Commentary

Tim Cluess is his brothers' keeper

Iona coach keeps siblings' memories alive, long after cancer claimed their lives

Updated: December 15, 2011, 12:13 AM ET
By Ian O'Connor | ESPNNewYork.com

NEW ROCHELLE, N.Y. -- At a time in college basketball when coaches pad their records at the expense of the meek, Tim Cluess keeps hearing it about his schedule, his journey through a maze of mid-major madness.

Purdue and Maryland in Puerto Rico. A date at altitude in Denver. A no-win Sunday matinee at Marshall. Twelve of the first 14 games away from his Iona campus, playing teams nobody wants to play in gyms nobody wants to visit, the kind of coach-class odyssey that can get a coach fired.

The schedule is insanely tough, just not as tough as the man who confronts it. At 52, Cluess is a scarred survivor out of one of the great sports families of New York, the West Hempstead family of Henry and Patricia Cluess that delivered four sons to St. John's on basketball scholarships, four who would play professionally, and one daughter athletic enough to read a how-to book on racquetball before winning national and world titles in the sport within a few years.

[+] EnlargeTim Cluess
Jeff Skopin/ESPNNewYork.comThe NCAA tournament could be on the horizon for Tim Cluess and Iona.

The Cluesses were the Kennedys of Long Island basketball, and yet the youngest child, Tim, doesn't carry himself as any son of Irish-Catholic royalty at Iona, maybe the one school in the area with a team strong enough to win an NCAA Tournament game or two in March.

His parents wouldn't tolerate even a hint of arrogance from one of their own, and Tim is driven every day to honor their working-class legacy and to coach in the name of the two brothers who died long before their time.

Greg was 26 when he succumbed to lymphoma in 1976, four years after the New York Knicks picked the 6-foot-9 forward in the sixth round and five years after the New York Nets took him in the American Basketball Association draft. Greg tried out for the Nets instead of the Knicks, and just his luck, the Nets brought in a budding doctor by the name of Julius Winfield Erving II.

Kevin was 33 when he succumbed to leukemia in 1986, 11 years after the Kansas City Kings drafted the 6-foot-5 St. John's star in the fourth round, cut him, and ignored the scouting report delivered by their own Tiny Archibald, who called Kevin the best guard not in the NBA.

For every game at Iona, Tim wears Greg's old NIT watch, one that hasn't kept time in years. He wears a pin of an angel and a basketball in memory of Greg and Kevin, and half of a Mizpah charm that reads, "May the Lord watch between me and thee while we are apart from one another."

The other half rests inside Kevin's suit in his casket.

Greg and Kevin have been gone for decades, and yet Tim still talks to them. Sometimes in a moment of pregame solitude he will whisper, "Kevin, we're going to need someone on our team to shoot like you tonight," or "Greg, we're going to need some of those rebounds you always used to get."

Cluess family photo
Courtesy of Mary Ann Cluess The Cluesses: Kevin, baby Tim, mother Patricia, Mary Ann in front row; Hank and Greg in back.

Sometimes it's a simple "I wish you were here," or "Thank you for inspiring me to do this."

Once a wildly successful high school, junior college and Division II coach, Tim is the last hope of the Cluesses of Broadway, their last shot at big-time basketball success. His Division I Gaels belong to his family, and to the two brothers who taught Tim how to shoot against wooden backboards their father nailed to a backyard garage and a tree.

"I always feel them with me and around me," Tim said, "and part of me is dedicating my life to them. I still miss their friendship every day, and there aren't a couple of hours that go by that I don't think of them.

"People say time heals all wounds, and no it doesn't. Those wounds never heal. You just learn how to manage the wounds."

And the pain. Through their trials and tragedies and triumphs, the fighting Cluesses were always the reigning kings of pain.

From West Hempstead to Queens

The Cape Cod had four bedrooms and one bathroom to accommodate nine or more Cluesses, including Patricia Horan, the Cluess matriarch and daughter of an Irish hurling champ who raised his family around the County Offaly bogs.

Patricia took in her sister Anne in West Hempstead and sometimes another family member or two. After Sunday morning Mass at St. Thomas the Apostle, the smell of bacon and the sounds of "One Day at a Time" and other Irish songs filled a home that was more like a local rec center. You never knew who you'd find at the Cluesses'. There was a lot of love, if not a lot of room.

