Sean Clarke was in the school library during a free period that first Monday of 2021 when a classmate sitting nearby told him. Clarke couldn’t believe what he heard.
No. Not Timari.
Lucas Basich, also a captain for the undefeated Staples-Westport basketball team, saw things on social media that morning. Basich couldn’t, or just wouldn’t, believe what he saw.
“I wasn’t willing to accept something like that,” he said, “not until I knew for sure.”
As if our high school athletes haven’t been dealt enough emotional strain this past year with COVID-19 — games on and off, seasons on and off — here was a team on the verge of finally having a season when the most horrible news struck. Winter sports were a week away from finally getting the go-ahead when coach Colin Devine took the phone call from Anglie Edmounds on Jan. 4. Her son had died overnight from a preexisting medical condition.
Timari Rivera, the 6-foot-8 senior from Bridgeport, the kid everyone called a gentle giant, was 17.
“This is a tragedy,” Devine said. “Our heart goes out to the family.”
For many teenagers, high school years bring the first experience of death. The loss can be as jolting as it is profound. In some ways, that experience never leaves us. We aren’t immortal. The youthful feeling of indestructibility is forever gone. My first newspaper job in Michigan, I did a piece on a star high school basketball player who left a party, got into his car and drove into a nightmare. In the dark of the winter night, he didn’t see a figure — the team’s other star — walking along the side of the road. I was only 23, and 42 years later that team’s pain, that small town’s grief and the words after the funeral, “I killed my best friend,” still haunt me.
Before Timari’s death, Clarke had it right when he said this has been a year when nothing was normal. And now it was tragic.
“I really think one of the things this has taught us is you can’t take anything for granted,” Clarke said. “Obviously, Timari couldn’t help what happened to him. This is nothing Timari did or anyone else did. This is a realization for everyone else that we can’t always decide or control what’s going to happen.”
“We were aware Timari had a health condition,” Basich said. “But he was just playing basketball one day and the next day our lives changed. It’s something you can’t prepare for.”
Rivera took part in the Cooperative Educational Services Choice program and had attended Westport schools since first grade. Open Choice, which allows students from Bridgeport, Hartford and New Haven to attend suburban schools when space is available, is designed to reduce racial, ethnic and economic isolation. Fueled by basketball stats, Rivera was a math whiz.
“He came over to my elementary school and I’ve known Timari since before I can even remember,” Basich said. “He was on almost every team I’ve been on. Always the gentle giant, always taller than everybody, but he fit right in. He was a great all-around guy, somebody you could talk to if you had anything on our mind, especially basketball. He was always supportive.”
Clarke called Rivera a great teammate and a great worker.
“He was one of those kids who wore shorts under his pants in the winter, so he can take his pants off and be ready to play,” Clarke said.
Rivera was a light in what public education can be. And here on the first Monday night in January, the Staples seniors organized a vigil for Timari Rivera at Longshore on the Sound. Staples students, the entire basketball team, kids from past years, gathered on the beach with candles and flowers for a light extinguished.
“Everyone who was touched by Timari was there; it was really emotional,” Basich said. “I think it was the first time that people were able to take it in. That was a tough time.”
With Staples in a hybrid setting and with COVID protocol, the Wreckers couldn’t meet as a team until 7:30 the next morning before class.
“The kids were really upset,” said Devine, in his 14th year coaching his alma mater. “They were trying to process what happened to their friend and teammate. Those couple of days were really hard.
“As a coach and educator it’s the worst thing that can possibly happen. We talked and said there’s no right way to grieve. These kids are emotionally intelligent. They have great parents. We talked about how we were going to honor Timari, to dedicate the season to him and do whatever his family needs at this time.”
So they did.
The players and coaches attended the service on Jan. 12 at the Cathedral of the Holy Spirit in Bridgeport, socially distancing at 6 feet at the moment hugs were needed. Devine spoke at the service.
“It was tough, but he was such a great leader and kid, we miss him every day,” Devine said. “We miss his basketball mind. The way he went about his life and getting better at basketball. When the team was having a tough time, he was there to bring everyone up.”
As a player Rivera was a work in progress. Devine’s assistant Bob Buswell, former Bridgeport coach, helped Timari get in shape. Only two weeks before his death, a prep school called about Rivera furthering his career.
The team would have to push on, first with tryouts and drills, practices and, finally games starting on Feb. 9. The Wreckers are 4-0, with FCIAC victories over Greenwich, Danbury, Westhill and Brien McMahon. They face Ludlowe on Tuesday.
“Coach has been a really good role model on how to handle all this,” Clarke said. “There wasn’t that much to teach. He was there for us when we needed someone to talk to. He has been a stable figure at a time when things are tough.”
There is no textbook way to handle a young athlete’s death, and this was a first for Devine as a coach. He spoke with his assistants about how to keep Timari within the team’s heart without overburdening its mind and soul.
They named a hustle drill “44.”
“It epitomizes how Timari went about his craft to become a better basketball player,” Devine said. “We start a lot of our practices with it or during the middle when we’re lacking some energy. Hustle drill. Dive on a loose ball. Everybody claps. Keeps his memory alive.”
The Wreckers also named one of their presses “44.” They’ve only used it once and it was fairly effective in the 62-44 win over McMahon on Saturday.
“We also have his jersey hanging up at all times, so we all can see it,” Basich said. “And every time we break a huddle, we remember Timari.”
Organized by Felicia Sale, the mom of the Wreckers’ third captain, Derek Sale, a GoFundMe page also was set up to help Timari’s family during this difficult time. The moms, the captains, the players, the Staples community did themselves proud.
“We started with like a goal of $5,000,” Basich said. “What happened was mind-blowing.”
Nearly $38,000 has been raised.
“We’re always going to grieve,” Basich said. “We just have to do what we can and learn and grow as individuals.”
With COVID there is no state tournament in 2021. No run to the Mohegan Sun. This does not mean the Wreckers are without a goal. They want to win the FCIAC for Timari Rivera.
“I think we have handled it as well as can be expected,” Clarke said. “It’s a tough thing. Obviously, it’s not something you talk about every day. It’s not something you want to keep bringing back up at that kind of rate. We definitely also want to make sure we never forget Timari as part of Staples basketball.”
“The kids have dedicated this season to him to honor his memory,” Devine said. “Sometimes they talk about it. Sometimes they don’t. But when we break every huddle, everybody knows who they’re playing for.”
In unison, the Staples basketball team yells “44!”
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