Commentary

A shot at peace of mind

Basketball helping New York firefighter Kevin Connolly overcome Sept. 11 nightmare

Originally Published: September 9, 2011
By Justin Verrier | ESPN.com

With a hazy Manhattan skyline looming in the distance, Kevin Connolly stands some 15 miles away on Staten Island's North Shore Waterfront, surrounded by familiar faces.

Over there is Paul Keating, whose brother Neil used to play basketball with Connolly years ago. Tim McSweeney, a dear friend with a personality "as big as life," is there. There's John Bergin, one of his best friends. Paulie Beyer. Mike Fiore. Eddie Day. Artie Barry. And, of course, his older brother John (but those who know him call him Jack or Jackie).

"I can go on and on," Kevin says.

Some, Connolly doesn't know personally, but he swears he's seen them before, walking across the street downtown or maybe at the 666 Club where he and Jack used to tend bar. When he spots the ones he does, he warily reaches out his big right mitt and greets each with a gentle pat on the side of their face, sometimes stretching his five fingers wide and pressing his palm up against it.

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Jade Hoye/ESPN.comJohn Connolly's profile is one of the many carved into Staten Island's "Postcards" memorial.

Connolly's brother once needed no introduction. His cheerful opening line is as well-known around town as the Connolly brothers' Irish jig: "Hi. I'm Jack Connolly." But the best Kevin can do now is point him out among the 270 or so silhouettes carved into the "Postcards" memorial here honoring the Staten Islanders killed in the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

Connolly says he's one of the lucky ones. Twelve of his 22 years as a firefighter came at Ten House, located across the street from the World Trade Center, before he transferred back home to Staten Island in July 2001. His replacement, working the shift he would have been on, wasn't so lucky.

But Connolly hasn't had much use for fortune. Not during the two or three times a year he suffers heart attack-like fits brought on by Barrett's esophagus, an intense gastroesophageal reflux disease potentially caused by the 13 hours he spent at ground zero the first day and the countless more he spent there in the weeks that followed. Not when he was first diagnosed with prostate cancer almost two decades ago. Not when he was among the first responders in the North Tower in 1993 after a truck bomb detonated, killing seven and injuring 1,000-plus. Not now, standing in front of too many fallen friends to count.

"Be careful. Bad things happen when I'm around," he says with a tragic grin.

Connolly probably wears a smile twice as often as he does his 100-pound firefighting gear, and it takes less than 10 minutes of meeting him in person for this first one to sprout. A former hoops standout at nearby St. Peter's High School in the mid-1970s and an active player in the Staten Island pickup scene ever since, basketball has helped keep the tragedies from consuming Connolly's jolly personality, the time on the court serving as relief from his harrowing memories. But the deep creases on the 54-year-old's cheeks quickly sag again.

"About three years ago, my friend died in my arms."

'I knew it in my gut'

The skyline was clear on Sept. 11, but all Connolly could see was fire.

While staring at a blazing North Tower through the chain-link fence that surrounds the water's edge just miles from where "Postcards" would eventually be erected, a deafening roar surged overhead.

"We looked up and it seemed like [the plane] was only 20, 30 feet above us," Connolly said. "We followed it, and as it was going over the water, I remember one of my friends saying, 'What the hell is going on?'"

"I can remember before it hit the second tower, it made a little turn," he said, slowly titling his hand 45 degrees. "With that, we saw it crash into the World Trade Center."

As those around him gasped in horror, Connolly's mind could think of only one thing.

"I turned to my good friend Danny Newman and said, 'Danny, my brother Jackie is dead.'"

"Silence," Newman says he told Connolly. "It took the wind out of everybody."

An executive at Euro Brokers, an international brokerage firm located on the 84th floor of Tower 2, Jack Connolly was supposed to leave for his New Jersey home around 10 a.m. ET that day to help a friend's local political campaign. United Airlines Flight 175 crashed into the second tower at 9:03 a.m.

"He tried to calm me down," Connolly said. "'No, maybe he's not at work. Maybe he got to work late.' Maybe this happened, maybe that happened.

"I just said, 'No, Danny. He's dead.' I knew it. I knew it in my gut."

"I just looked at him," Newman said. "Nobody knows the Trade Center better than Kev. So when he saw the way it curved [before impact], he knew it was Jackie's floor."

Said Connolly: "We found out later that that was most likely the moment that he did perish."

Missing among the wreckage

Connolly stood on the ferry with other firefighters and police officers heading over to lower Manhattan, frightened by the threat of more planes crashing when -- if -- he made it across, anxious to try to somehow find his brother, numbed by the number of friends he may have already lost. Unaware of his surroundings for almost the entire ride, he finally looked out from his front-row seat of an unfolding disaster to where the towers he had worked across the street from for so long -- the ones he once thought would never go down, not for anything -- used to be.

"It was just plumes of smoke," he said. "Compare it to some kind of twister or something. A combination of the earth shaking and devastation with the one building going down. People were coming off from the New York side and you could just see the terror in their faces."