Henry, the patriarch, was the boys' CYO coach at St. Thomas. He was a tall man who did some boxing in the Navy, and while he was always quick with a laugh, he wasn't afraid to settle a neighborhood quarrel with his fists.

Hank Cluess
Courtesy of St. John'sHank was the first of four Cluess brothers to play for St. John's, lettering from 1964-66.

Henry put in some hard night-shift hours over 45 years as a machinist and manufacturing supervisor at Sperry Rand, making just enough to put his children through Catholic schools. He was good enough with his hands to fix the second-hand cars the Cluesses forever owned.

Henry and Patricia couldn't afford a new set of wheels, never mind a college education for their five kids. But something came out of the boys' driveway games of two-on-two, something other the occasional broken window and bloodied nose.

Hope. When the Cluesses weren't playing all night at St. Thomas, at least until the weary priests chased them off, they were honing their jump shots in the backyard, dribbling between their legs and conducting passing drills in their bedrooms, and attracting the full attention of every St. John's coach from Joe Lapchick to Lou Carnesecca to Frank Mulzoff.

Hank, the oldest, started the pipeline from West Hempstead to Queens in the mid-1960s and played for the Hall of Famers-to-be, Lapchick and Carnesecca, who fondly recalled the 6-foot-6 forward for drawing a crucial foul on Michigan's Cazzie Russell in St. John's enduring comeback victory for the Holiday Festival title.

"Hank had a nice touch and that typical Cluess body," Carnesecca said through a laugh. "Rangy."

Hank tried out for the ABA's New Jersey Americans and their successors, the New York Nets, but settled for a run with Real Madrid in Spain before returning home and becoming a ref, a cop, a director of the Police Athletic League and a traveling softball all-star.

Greg was up next at St. John's, a big man with a perimeter touch who played for Mulzoff in the early '70s while Looie was off coaching the Nets. The tallest Cluess could've reported to Knicks camp when he was done with college, but figured he'd have a tough time winning a spot on Red Holzman's bench.

Only the Nets had Rick Barry, and then Dr. J., leaving Greg as a practice player who made extra cash as a weekend member of the Eastern League's Hartford Capitals and, later, as an agent who represented prospects and journeymen looking for deals in Europe.

Right behind Greg was Kevin, the natural, the best of the brood, and Carnesecca was lucky enough to have made it back to St. John's in time to coach him. Kevin was big for a guard back then, and he could pass, dribble, defend, and shoot reliably enough to earn the nickname "Radar."

Carnesecca called him a "fanatic," someone who adored the game. "Kevin could really see the floor," Looie said. "He was way ahead of his time."

Kevin would barely miss making the roster of the Kansas City Kings, and no, this didn't register as a crisis in the Cluess home. Suddenly Greg was sick, terribly sick. He'd been diagnosed with lymphoma a couple of weeks after his daughter Kerri was born, and the radiation and chemo couldn't beat back the tumors for good.

Playing and living for Greg

Greg's wife, Linda, called him one day at Memorial Sloan-Kettering, and her husband didn't sound like himself. "Just stay home and take care of my daughter," Greg told her, but Linda knew she needed to get to him as quickly as she could.

Greg Cluess
Courtesy of St. John'sGreg Cluess (44) played for the Johnnies from 1970-72 and was drafted by the NBA's Knicks and ABA's Nets.

Henry and Patricia Cluess made their own frantic drive to Sloan with their daughter, Mary Ann. On their way over the 59th Street Bridge, the Simon & Garfunkel song "Bridge Over Troubled Water" played on the car radio, and something washed over Mary Ann as she looked into the river.

"Oh my God," she told herself. "Greg is dead."

She didn't tell her parents; the doctors did when they arrived at the hospital. Mary Ann checked her brother's chart, and Greg's time of death was the exact time she'd heard the song. "I just felt like his spirit came to me," she said.

Her younger brother, Tim, was competing in a high school basketball tournament in Utica when he heard a knock on his door early the next morning. It was the oldest of the Cluess boys, Hank, telling him Greg was gone. Tim didn't believe him. He was 16, too young to handle anything like a man.

Tim started playing harder and meaner at St. Agnes, where the longtime coach, Frank Morris, thought he'd been "too nice" on the court. "I don't know if it was maturing or if it was anger," Tim said, "but I was trying to do things in Greg's memory, trying to play for him and live for him as well as myself."

