I First met Tyler Ugolyn last Thursday. He was smiling at me. It was the same day on which I had met Sheila Barnes, Lynne Morris, Robert Pugliese, Mike Zinzi and Andrew Zucker. Their faces were on leaflets being passed out in Manhattan's Union Square Park. Theirs were happy faces in otherwise heartbreaking surroundings. Ugolyn, like Barnes, Morris and thousands of other people, had been missing for two days, since shortly after he reported for work on Sept. 11 as a research associate at Fred Alger Management, Inc., on the 93rd floor of World Trade Center Tower 1. A couple of Tyler's friends were handing out his picture and vitals: 6'4", 195 pounds. Brown hair. Blue eyes. Age 23. "We hope he's alive and well," a young woman told me, forcing a smile. "If you see him..."
Ugolyn struck me as a one-of-a-kind name. That evening I typed "Tyler Ugolyn" into my search engine and discovered he was a basketball player. Then I made some calls. For the first time in my life I was learning to say hello and goodbye to a friend in the same breath.
I've seen Tyler Ugolyn. He's standing in front of me, smiling, just as he is in that black-and-white picture on the Union Square flier, ready to bust someone's chops over choosing such a goofy-looking photo: "Aw, man, you picked that one?"
"I keep waiting for him to walk in and say something like that," says Jon Krug, a longtime friend who shared an apartment on the Upper East Side of Manhattan with Ugolyn. "He likes to joke." Three years ago, during Ugolyn's sophomore season as a guard on the Columbia basketball team, a statistician projected each player's production over 40 minutes. Although Ugolyn would end up averaging only 2.2 points and 0.8 rebounds in six career games (tendinitis in both knees limited him to two seasons with the Lions), he projected to 70 points and 25 rebounds a game. "Oh, he lived for reminding us of that," says Zach Schiller, a teammate, "and if he hit a three over you, he'd always go, 'Hee-hee.' "
That was Ty. (You could call him Tyler. Or Tiger. Or Styles. Or Monkey. All were names he was affectionately known by.) He was a kidder. A chuckler. A lighthearted trash talker. How is it possible to forget that Atlantic City trip for his 21st birthday, when he and the guys accidentally left the water running and flooded a bathroom floor in the Trump Plaza Hotel? Or how about the senior skit at Ridgefield ( Conn.) High in 1997? Ty, surrounded by dancing girls in slinky black dresses, slouched on a chair in his WOMEN LOVE ME T-shirt.
At Ridgefield High, Ty's trademark jumper still seems to resonate through the dingy gymnasium. Dribble. Dribble. Swish. Dribble. Dribble. Swish. As a senior, he was named honorable mention All-America by Blue Ribbon College Basketball Yearbook after averaging 17 points and seven rebounds. He also was rated one of the nation's top 250 high school players, even though his scoring average had dipped three points from the year before. "That's because everyone started double-teaming him," says Al Trimpert, his high school coach. "He was our weapon."
Like Tyler's friends, his father, Victor, is having a terrible time with this tragedy. The shock leaves, then returns. There are tears, followed by stoicism, followed by a funny story, followed by more tears. How does Victor want Ty to be remembered? The words flow: as the one who started a basketball program for underprivileged kids from the Bronx. As the devout Catholic who attended mass weekly, prayed before meals and helped found Columbia Catholic Athletes. As a competitor when it was time to compete and a pal when a pal was needed. "Nobody's perfect," says Victor, "but he aimed high."
Two moments, the father says, will always stand out. In 1997 Victor and Tyler's mother, Diane, were at Columbia's Levien Gymnasium when Ty, the older of their two sons, entered his first collegiate game. "He looked up at me in the stands," says Victor, "and it was the kind of look that said, Hey, Dad, I made it."
Victor, choking on his words, pauses and continues: "A little more than a week and a half ago, I stopped at the World Trade Center to drop something off for him. I gave him a hug and told him how proud I was of him. I said, 'I love you.' He gave me that same million-dollar look of his, one that said, I made it, Dad. I'm on Wall Street."