UConn, And The Power Of Friendship

14 Apr

Sports Illustrated’s article reporting on UConn’s national championship victory put it this way: “Connecticut was dead in early March, as sure as the bare New England earth was lifeless and brown, awaiting spring.  It was a young team with an old coach, beaten down and hopeless, ready for the season to end.”  And yet they are the 2011 national champions.  I could have told you that the minute Duke was eliminated.  At that point, it was a done deal, and I knew it.   It was clear that Jeff wanted it that way.  Wanted it badly.

Despite finishing 9th in the Big East, causing Kemba Walker to crack after the regular season, “We overachieved,” The University of Connecticut Huskies are the 2011 NCAA basketball champions.  If before the tournament, you had switched the word “are” for “will be” in the previous sentence, what kind of reaction do you think you would have received ?  Laughter ?  Probably.  Ridicule ?  Likely.  In my local Chappaqua pool, 1 person out of 48 had UConn winning it all.  That ratio was probably higher than the percentage of people nationally who actually picked UConn to win.  I know a lot of Big East fans, yet I didn’t know a sole who truly thought that UConn had even a remote shot.

But I knew otherwise, and I knew it with certainty.  I knew UConn’s odds were actually 50/50 of winning it all, and the other half of the 50/50 was Duke.  And once Duke was eliminated, I would have bet my house on UConn if I was a gambling man.  But other than this once a year bracket pool and a Super Bowl box pool, I am not.  The knowledge of UConn’s impending championship was frighteningly clear to me, because I knew something that I shared only with my family and Jeff’s inner circle of friends.  In 2011, there were forces at work that transcended basketball.  Until this point in my life, I had not yet come to a conclusion as to how I felt about what happens to one’s spiritual being once this life is over.  The last 4 1/2 months have answered that question for me in the clearest of ways.  My beautiful son’s spirit is alive, and his capacity to love remains infinite.  UConn’s national championship is just the latest example.

As March Madness approached, along with the intense feelings of pain that accompanied it (see Call Off March Madness, 3/14/11), I really had no intention of filling out a bracket or entering a pool this year.  But then I decided that not only would Jeff want me to do one, but he was also completing his own.  The exercise for me was pretty straightforward, and it only required one real decision.  I knew that Providence (Julie) and Cornell (Jack) didn’t make the tournament this year, and so I looked through the bracket for Duke (AB, Ryan, Selim the Dream, Lisa Li and so many other Duke folks that Jeff had become great friends with) and UConn (Elon and Drew’s best friend John Pfisterer). 

To my dismay, I saw that both schools were on the same side of the bracket and destined to meet in the Sweet 16 round, and therefore I would have to make a choice.  It would be the only decision I had to make, because  in my mind, these were the only two teams who could possibly win the NCAA title, because Jeff would do everything in his power to see one of his friends (and in UConn’s case, one of Drew’s friends too) celebrate their school’s victory.   I went with Duke to beat UConn and go all the way, because I truly believed they had the better team.  In retrospect, my initial choice of Duke was fundamentally flawed, because I shouldn’t have been concerned with who the better team supposedly was. 

You see, I believe I know how Jeff thinks better than anyone does.  As a result, I should have realized that his view is that the Duke crew had their moment in the sun in 2010 and now it was Elon’s turn to experience the exhilaration of his school’s championship run, as well as the excitement of attending a school that was home to the new NCAA championship basketball team.  I can’t adequately describe the feeling of having known, before the tournament even started, something that the rest of the world did not and could not know or understand.  Duke and UConn were the only two possible winners in 2011.  There was no other potential outcome.  And the final proof came on Monday night, April 4th.  Butler shot the lowest percentage in NCAA title game history.  It was almost comical.  Could someone have created some rough air over the basket at which they were shooting each half ?  Sure seemed that way to me.  But this blog post is about so much more than just basketball.  It is about the incredible and unbeatable power of love and  friendship, and a celebration of those beautiful aspects of life.

AB

AB and Jeff have been best buddies since they were little kids.  Jeff absolutely loves AB and is drawn to him like a magnet.  I knew AB from a distance over the years as one of Jeff’s great friends but hadn’t spent that much time with him until the last several months.  Jeff would always explain to me that when he was with AB, he always felt warm, comfortable and happy.  He talked about AB’s laid back and always positive personality, which he described as infectious in a great way.  They also shared common passions for the Yankees (and sports in general) as well as for going out with friends as much as possible.  And whether it was playing on the same little league team in 8th grade (see photo-can you believe two avid Yankees fans played for the Red Sox ?!), taking photos together on their Greeley prom evening, hanging together after Greeley’s graduation, spending the final Saturday afternoon of Jeff’s life at Greeley’s playoff football game at Mahopac High School, or going out on that final Saturday night in Manhattan, AB and Jeff were always together.  And spiritually, they always will be.  And based on what AB has meant to me personally since Jeff’s tragic passing, he has become part of our family forever.  Watching Brett’s Greeley basketball games together, staying in frequent touch through texting, and being on the receiving end of his genuine love and support have literally propped me up and kept me strong.  Suffice to say, Jeff had outstanding taste in his choice of friends, and it is not surprising that he truly preferred seeing Duke’s victory over Butler last year to seeing a potential enormous upset.  It was for his love of AB, Ryan, Lisa, Selim and all his Duke friends that he preferred that outcome.