Tim followed Greg at St. Agnes, and came to wear his No. 44; Hank and Kevin each wore No. 35 and had played for the legendary Jack Curran at Archbishop Molloy. Tim was a 6-foot-6 wing recruited by the likes of Jim Valvano (Iona), Rick Pitino (Boston U.), and Bobby Cremins (Appalachian State), but being a Cluess back then meant signing with St. John's.

Only Tim wouldn't replicate his brothers' college careers. He suffered a couple of injuries, and plunged on Carnesecca's depth chart. Tim remained a fearless player in practice, one who wouldn't back down from an elbow or a potential confrontation with a bigger or better teammate any more than he'd back down from his older brothers in the driveway.

"But at the time I had a lot of pretty good players," Carnesecca said. "Tim was very smart and really knew the game. Maybe his body hadn't caught up to his brains yet."

Disillusioned and searching for a home, Tim left St. John's and made a brief stop at the College of Charleston before transferring to Hofstra, where he found some playing time and some happiness before word came that Kevin's stomach virus wasn't a stomach virus after all.

'You're going straight to heaven'

Kevin hadn't found a roster spot in the NBA -- the Boston Celtics and others had scouted him and passed -- and ended up playing professionally in the Philippines. He'd opened a bar and restaurant on Long Island, and prepared to marry Jeanne Weston, daughter of Jimmy Weston, the former St. John's player whose popular Manhattan saloon counted Frank Sinatra, George Steinbrenner and Muhammad Ali among its regulars.

Life was good until a doctor told Kevin it was not. "My brother was there by himself in a hospital room," Tim said, "and the doctor came in and told him, 'You've got leukemia. You've got three years to live, and there's nothing we can do.'"

Kevin needed a bone marrow transplant, a truth that summoned the best of the Cluess competitive spirit. Kevin's siblings were being tested as potential donors when Mary Ann shot a funny look at Tim and Hank.

Kevin Cluess
Courtesy of St. John'sKevin Cluess played for St. John's from 1973-75 and was drafted by the Kansas City Kings.

She'd been a high school basketball player herself at Maria Regina (her mother was her first CYO coach, too), her stroke so pure that the St. John's women's coach offered her a scholarship on the spot after watching her in a pickup game. Mary Ann politely declined. She didn't want road trips to prevent her from seeing Greg and Kevin play.

Like Kevin, Mary Ann was something of a natural. She was an athlete hardened in her youth by the daily struggles of life with four brothers in a one-bathroom home. She played three sports in high school, and jumped into stickball games with her brothers and neighborhood friends outside the Cluess home, using sewers and street signs as bases.

Upon graduating from St. John's, Mary Ann answered an ad in the Long Island Press for a director of a racquetball facility. She applied without knowing the first thing about racquetball, read a book on the sport, and landed the job. Mary Ann started working out at the club, and two years later seized the U.S. doubles championship and the world doubles title after that.

So Mary Ann badly wanted to win at everything, even when it came to saving her brother's life. "I looked at Timmy and Hank when we were doing the blood test for a match," she said, "and I was like, 'Why are you guys even here? You know I'm going to be the one to give it to Kevin.' And then when I was told I was an exact match, I said, 'I told you guys.'"

Kevin made it through the transplant, went to work on Wall Street, and began building a new life with his bride, Jeanne. Tim was playing pro ball in Australia and loving every second of it, secure in the hope that Kevin was going to beat the odds, when the phone rang and his world came undone one more time.

Kevin was out of remission, and Tim told his Australian club he was needed at home. Mary Ann again stepped up as a bone marrow donor, of course she did, but the second transplant didn't sustain Kevin for long.

He told friends he was concerned about what his deteriorating condition was doing to his parents. "It was never about him," Tim said, "because that's how he always was."

Kevin was dying in a bed at Sloan, surrounded by Cluesses, when he woke up and asked everyone how they were doing. "And then Kevin asked us, 'What is your definition of hell?'" said Hank, devastated by the sight a second brother living through it.

"It's nothing you have to worry about," Mary Ann would tell Kevin. "You're going straight to heaven and God."

Kevin was buried in Greg's plot at St. Charles Cemetery in Farmingdale.

Basketball comes calling -- again

Done playing basketball, Tim Cluess threw himself into his work as a police officer; he'd followed Hank into the force. Tim was working at the fourth precinct of Nassau County when he got a call about someone brandishing a weapon. He raced with his partner to the apartment building, made his way up a narrow staircase, and came upon a man holding a shotgun in one hand and a 7-year-old girl in another.

