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

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

On Sept. 11, 2001, Tyler Ugolyn was on the 93rd floor of the north tower in the World Trade Center. He was working as a biotech stock analyst at Fred Alger Management after graduating from Columbia University. He was 23 years old.

When describing the view from that spectacular office to his grandmother, Ugolyn said, “From here I can see the whole world.”

That beautiful morning turned into one of the most painful days in the Ugolyns’ lives, Victor Ugolyn said. But his son’s death 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 within up-and-coming athletes. The charity sponsors basketball clinics for inner-city children to help improve their skills on and off the court. Ugolyn started a similar program for youngsters in Harlem during his college years.

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

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

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

Every season McClellan is charged with choosing a senior to wear number 34 — Ugolyn’s number. The chosen player isn’t 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 the high school boys to reach for … (and) would play into how you modeled yourself,” said Tiffany McGarrity, whose son, Luke, wore the jersey during the 2019-2020 season. “Victor will keep up with each of them every year, (and) the boys carry that story with them — they’re carrying on Tyler’s character and sportsmanship.”

Ugolyn’s remarkable character wasn’t just apparent in basketball. Kirk Cassels, Ugolyn’s best friend since elementary school, recalled the “goofy stuff” they’d get into while growing up in Ridgefield.

As he spoke of the activities that filled their afternoons — tennis lessons, class projects, Super Mario 64 battles — Cassels said, “I think about what we would text today.”

Every Sept. 11, Cassels remembers his late friend by posting the number 34 on social media. He regarded Ugolyn’s legacy as an imitable force that has given purpose to generations of student athletes.

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

This December, Ridgefield High School will host the inaugural Tyler Ugolyn Memorial Tournament, which was supposed to be held last winter. Organizers plan to discuss Ugolyn’s legacy with participants.

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

His son was born at 3:41 p.m. on Dec. 2, 2020. If you do the math, the numbers of the date add up to 34. And in 2018, on the morning of Sept. 11, Cassels was driving behind a car with the 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 has received dozens of letters detailing their son’s mark on the world — which he very well had at his feet.

One of Ugolyn’s peers from Columbia wrote: “Tyler connected with people with sincerity, (and) took the time because he cared about people. … He treated me as though I mattered. … He used his gifts and talents for good, and for that I will always honor him. When we would pass on campus his spirit represented something that I valued, and his spirit lives on and continues to have impact, and for that we were all blessed.”

Brian Koonz contributed to this story.