Matt Libertore, Jeff, and AB After Greeley Graduation, 2005

Prom Night, 2005

AB and Jeff (Top Row, 2nd and 3rd from left) Played For the Sox !

AB and Jeff- Always Together

There was one time in 2010, however, when I wasn’t thrilled to see AB.  For Memorial Day weekend last year, Jeff drove Lisa Li down to D.C. to attend some sort of Duke party weekend, from which he returned with his chest the color of a ripe tomato, thanks to his questionable decision to eschew suntan lotion.  Anyway, Lisa left her car at our house, and Jeff told us he’d be driving back with her to Chappaqau on Memorial Day Monday, one of the worst traffic days of the  year.  Not being a group to forego a day of partying, the Duke group apparently stayed down in D.C. most of that Monday before heading home.  When Jeff wasn’t home by 11pm or so with work looming the next day, I called to see how he was doing, and he confirmed that traffic was a mess.  I wished him luck and went to bed.  Carey woke me up at around 2am or so to inform me that she heard voices coming from the basement and that I should check it out.  First I confirmed, by checking the garage for Jeff’s car, that he was home.  But since as far as I knew, he was only driving Lisa home, I was reluctant to barge into the basement to tell my 23 year old to quiet down, send Lisa home and/or to get to bed because he had work the next day.  And then a further unnerving thought hit me.  I knew they were just good friends, but…….Nope, I told Carey, I’m not going down there.

She was insistent and getting angry.  She couldn’t sleep and the noise was coming from more than two people, she said, so go down there and break it up.  Now.  I know when I’m out of options, and her tone indicated this was one of those times.   I went down and saw that the main basement area was dark but that the exercise room light was on.  Knowing that there was no possibility that Jeff was lifting weights at 2am, I braced for the worst.  I walked in to find a mini-Duke Morning After Memorial Day Party in full force, and the first person my eyes fixed upon was a broadly smiling AB, with a cup of beer in hand.  With Carey’s clear instructions top of mind, I was not smiling as I looked around at about 6 other Duke people and Jeff.  I told them that Memorial Day Weekend was officially over and that we, and they, needed to get to sleep.  That was the one and only time I was not happy to see AB, though in retrospect, it was pretty funny !  Below are two youtube links to some precious video footage that I recently found of Jeff and AB immediately after they graduated from Greeley in 2005.

http://www.youtube.com/user/rktrain#p/u/0/w-umpwo_LTY


http://www.youtube.com/user/rktrain#p/u/1/yprng2E4ogk

John Pfisterer

John Pfisterer is Drew’s oldest and best friend.  They go back to Roaring Brook Elementary School together, they were teammates on AYSO soccer, rec basketball and then CYO travel basketball teams together as kids, and they remain the closest of friends today.  John is finishing his sophmore year at UConn. 

Last month, on March 2nd, Jeff’s birthday, Drew joined Carey and me for an excruciating visit to Jeff’s resting place.  There are no words to describe the agony of standing by your son’s (or brother’s) grave site, much less on his birthday.  We stood there together, but at the same time alone, with our own individual thoughts and tears.  After a few minutes, the silence was broken by Drew’s vibrating cell phone, which indicated a new text message.  Drew seemed to gaze at the message for an unusually long time and so I asked him who it was from.  In retrospect, I didn’t really need to ask.  It was from John.  According to Drew, he basically wrote that he knew what a difficult day this must be for him, and he wanted him to know that he was thinking of him and was there for him any time of day or night if he wanted to talk.  And he closed by making what I’ve come to learn is the ultimate declaration of support that one friend can make to another-“I’ve always got your back.”  My eyes welled up again, and I thought about the maturity and sensitivity a 20 year old young man must possess to send such a loving, caring message to his friend on a day like this.  And how did he know that that moment was the perfect time to send that text ?  Could he have known we were standing there at the cemetery ?  But isn’t that the way it always is with true friends ?  They know.  Real friends just know.  I’ve always loved John Pfisterer and felt he was a great friend for Drew, but at that moment he became more than my son’s best friend.  He became part of our family forever.  I am also convinced that, at that moment, with Jeff witnessing this entire scene and knowing how much John’s friendship means to Drew, UConn moved one step closer to an NCAA championship.  And to think, Kemba Walker had no idea.

Drew and John- AYSO Soccer Teammates Back In The Day

Prom Night 2009

Elon

And then there is Elon.  Jeff loves Elon and always has.  Elon has been clear that Jeff is way more than a friend to him- he is his brother.  It was Elon’s love for Jeff that led to the creation of this very blog, which has been a precious gift to me, both because it enables me to read about the beautiful memories that Jeff’s friends have of him, but also because it has provided me an outlet through which to share my own memories and feelings.  It has been absolutely cathartic for me to write frequently about my son here, and I owe Elon a huge debt of gratitude for this.  Furthermore, it was Elon who called me the day after Jeff, and after we sobbed together on the phone, he told me that he wanted to organize a group of Jeff’s closest friends to visit us before the wake.  And he did just that, as the group arrived the very next evening for a very sad, yet very comforting visit at our home.  Elon is also a member of our family forever.   He became so during the summer of 2008. 

