess," he said, crying, "if you want to write something, you can."

Again, I'll never forget that day.

My article came out. I've probably written, oh, 4,000 in my career. Yet this one stuck. Was it my best work? Probably not. But it was by far the most meaningful. Not because of the time period, or even because of Tyler -- a person I never got to meet, yet someone I feel like I know. No, it carries meaning because of the lessons I've learned from Tyler's father.

Beginning with that conversation, we've kept in close contact. Usually by e-mail, sometimes by phone, once for lunch. I've written about Tyler on several occasions; he's a person who simply won't leave me. I used to say to my wife, "I'm really worried about Victor. I don't know if he's going to survive this." His e-mails were black. Not gray or beige. Black. He had lost his son, and he was heartbroken beyond belief. That was the tone of every e-mail and every call: I'm helpless; I don't know what to do; I'm lost without him; why couldn't I have done more?.

Yet somewhere along the line, something started to change. Despair was never fully replaced -- and never will be fully replaced.

But somehow, some way, Victor, his wife Diane, his son Trevor -- they committed to not letting Tyler go out in vain. They decided that, even in the darkest night, with grief all around, there was a way to bring meaning to his passing.

Beginning three years ago Victor's e-mails and calls turned increasingly hopeful. He and his family started the Tyler Ugolyn Foundation, with the goal of refurbishing inner-city basketball courts throughout the United States. Court renovations were made in San Antonio and Springfield, Mass., in 2008 and in Detroit earlier this year.

On Thursday, a day before the eighth anniversary of Tyler's death, the Ugolyns returned to Springfield to dedicate another "Tyler's Court" -- this one at William N. DeBerry Elementary School, just a few blocks from the Basketball Hall of Fame. After some politicians were introduced and some speeches were given, a gaggle of youngsters grabbed the dozen or so balls and started shooting. The sound of laughter overtook passing traffic, kids running and jumping and clapping and dribbling.

At one point, Victor stole a moment to appreciate the scene, and smiled widely.

His son is gone.

His legacy is not.

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