Tim Cluess
Courtesy of HofstraTim Cluess wrapped up his college playing career at Hofstra in 1983.

The man put the girl in front of him, and yet another Cluess tragedy was seconds away from unfolding. "We pointed our guns at him and tried to talk him out of it," Tim said. "But you're sitting there saying, 'You're dead if he wants to kill you right now, and there's nothing you can do about it.'"

After five minutes that felt like 50, the man put down the shotgun and released the girl.

Tim wasn't meant to be a cop, not when the game kept tugging on him. By 1991, he'd already done some freshman and junior varsity coaching at St. Dominic's and Holy Trinity when he was offered the varsity job at St. Mary's of Manhasset, a school with a long history of lousy teams.

On the first day of tryouts at St. Mary's, Tim walked into the gym to find three rubber basketballs rolling this way and that. His starting point guard was trying to punt balls into the basket from midcourt, and another kid was playing the trumpet on the stage.

Tim turned to a friend and asked "What the hell did I just get myself into?"

If only Cluess had a clue.

'We knew he was a fighter'

On that first day of that first St. Mary's season, Tim suspended his best player for being late and made him watch five days of practice through a small window before letting him back in the gym.

St. Mary's actually won 10 games that year. The next season, the Gaels reached the league championship game. Before Cluess left in 2005, St. Mary's was ranked among the heavyweights in USA Today's national poll, and had more league, county and state titles than its coach could count. Tim's last star at the school, Danny Green, would land a scholarship at North Carolina and make it to the NBA.

"You had this tall, white, Irish guy teaching all of these black kids everything from staying low in your dribble to taking your hat off while you're walking into a building," said Dwayne Byfield, an African-American player who was on academic probation after transferring into St. Mary's and who credits Cluess for molding him into an honor-roll student, a scholarship player at Monmouth, and a successful career man at Hugo Boss.

"A lot of coaches use kids," Byfield said, "but Cluess only uses you for what you can get out of yourself. That's why guys who didn't even get in the game were willing to run into a wall for him. We knew he was a fighter who came from a family of fighters, and that helped him instill discipline in us."

[+] EnlargeTim Cluess
Jeff Skopin/ESPNNewYork.com"Guys who didn't even get in the game were willing to run into a wall for him," one former player says of Tim Cluess.

Tim never planned on being a college coach, not after everything he'd seen on the recruiting trail. Too many promises and hearts got broken along the way, and besides, the Dwayne Byfields made coaching high school ball its own reward.

But over time, Tim ran into the predictable problems at St. Mary's. Some opposing coaches reportedly didn't appreciate the margins of his victories, and some administrators reportedly didn't appreciate the number of foreign students on his team. Tim decided to make his 14th season his last.

"And I didn't know if I'd ever again coach another day," he said.

Tim could've gone back into the bar and restaurant business; he'd already opened and closed a place called Docksiders, the same name as Kevin's old place. Or he could've taken the coaching job at Suffolk Community College-Brentwood.

Basketball won out. "I don't know if I'll like coaching guys this age," Tim told his wife, Karen. "I'll try it for a year."

He claimed a regional title in his one season at Suffolk, then turned C.W. Post into a national Division II power. Suddenly Iona needed a replacement for the Seton Hall-bound Kevin Willard, son of Ralph Willard, the man who had hired Tim at St. Dominic's way back when, and there was Tim talking himself into becoming an honest-to-God Division I coach.

He cried when he told his C.W. Post players. They told him that he had to take the promotion, and that they were proud of him. Gil Montalvo, a point guard left behind by Cluess at St. Mary's and at C.W. Post, was among the Post players who showed up in their team warmups at Tim's news conference in New Rochelle.

Now Montalvo is Tim's recruiting coordinator at Iona, where the Gaels -- 25-12 last season, Tim's first -- are favored to win the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference title and the automatic NCAA berth that goes with it.

Why not Iona?

On the practice court, Tim still carries the long and wiry build of an athlete -- that Cluess body with that reddish-pink Cluess complexion -- as he runs Iona through drills best described as organized chaos, with multiple balls in the air and players streaking up the floor and launching as many shots as they can. Tim wants the Gaels to play fast and furious, and fast and furious they will play.

He has a potential NBA playmaker in Scott Machado, the MAAC's preseason player of the year in Mike Glover, and a high-end transfer from Arizona, Lamont "MoMo" Jones, who wanted to play closer to his Harlem home to spend time with his ailing grandmother.

