Here Comes The Sun

29 Apr

The lyrics of my favorite Beatles song ring true: “Little darlin’, it’s been a long, cold, lonely winter.”   Well, maybe it wasn’t such a lonely one thanks to the incredible love and support that we have received from friends and family, but having extended well into April, it certainly was long and cold.  And so difficult.  It is inconceivable to me that it has been nearly a half year since the loss of our beloved Jeffrey.  I think every day about where these last six months would have taken him.  Would he have proceeded with his plans to apply to law schools ?  Would he have decided to find a way to pursue his passion for writing ?  Or would he have liked my idea of seeking a staff position in President Obama’s re-election campaign ?   I’ll never know.  I do know that he would have been with the rest of our family at the Knicks-Celtics playoff game on Easter Sunday screaming himself hoarse as the Knicks mounted an amazing comeback that fell short.  And I know that he’d have gone to Los Angeles for NBA All-Star weekend with Drew and me.  And I also know that there would have been many weekend nights spent partying with his amazing group of friends.

I remember many wonderful winters that didn’t seem so long and cold, even if the temperature outside suggested otherwise. And Jeff loved winter and all that came with it, including snow, snow days off from school, skiing, playing on basketball teams from 5th grade through high school, and going on our periodic February vacations to the Caribbean.   I have such fond memories of our family ski trips to Mount Snow or Butternut (Jeff was a natural on the slopes), but the funniest winter memories were from our first family trip to the Carribbean when Jeff was young.  And to be clear, these memories only got funny over the years, in retrospect.

 Our February 1990 trip to St. Thomas when Jeff was a month shy of 3 years old contained a couple of classic moments.  For context, let’s just say that Jeff was an extremely difficult baby and toddler.  That’s actually an understatement, as Jeff took the “terrible twos” to a whole other level.   Our first night there, Carey and I decided that the safest bet for dinner was to eat at our hotel’s restaurant.  This way, if either of us felt a temper tantrum or some other restaurant-unfriendly behavior coming, one of us could whisk him right into an elevator up to our room.  That was a fine concept, but we underestimated just how quickly Jeff could strike, even at that age.  When he reached for his glass of milk, we certainly didn’t think we had any reason for alarm.  That was until, instead of drinking from the glass, he proceeded to throw it clear across the restaurant, causing a French woman at the next table to shout, “Mon Dieu !”  Even at less than 3 years old, Jeff (always the athlete) had quite a throwing arm, and we were very fortunate that nobody was hit.  However, milk did spill as the glass was in flight, and that didn’t make either the other patrons or the restaurant staff very happy.  We snarfed down our dinner as quickly as possible and got out of there.  I tipped particularly well that night.

Jeff and Dad, Hangin' in St. Thomas, Feb. 1990

St. Thomas, Feb. 1990

Then, on the night of February 11th, while still in St. Thomas, I was excited to watch the heavyweight boxing title fight between then-champion Mike Tyson and an unknown fighter named Buster Douglas.  The fight was being broadcast live on HBO, and after an incident-free dinner with Carey and Jeff, I sat on the floor in front of the TV and turned it on.  After probably an hour of pre-fight interviews, analysis, etc. the fighters entered the ring for the main event.  At that moment, Carey ran out from the bedroom to tell me that Jeff had just fallen asleep and to turn off the TV immediately so it didn’t wake him up.  You see, as part of the terrible twos, Jeff was a very light sleeper, and it didn’t take much to wake him up.  And once awakened, suffice to say he wasn’t exactly a quiet, happy kid.   In fact, if Jeff was awake, everyone in the hotel would be awake until morning, or until another guest had us evicted.  Given that the fight was about to start, I tried to negotiate a compromise with Carey, telling her that I would turn down the sound all the way and just watch the fight.  Nothing doing.  She said that even the flickering light from the TV, which would reflect into his bedroom from under Jeff’s door, would be enough to wake him. 

So I turned the TV off but hadn’t given up on watching the fight, and I formulated my strategy.  I would lie still on the living room floor with the lights off for about 15 minutes, hoping both that Jeff remained asleep and that Carey fell asleep by then.   But some of the best laid plans go astray, and I hadn’t factored in the effects of the bottle of wine Carey and I had shared at dinner.  As a result, the next time I opened my eyes, it was morning, and I was still lying on the floor.  Jeff and Carey were already up.   When I flipped the TV on, I was shaken out of my groggy state by the booming voice of an HBO announcer.  I will never forget his exact words:

“If it wasn’t for HBO, then you would have missed the GREATEST UPSET IN BOXING HISTORY !!! “

As his voice reached a crescendo, they showed the clip of a Buster Douglas punch exploding on Tyson’s face, causing the champion to crash to the canvas.  Instinctively, I screamed, “Nooooooooo” at the top of my lungs, as I was in disbelief that my light sleeping 3 year old had caused me to miss sports history.  I looked over at Jeff in his booster seat eating, and ever the lover of upsets, I swear he was giggling.  On February 13th, the Los Angeles Times had the following headline article:

HBO Deal With Tyson Still Good; Douglas Fight Replay on Friday

February 13, 1990|LARRY STEWART

HBO announced that its two-hour program on the Buster Douglas-Mike Tyson fight, which will include a complete replay of the bout, will be shown Friday at 9:30 p.m. 

That was all well and good, but it wouldn’t be the same as having watched it live.  Well, from the time Jeff became old enough to understand what happened that night until his final days, I teased him frequently about the fact that he, of all people, made me miss such a classic upset.  He always thought that was hilarious and never tired of me telling the story.  Just three summers ago, Jeff came to me and insisted that we buy the DVD of the live broadcast of that bout, so that we could watch it together from start to finish.  And so that’s exactly what we did !  I bought the DVD, we grabbed a couple of beers, and we spent a Friday night enjoying the broadcast from 17 years earlier.  It was a special evening, and we both totally enjoyed it and had some great laughs about the whole thing.  Oh, what I wouldn’t give to have just one more sporting event like that to watch with him.

