For 9/11 victim Tyler Ugolyn, the best legacy is a basketball court

Brian Koonz  CT Post 

SPRINGFIELD, Mass. — Eric Torres is a junior at the High School of Commerce, maybe the best magnet school in the whole city.

Tyler's Court in Springfield, Mass., on Wednesday, September 2, 2015. The court is named after Tyler Ugolyn, a Ridgefield resident who was killed in the September 11 terrorist attacks.  Photo: Brian Koonz / Hearst Connecticut Media

Tyler’s Court in Springfield, Mass., on Wednesday, September 2, 2015. The court is named after Tyler Ugolyn, a Ridgefield resident who was killed in the September 11 terrorist attacks.  Photo: Brian Koonz / Hearst Connecticut Media

He wants to become a businessman someday. But first, he wants to be the kid wearing the cap and gown in the picture, just like his older brother, Alfredo.

Torres smiles and seems to enjoy that thought. Then he rubs the top of his head like all of his great ideas can’t wait to escape like a genie. “I’m pretty sure I’m going to be successful, but I want to help people, too,” the 16-year-old Torres said the other day. “I think I can do both.”

On the surface, it doesn’t seem like Torres has much in common with Tyler Ugolyn, a 23-year-old Columbia University graduate from Ridgefield who was killed in the September 11 terrorist attacks.

But it doesn’t take long to figure out Torres has everything in common with Ugolyn — the promise, the hope, it’s all universal.

Ugolyn played college basketball at Columbia before he was the kid wearing the light blue cap and gown in the picture.

Ugolyn was also on his way to becoming a businessman at Fred Alger Management, an investment firm on the 93rd floor of the World Trade Center in New York City.

And then, just like it always does, a basketball finds its way into a boy’s hands and the world suddenly becomes a lot smaller.

Over the past few years, Eric Torres and his buddies from Commerce have played countless pickup games on the basketball court behind DeBerry Elementary School on Union Street.

Never once did they stop to read the sign on the big rock outside the fence. This time, at the request of a stranger, five boys from Springfield walked off the court to see it for themselves.

“Tyler’s Court,” the plaque reads in beautiful brass letters from September 10, 2009. “Dedicated in loving memory of Tyler Ugolyn.”

“So wait, this court is named after him?” 17-year-old Amador Medina asks reverently. “I didn’t know that. That’s really sad.”

Another boy, 16-year-old Jeremy Veras, inquires about Columbia University, which is also referenced on the plaque: “That’s a really good college, right?”

“One of the best,” the stranger tells the boys.

After Victor and Diane Ugolyn lost their “Ty” that day — and Trevor Ugolyn lost his older brother — the family started The Tyler Ugolyn Foundation, a charity that promotes basketball and character in the inner-city because Tyler would’ve loved that.

The foundation sponsors clinics, some with former NBA players, to help kids improve their skills on and off the court. But the charity’s most visible gifts are the basketball courts they build like the one behind DeBerry School.

Each one is called, “Tyler’s Court,” and the foundation has built them all over the country in San Antonio, Detroit, New Orleans, Indianapolis, Houston, Atlanta and Dallas. Each one has a commemorative plaque honoring Tyler.

Future courts are planned for New York City and Columbus, Ohio. The first “Tyler’s Court” was built at Ridgefield High School.

From the beginning, Victor and Diane Ugolyn wanted to build at least one court in Springfield, the city where they fell in love and their Tyler was born.

As it turned out, with help from Fred Alger Management, the YMCA, Springfield officials and the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, where Victor Ugolyn is a member of the board of governors, the foundation managed to build two courts in the city.

The other “Tyler’s Court” is located behind the Lower Liberty Heights Outreach Center, where it’s operated by the YMCA of Greater Springfield. The pickup games are magical there, too, curated by a giant oak tree with sneakers strewn over several limbs.

But it’s the court behind DeBerry School that really connects Victor Ugolyn to Eric Torres and the other kids from Commerce.

“This was one of our earliest courts and it was a very special dedication for us,” Ugolyn wrote in an email. “Springfield picked the site, and by coincidence, it was the same elementary school I attended and played on as a youngster as I grew up in Springfield.”

Howard Lasher, a Newtown resident and retired senior executive at the American Stock Exchange, lost dozens of friends and acquaintances on September 11, including John Schroeder, a member of Princeton’s 1992 national championship lacrosse team.

Like Tyler Ugolyn, John Schroeder worked at Fred Alger Management with dreams of growing a career and a family. The future was ripe with blessings until it became ripe with legacies.

In honor of the 3,000 victims who were killed that day, Lasher will conduct his annual September 11 memorial service at 8 a.m. at his home at 68 Dodgingtown Road. The American flag, painted across a cluster of six maple trees, is always a powerful backdrop.

In Springfield, five kids from Commerce will pay their respects at the big rock with the sign outside their favorite basketball court.

“I’m from Springfield, but I was born in the Dominican Republic,” Jeremy Veras said. “I like to play here with my friends. I like this neighborhood because there are no problems here. We just play basketball and have fun.”

That’s all Tyler Ugolyn ever wanted.

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