"We can relate to each other," Jones said of his new coach. "His attitude is straight New York, and I love it. He can talk to me in a way where I understand it even if he's screaming and yelling and cursing. He's not trying to downplay you; he's only doing it for the best."

Iona has already blown out Maryland and lost to Purdue in the final seconds. The Gaels are 8-2 after Wednesday's 88-79 victory at Richmond, a Sweet 16 team last year and another opponent that was supposed to hit the visitors harder than a blind pick.

Only nothing ever comes easy for a Cluess, on the court or off. Cancer didn't just take Greg and Kevin. The Cluess patriarch, Henry, survived colon cancer before he died of prostate cancer in 2007, and Patricia, the matriarch, survived breast cancer before dying last year.

[+] EnlargeScott Machado
AP Photo/Ricardo ArduengoScott Machado, the nation's leader in assists, is back at point guard for Tim Cluess' Iona Gaels this season.

Mary Ann, who still lives in that Cape Cod on Broadway, also survived breast cancer and had a double mastectomy. Hank, the oldest, had a melanoma cut out of his back. The Cluesses don't know if the vile disease snaking through the family tree has been triggered by the environment, genetics or fate.

They only know that their faith has never wavered, and that all these years later they still feel the presence of Kevin and Greg. The Cluesses believe in the power of signs, and they find meaning in the fact Patricia remained alive past midnight last year and died on the same date -- Jan. 23 -- of her son Greg's death.

Greg's wife, Linda, visited his grave one afternoon a few years ago, asked for a sign of better days to come, and suddenly found his jersey number, 44, in the corner of her cell phone screen. Before Iona's recent overtime victory at Denver, Mary Ann and her daughter Colleen saw a basketball logo and the name Greg on a license plate and turned to their clock. It read 4:44.

Hank, a skycap at McCarran International Airport in Vegas, counts as his best friend a former cop he met 12 years ago, a cop who happens to share Greg's birthday. On the day of his big interview at Iona, while waiting for athletic director Pat Lyons to meet him at a coffee shop, Tim was struck by a storefront across the street numbered 4435. Greg and Kevin. "I think I'll get the job," Tim told himself.

Lyons gave Tim office key No. 44 after hiring him on Patricia Cluess' birthday, April 8, only weeks after she died.

Tim's older son, Kevin Gregory, is playing varsity ball as a high school freshman, with T.J. not far behind him. The boys have worn 44 and 35 in youth leagues when the numbers were available.

"My brothers are my life," Tim said in his office recently, his voice cracking and his eyes turning moist. "They are where my love of the game came from."

As a boy, he couldn't wait to jump into one of his father's second-hand cars for the ride to his brothers' games at Alumni Hall. Now Tim is a grown-up Division I coach with grown-up Division I dreams. He can try to do for Iona what other men have done for the Butlers and Virginia Commonwealths and Gonzagas.

"Why not?" he asked.

Why can't he win at Iona like he's won everywhere else? Why can't Tim Cluess wear his pins and charms and watches in honor of the dead, and take a great basketball family's last great shot?

Ian O'Connor is the author of "The Captain: The Journey of Derek Jeter." "Sunday Morning With Ian O'Connor" can be heard every Sunday from 9 to 11 a.m. ET on ESPN New York 1050.

Ian O'Connor

ESPNNewYork.com columnist
Ian O'Connor has won numerous national awards as a sports columnist and is the author of three books, including the bestseller, "The Captain: The Journey of Derek Jeter." ESPN Radio broadcasts "The Ian O'Connor Show" every Sunday from 7 to 9 a.m. ET. Follow Ian on Twitter »

SPONSORED HEADLINES

EDITORS' PICKS

  • Not A Kidd Anymore
    Jason Kidd has met every challenge this season. Now comes the biggest one yet.
  • Was That Bad?!
    The Yankees turned an early 4-run lead into a late Rays blowout in St. Petersburg.
  • That Was Close
    David Wright's eighth-inning single broke up a Braves no-hit bid at Citi.
  • Bracing For The Worst
    Woody's fate will likely be announced next week -- and he's expecting bad news.
  • Complete Control
    The Rangers dominated the Flyers in Game 1 thanks to stickhandling and skill.

MORE MEN'S COLLEGE BASKETBALL HEADLINES