Kevin, T.J. Cluess embracing family legacy

Floral Park's Kevin Cluess, left, and T. J. Floral Park's Kevin Cluess, left, and T. J. Cluess, right, pose before their game against Valley Stream South on Jan. 31. 2014. Photo Credit: Richard T. Slattery

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Every day for 11 years, Marie Damato was comforted by the sound of a basketball bouncing in the backyard of her Floral Park home.

It meant her neighbor's sons, Kevin Cluess and younger brother T.J., were home.

It meant the boys, who star for Floral Park's varsity basketball team, were playing a sport they have adored since they were toddlers.

And because the modest-sized backyards are not enclosed, it also meant her property was being utilized in a way she encouraged.

"If she didn't hear or see them play in the backyard, she'd get very worried and she would always call me up and say, 'Where are the boys? I don't hear the ball,' '' said Karen Cluess, the boys' mother. "She loved to listen to the ball."

While Damato, who died last month at 97, provided the boys additional space to hone their skills, the boys gave Damato a sense of purpose.

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"At her wake, we learned that Marie's whole family knew about how much time Kevin and T.J. were out there, how much joy it brought her to be able to watch them play," said the boys' father, Tim.

It turns out the boys' passion is genetic. Tim, 54, is the head coach of Iona's men's basketball team. He coached at St. Mary's High School in Manhasset from 1991-2005, winning eight consecutive league championships, four state titles and two state Federation championships. He continued to win while serving as coach at Suffolk Community College and LIU Post before being hired at Iona.

Yet as good as the sport has been to them, basketball is only a tool the Cluess family uses to help build friendships and reinforce values. And there is no greater value in the Cluess household than family.

Tim's main message to his boys is that the wedding invitations he receives from former players, for example, trump a roomful of trophies. The brothers seem to understand that and also realize that basketball can be a fun, therapeutic release for people.

People like Marie Damato.

"She was so good to us," said Kevin, a junior. "It makes you realize the impact basketball can have."

Growing up Cluess

After he heard the question, Tim's eyes suddenly became moist. The answer no longer required words.

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What's it like for him to see his sons play high school basketball wearing the same jersey numbers his deceased brothers once wore?

Greg Cluess, Tim's second-oldest brother, was 26 when he died from lymphoma in 1976, five years after the New York Nets picked him in the American Basketball Association draft.

Kevin, Tim's third-oldest brother, was 33 when he succumbed to leukemia in 1986, 11 years after the Kansas City (now Sacramento) Kings drafted him in the fourth round.

Tim's boys never met their uncles. Yet during Floral Park varsity boys basketball games, the legacy of Tim's brothers continues.

Kevin wears Uncle Kevin's No. 35. T.J. wears No. 44 as a tribute to Greg.

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Tim cried when he thought about it -- as much for what he has lost as for what he still has.

"It's a beautiful thing," he said, wiping his tears.The best part for Tim? It wasn't even his idea.

"Me, being Kevin Gregory Cluess, named after both of my dad's brothers who passed, I've always wanted to wear either number," Kevin said. "I never met [Uncle Kevin] but my dad told me stories about how they were really close and played all the time. I saw him in old films and I loved what I saw."

The tales of Uncle Kevin are stuff of folklore. They say he was nicknamed "Radar" because of his superb shooting. "He never missed," Karen said.

They say that at the Cluesses' old home in West Hempstead, where the basket was nailed to the garage, Kevin once took a shot from in front of the house and heaved the ball over the house into the basket. And they say he wasn't looking.

Only a freshman, T.J. has developed a lethal three-point shot of his own. Said T.J., "But I don't know if I'm over-the-house-deep quite yet."

Driving a hard bargain

Tim said he accepted each of his college head-coaching jobs under one condition: that Kevin and T.J. would be permitted to sit on the bench with him during games.

The boys also were allowed to accompany their father into the locker room after games, but Karen had her own stipulation: What was heard in the locker room stayed in the locker room.

"He got his guys to play hard," Kevin said. "I'll tell you that much."

The "Take Your Kids to Work" days were not meant to force basketball on the boys. It was a way for a college coach to keep the most important things in his life as close to him as possible.

Tim said he instructs his sons only if they ask, because he has seen enough parents "who did it the wrong way."

"I remember one day, when the boys were young, sitting at the table after a game and saying to myself, 'I never want to sit across from my own kids and look at them as a coach,' " Tim said. "I want to look at them as my sons."

Yet it was only natural for Kevin and T.J. to become enthralled by basketball. Their upbringing exposed them to exclusive surroundings. They learned what it took for players to be successful. And perhaps more importantly, they also were educated about what not to do.

"Watching Danny Green at St. Mary's when my dad coached him and how hard he played was inspiring," Kevin said of the San Antonio Spurs shooting guard. "It made me want to be the same way."

The work ethic is there.

"Kevin is one of the hardest-working kids I've ever had," said Floral Park coach Nick Simone, who has guided the program for 19 years. "And T.J. isn't far behind."

Back to the present

With a 10-3 record in Conference A-III, Floral Park is poised to make a deep run in the playoffs with Kevin, a 6-5 forward, averaging 18.3 points and 10.0 rebounds. T.J., four inches shorter than his older brother, is averaging 10.7 points and starts at shooting guard.

The goal for both is to lead the Knights to the county championship. But regardless of how their season ends, their one-on-one games will carry on.

Like the generation of Cluesses before them, the brothers will continue to battle it out for bragging rights in the backyard, where they aren't teammates on a basketball court, they're brothers playing a game.

"Of course I win every time," Kevin said with a laugh.

"For now," T.J. said. "My game plan is to let him shoot, instead of bodying me inside. Then I'll take my deep shots."

Spoken like the son of a coach.

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