By then we knew that my brother wasn't among … the hardest part is he's still among the missing.

-- Kevin Connolly

By the time the ferry docked, around 10:30 a.m., the second tower had already fallen. Still holding out a small hope that his brother was out there, Connolly rushed through the smoke-swallowed streets, past burning cars and buildings and soot-covered people, to where the towers used to be. He eventually weaved his way around the outskirts of the destruction to Ten House, where he told his former chief about his brother.

"He said, 'Kev, there's debris all around here from the 84th floor,'" Connolly said. "That hit me hard. The debris he was talking about was paper that was just disintegrated. There were no file cabinets. There was nothing."

Spending the rest of the day searching through the towers' remnants and rubble for his brother, stopping briefly to seek shelter in a record store when Tower 7 fell, Connolly didn't return to his Staten Island home until 1:30 a.m., with little to tell his heartbroken wife, Diane. While sifting through the piles of wreckage days later, Connolly did come across a dead body in a hole.

"I can still see the image of a battalion chief, standing on a metal beam and directing traffic," he said. "I came up and said, 'Listen, Chief, I found a body.' He just looked at me and asked, 'Is it a fireman?' And I'm just thinking to myself, What does that matter?"

When Connolly told him that it wasn't, the chief, following the fire department's policy of never leaving a body behind, instructed him to put a mark on a nearby beam and move on.

"I went back and put spray paint on the beam, and I walked off the pile, I walked to the ferry by myself," Connolly said.

"By then we knew that my brother wasn't among … the hardest part is he's still among the missing. We couldn't find anything. I tried my hardest, and I know everyone I worked with tried their hardest."

CourtJade Hoye/ESPN.comA state champion in high school, Connolly, 54, still hits the court, in part to take his mind off 9/11.

His best defense

With the sun beaming down on his shaved head, Connolly hoists shot after shot from midrange at Mahoney Playground, down the street from where he grew up. This is where he first sharpened his game, partly as a way to convince the neighborhood toughs not to hassle him. He doesn't have his old satin shorts to match, but he wears a tight St. Peter's blue-and-gold T-shirt with pride.

His elbow juts out as he releases, but his form is obviously coach-crafted, the one, two, three shots in a row rattling in serving as proof.

Beaming about playing "my whole four minutes" a game for his championship-winning firehouse team in the annual March Madness tournament -- a clash between all the fire stations on the island to benefit a local burn center -- he cuts himself off in mid-sentence as the ball swishes through the net.

"I'll tell ya what," he says. "I'm hitting a lot of shots here."

He'll tell the guys at his firehouse the same about an hour later. They don't believe him.

Nowadays, Connolly says just getting up and down the court for an entire game is a victory. But playing for St. Peter's, now a Staten Island powerhouse, in the mid-70s he … well, he still wasn't exactly filling it up like Carmelo Anthony.

To be fair, that wasn't his game. Connolly grew up a fan of the tough guys on the court, like Dave DeBusschere and Wes Unseld, and, thanks to his father, an usher at the Polo Grounds, he got a courtside view of the highly contested Knicks-Bullets playoff series. The impression the rough-and-tough postseason battles left on him was apparently easy to spot. All you had to do was check out the bruises on the other team when the game clock ran out.

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Courtesy of Kevin ConnollyKevin Connolly lets one fly as a senior for St. Peter's in 1975.

"My nickname was 'Chingachgook,' from the 'Last of the Mohicans,'" Connolly said. "He carried a mean hatchet. So my coach in high school would say, 'Chingachgook, that guy's scoring too much.' So my job was to go and, when he went to the foul line, he knew who hit him.

"But I was also the type that became best friends with the kids I battled with after the game."

The sixth man as a junior in 1974, Connolly's Eagles finished undefeated -- still the only St. Peter's squad to do so -- and won a state title, ultimately earning a spot in the school's hall of fame years later and helping to launch the program on the NYC prep scene. But his organized basketball career would be short-lived. An offer from Peru State College, an NAIA school, somehow made it halfway across the country, but one up-close look at Peru, Neb., sent the lifelong city boy running back to New York.

"To get there you make a left at the corn, then make a right at the corn," he said.

Instead, he worked as a gravedigger and, 12 years later, a firefighter. But he never stopped playing ball, getting runs in local men's leagues. Even though his prostate cancer diagnosis in 1992 kept him out of the firehouse for a year, his doctor advised him to stay on the court, if only to help take his mind off the pain caused by radiation.

It's advice he's still following nearly 20 years later, though the cancer has been in remission for 14 years.

"We used to call him 'Ace,'" said Bob Ricciardi, a former St. Peter's basketball player and firefighter who played in men's leagues with Connolly for years. "It was like a challenge for him to say, 'Not only did I beat cancer, but I'm kicking your ass on the basketball court!'"

The court time he sees these days comes mostly from the stands at New York's Pace University, where Kristin Connolly, one of his five daughters, just finished a four-year stint on the women's basketball team. Kevin readily admits that his girls have more talent than he did, but the product on the court to some seems quite familiar.