Only parents can understand and relate to the absolute fear that grips you upon hearing the sound of your land line ringing at 2am when one or more of your kids is not home.  At a little after 2am on this 2008 summer morning, the phone rang, and Jeff was the only one not home.  He had gone out in the city with the guys and had been planning to take the last train home, the infamous 1:53am train.  The good news was that when I answered the phone, it was Jeff’s voice that responded.  “Where are you, and are you hurt ?”, I blurted out.  “Well, Dad, I just got beat up on the train, and I’m cut pretty badly over my eye.  They stopped the train and the cops just came to question me and try to find the guy who did it.”  He said he’d have to be taken to the nearest hospital to get stitches.

Apparently, Jeff and Elon were taking the train home together, and Elon got up to go to the bathroom.  When the train came to its first stop, a guy who was clearly drunk got on and immediately saw Jeff and started pointing at him, while shouting, “It’s you, it’s you.”  Before Jeff could react, the guy rushed at him and started throwing punches.  One or more connected, and the blood started to flow.  The police later said that it was a classic case of mistaken identitity, and that the guy thought Jeff had come on to his girlfriend.    A completely random attack on the wrong guy.  Jeff called back from the hospital a little while later, and when I asked him where he was, he replied, “St. Bar-na-bahss” with an emphasis on the “bahss”.  I quickly realized he was talking about St. Barnabas in the Bronx, and let’s just say, that hospital is not in an area where you’d want to be out and about at 3am on a weekend morning.  Jeff put Elon on the phone, and he reassured me that the bleeding was under control and more importantly, that he would not leave Jeff’s side under any circumstances. 

Apparently, Elon’s father, Les, was not happy with Elon being in the South Bronx at that hour, and he wanted him out of there.  And as a father, I didn’t blame him one bit.  Les called me to say that he knew that area well and that it wasn’t where we wanted our kids to be.  He said he might drive to the Bronx to get them.  But Elon refused to leave or let his dad drive down.  He was committed both to staying with Jeff until he was stitched up and to then finding their way home together.  He would not leave his brother.  Period.  This was an example of real friendship at its best,   It turned out that a kind police officer drove them back to Chappaqua at 5 or 6am, as I remember.  I will never forget Elon’s actions that morning, nor will I ever forget what his consistent love and support have meant to me since Jeff left.

Jeff & Elon- Friends and Brothers

To come full circle back to basketball, let’s remember a few facts.  This year’s final four was the first one in history to not have the presence of a number one seeded team.  Furthermore, two of the final four teams were enormous underdogs, and one of them wouldn’t have made the tournament if the format had not been expanded to 68 teams this year.  Further still, one of the other final four teams is a school currently attended by dear friends of both Jeff and Drew.  In short, there could not have been a final four that bore the imprint of Jeff’s influence more than this one did.   To be clear, I don’t believe that Jeff’s spirit is omnipotent, nor do I pretend to fully understand how his influence is now exerted.  The overwhelming evidence, however, discussed frequently on this blog, indicates that his presence, and most importantly, his love continues to be felt by his family and friends on a frequent basis.  And in the case of March Madness and the improbable runs of UConn, VCU and Butler, Jeff’s name is written all over it.  So whether it was through an invisible hand that altered a shot here and there, some turbulence created in the air above the basket being shot at by an opposing team, or by Jeff simply infusing the UConn locker room with his spirit and passion, there is one thing of which I am certain.  With his heart of gold and with a broad smile on his face, Jeff had a meaningful role in making UConn’s unlikely NCAA title a reality.  And it is clear why and for whom he did it.

It was for the love of his brother Drew and Drew’s dear friend John.

And for the love of his own dear friend Elon.

Thank goodness they didn’t listen to my original pleas to call off March Madness, because just think of what we would have missed.  We would have missed the kind of tournament that Jeff lived for, filled with upsets, buzzer beaters and a historic final four.  But most of all, we would have missed seeing the University of Connecticut Huskies win the national championship, which to me is the ultimate and most beautiful example of the power of love and the power of friendship.

-Rich Klein

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2 Responses to “UConn, And The Power Of Friendship”

  1. werner pfisterer April 15, 2011 at 9:40 am #

    Thanks for sharing a wonderful and powerful sentiment. Jeff’s spirit of love and friendship, so evident during our time with him, will continue to transcend our sorrow and sustain his family and friends forever.

  2. Francesca Hagadus May 14, 2011 at 11:06 pm #

    I saw Andrew last night at the HGHS band concert where he was the alumnus tuba player. I told him that I was reading this blog. I didn’t teach him or Jeff, but knew them at Bell. Drew and Brett are in my thoughts–along with the Klein family and Jeff’s friends.

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