Douglas Puts Tyson On The Deck

More than anything, though, our winters during Jeff’s childhood and teenage years were defined by his lifetime passion for basketball.  From the time he made his first travel basketball team in 5th grade, when he became a member of the New Castle Rebels, through his high school years,  I attended countless games of Jeff’s in basketball gyms across Westchester County and beyond, and I loved every minute of it.   As if I didn’t enjoy it enough with Jeff, I was blessed to have years of Drew’s and Brett’s travel, JV and Varsity basketball games to watch as well.  And Brett has one more season to go (Go Quakers).  These basketball seasons for our boys have always made winters very special to our family. 

Jeff played for the Rebels from 1997 to 2001

Jeff was always an extremely talented and accomplished basketball player, a pure shooter who was deadly from three point range.  In the winter of 2002-03, it all came together for him and he had a breakout season on Greeley‘s JV team.  He was the team’s leading scorer and acknowledged leader that season.  His success was interrupted for a few games in the middle of the season when I had to take him to the hospital when he dislocated a finger during a game.  But he came back and continued right where he left off.  Now here’s a piece of Jeff Klein trivia that even some of his friends may not know: Jeff actually played a few months of college basketball.  You see, when Jeff attended University College of London (UCL) for his semester abroad in the fall of 2007, he saw signs in their Student Center for basketball tryouts in September.  So he figured, what the heck, he’d go for it.  And sure enough, he made the team, started most games, and played at schools throughout London and the surrounding areas until he came home in December ! 

Believe it or not, though, my favorite basketball memory involving  Jeff was from a game in our town’s  7th grade recreation league, when I was the coach of Jeff’s team.  I actually coached rec basketball for all three of my boys, which was something I absolutely loved and looked forward to each winter.  Well, that season, we made the playoffs, and our first round playoff game came down to the wire.  We were down 1 point with just 7 seconds left, and so I called a timeout to draw up what I hoped would be the game winning play.  Call it nepotism if you like, but from my standpoint, I simply designed a play for my best shooter, who just happened to be Jeff.  The play was pretty simple, and it went like this.  We would inbound the ball to our point guard, Anthony Bonsignore.  Our biggest and strongest player, Adam Pollock, would park himself on the low block, and Jeff would go down to the base line and cut back up top off a screen from Adam.  In theory, if the screen was solid, Jeff would be wide open for the game-winner.    The outcome ?  Adam set a perfect screen, Jeff cut hard to just beyond the foul line, Anthony hit him with a great pass, and bingo- Jeff’s shot hit nothing but net and we won by a point.   I was pumped !  Before I could get to Jeff for a hug, Anthony jumped into my arms first.  What a great moment.  It’s amazing the things that you remember in such great detail.  I will never forget the look of excitement and triumph on Jeff’s face that night.

With winter also came the heart of the New York Knicks basketball season, a time of great excitement for Jeff.  That was particularly true given that he grew up during a golden era in Knicks history, which occurred when Pat Riley and Jeff Van Gundy were the coaches, and the roster included Patrick Ewing, Charles Oakley, John Starks, and later Latrell Sprewell, Allan Houston and Larry Johnson. Those teams went to two NBA finals series, and we were fortunate to go to so many games over those years. 

I took Jeff to his first game agains the Bucks on the Saturday of Thanksgiving weekend in 1989, but the greatest memory which we always talked about for years, was the second game I took him to on Martin Luther King day in 1990.  It was against the Bulls, and little Jeff and I were totally down when the Bulls took a 17 point lead in the third quarter.  But similar to what just happened this Easter Sunday, the Knicks mounted an enormous comeback, and the crowd was going beserk.  Jeff, not yet 3, knew exactly what was happening and was screaming his head off.  Then, in the midst of the comeback during a timeout, the public address announcer declared the “Lucky Row Of The Game”, which of course was our row.  The consequence of this was that every person in our row received a kids’ push-button basketball shooting game called Hot Shot Basketball, which they immediately brought down to all of us.  As if the Knicks surge wasn’t enough, Jeff was now beside himself with excitement.  And ironically, Hot Shot Basketball was a game that we played together for at least the next two years on a regular basis.  After that timeout, the Knicks continued their comeback with the crowd in a bedlam, and they actually won the game 116-113.  That was the game that sealed the deal and made Jeff a Knicks fan for life.

Ten years later, I arranged to have a “happy birthday” message put on the scoreboard during a game we attended on Jeff’s 13th birthday on March 2, 2000.  Not surprisingly, the Knicks gave Jeff a nice birthday present by easily handling the Bucks that night 109-94. That was a great winter too.  The Knicks were coming off the 1998-99 season in which they made it to the finals, a new decade had begun, the stock market was still soaring and Jeff was lighting it up on his 7th grade Rebels basketball team.  Even in my worst nightmares, how could I ever have envisioned the message that would appear on that same Knicks scoreboard in another ten and a half years?

As of this past week, I guess it’s safe to declare that the infamous winter of 2010-11 is finally over.  Here comes the sun.  Unfortunately for our family, unlike in previous years, the sun does not bring with it the same restorative powers that it used to.  It is unable yet to thaw our grief over losing a special and precious young man who was lost in a senseless tragedy that simply did not have to happen.  All I can do is hope and pray that there will some day come an April when I can once again welcome the return of the sun and say with conviction, like the Beatles did,

“It’s all right.”

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=U6tV11acSRk

-Rich Klein

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