"She was the same type of player as her dad," said Ricciardi, now an assistant coach for the boys team at nearby Monsignor Farrell High School, a St. Peter's rival. "It's amazing to see her play, diving after loose balls just like him."

Diving's probably no longer in Connolly's arsenal, either. But these days, he's just happy to still be on the court sometimes, away from his thoughts.

"There's a lot of reminders every day," he said. "It's definitely the reason I go back to the firehouse and do things like play basketball. You have to keep your mind off of certain things."

Staying young at heart

As soon as the last of 10 firefighters sits down at the large round table in the back room of the fire station of Engine 155 and Ladder 78, the place they call "the Hot Corner," only the grinding of jaws and Merril Hoge opining on the two flat screens in opposite corners of the room can be heard.

Located on one of the more intimidating streets on the island -- they purchased a lot next door to fence in their vehicles -- the crimson garage door emblazoned with their house badge diverts the focus from an otherwise dingy brick exterior. But the back room, plastered with photos of company sports teams and firefighters lost, comes complete with all the necessities of any man cave: leather couches and expensive-looking TVs (also purchased with personal funds).

This place is made for guy talk, but the same boisterous group that moments ago filled the garage area with the hustle and bustle of a Wednesday work shift can sense something foreign in their sacred kitchenette. That something is probably me. Or maybe it's their lieutenant, who's sitting diagonally from me. Whatever it is, not even mum's the word.

That is, until one pipes up, expressing his hatred for ESPN. Why? No one's quite sure. (If they are, they won't say.) No matter, Connolly says. "Don't worry about him. He likes '80s music."

And we're off.

The good-natured ribbing begins, and the majority of it is aimed squarely at Connolly, by far the oldest in the room. They joke about his age, his Irish heritage, his basketball game and his age some more. A notorious prankster according to, well, everyone we run into on the island, Connolly certainly volleys a few back at them. But he stays quiet for the most part, seemingly content to be part of the moment.

"It keeps you young," the retired Newman said.

But as many jabs they send his way, each probably has just as many stories about how the old man on the staff has helped him along the way.

"He's still there. He's still there," Ricciardi said. "Whether it's showing up at a church for a service or whether it's to get something out of your hands to build a deck in the yard or paint your house, that guy is there. All the time.

"He's never been a selfish person, and people can get behind him for that. He was a leader of his firehouse in Manhattan, and he became a leader when he came to Staten Island."

Searching for answers, finding only emptiness

Those that know his game say Connolly has a nose for the ball. So it came as no surprise that he was one of the first to find his lieutenant lying on the ground unconscious.

The ceiling of a burning residential house in Staten Island collapsed on Lt. Robert Ryan on Nov. 23, 2008, knocking off his mask and air supply and sending him to the floor without protection from the black smoke.

After hearing the mayday call and rushing to find him, Connolly helped carry Ryan out of the building from the top floor and embraced him during some of his final moments.

"It's almost like fate that Kevin was the guy to pull him out," said Ricciardi, who was on the scene that day. "That's just how Kevin is."

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Jade Hoye/ESPN.comThe firefighters of Engine 155 and Ladder 78 in Staten Island all look at Connolly as a leader.

Tragedy is an occupational hazard for firefighters, and Connolly has had enough close encounters to know the everyday risks all too well. Even if he wasn't one, there'd be no way to escape it. Not in New York. Not now.

"Everything on my calendar is judged before or after 9/11," he says. "You look at the TV sometimes and forgot that this person perished too." It's never "dead" or "passed away" or "departed" with Connolly. Always "perished," said with the influx and stress of any other verb.

The living room in his Staten Island home is engulfed by photos of his children, his late brother's three kids and many more, but perishing has become a part of the routine of life for Connolly. And he can't see himself stopping any time soon.

"I can't tell you how many guys I know like that who have already gotten out of the job, already got their disabilities or whatever," the retired Ricciardi said. "I ask him how much longer he's got in him -- I'm concerned about his safety. He says, 'Yeah, I'm getting close. I'm almost there.' But he's probably just trying to appease me. He probably has no clue when he wants to go."

Not even Connolly really knows why he's still at it. Maybe it's the camaraderie. Maybe it's the immense joy he gets from helping others. Maybe it's because his brother Jack was more proud of him being a firefighter than anyone, even himself.

Like many others stricken by Sept. 11, Connolly doesn't have many answers. Only emptiness.

Wearing an American flag blue T-shirt with the "Hot Corner" badge logo positioned over his heart, Connolly looks out at the Manhattan skyline through the same rickety fence he once watched his brother being taken away from him. His face is blank, but his words are coated with sorrow.

"It's just empty," he says. "Something's missing. Besides the towers, just … everything. Every time I see my brother's kids, we have a graduation and he's not there, or a wedding.

"It's a day that, I know it's going to go down in history. But to me it's just the saddest day of my life."

Justin Verrier is an NBA editor for ESPN.com. Follow him on Twitter.

Justin Verrier is an NBA editor at ESPN.com.