Adam Zagoria covers basketball at all levels. He is the author of two books and an award-winning journalist whose articles have appeared in ESPN The Magazine, SLAM, Sheridan Hoops, Sports Illustrated, Basketball Times and in newspapers nationwide.
When Iona faces St. John’s at Madison Square Garden, Tim Cluess will be flooded with old memories
When Tim Cluess leads his Iona Gaels into a showdown with St. John’s in the MSG Holiday Festival at Madison Square Garden on Sunday, there will be plenty of history involved for him.
All four Cluess brothers from West Hempstead, N.Y., earned scholarships to St. John’s, and their sister also attended the school. Cluess grew up watching older brothers, Hank, Kevin and Greg compete at the Garden and Tim played at St. John’s under legendary coach Lou Carnesecca from 1979-81 before ultimately landing at Hofstra.
“I remember way back when my brother Hank’s team knocked off Michigan who was No. 1 in the country,” Cluess said Friday by phone. “I remember seeing numerous wins by St. John’s over Top-10 teams in the country at the Garden and at Carnesecca Arena. I remember us beating the Doctors of Dunk in Alumni Hall [the Louisville team featuring Darrell Griffith]. It’s a lot of good basketball memories, but more importantly friendship memories.”
More than three decades removed from his own playing career, Cluess now leads an Iona team that plays an uptempo style and is a perennial NCAA Tournament contender out of the MAAC.
Cluess expects plenty of family and friends at the game.
“The people that I know bought groups of 25 tickets that are coming,” he said. “There’s a whole bunch of those type of people. My sister [Maryann]’s coming and aunts and uncles and cousins and stuff like that.”
After a slow start this year, Iona (5-4) has won its last four games and is coming off an 83-67 victory over Yale on Tuesday in New Rochelle.
St. John’s (8-2) is coming off a loss to Bobby Hurley and undefeated Arizona State Dec. 8 in Los Angeles.
St. John’s owns a 6-3 all-time record against the Gaels, but the two teams haven’t met since Dec. 27, 1995 in the opening round of the ECAC Holiday Festival. Iona won that game, 70-57, before falling to Rick Pitino’s loaded Kentucky team that featured nine pros who went on to win the NCAA championship.
Though Cluess and Red Storm coach Chris Mullin didn’t overlap at St. John’s, Cluess says they maintain a friendly relationship.
“I’ve been friendly with Chris for a lot of years,” he said. “We used two play against each in workouts and we know each other from being around basketball and having a lot of friends in common.”
Cluess lost two brothers in their prime.
Greg, who was once drafted by the New York Nets, passed at 26 when he succumbed to lymphoma in 1976. Kevin, who was drafted by the Kansas City Kings, was 33 when he died of leukemia in 1986. (Ian O’Connor’s wonderful ESPN story documents the family’s painful losses.)
O’Connor reported that “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.'”
Cluess still speaks with his brothers before games, he told O’Connor.
“Kevin, we’re going to need someone on our team to shoot like you tonight,” he’ll say, or “Greg, we’re going to need some of those rebounds you always used to get.”
As for this current matchup, St. John’s guard Marcus LoVett (sprained left knee) is questionable for the game, but Cluess knows the Red Storm is dangerous nonetheless.
“It doesn’t matter,” Cluess said. “They’ve got like six guys that are really high-level guys. They’re loaded, this is the best team they have there in years so we have quite a challenge ahead of us.”
An Iona win over Cluess’ former school would help its résumé come March.
“Yeah, obviously anytime you get a win over a power-conference team it’s great for your résumé and we’re just fortunate that we’re getting a chance to play them,” Cluess said. “It’s a great local rivalry and we’ll have a nice buzz to the game. We just want to go out and compete our hardest.”
For Cluess, the game figures to be tinged with family memories, too.
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Adam Zagoria is a Basketball Insider who covers basketball at all levels. A contributor to The New York Times and SportsNet New York (SNY), he is also the author of two books and is an award-winning journalist and filmmaker. His articles have appeared in ESPN The Magazine, SLAM, Sheridan Hoops, Basketball Times and in newspapers nationwide. He also won an Emmy award for his work on the SNY mini-documentary on Syracuse guard Tyus Battle.
A veteran Ultimate Frisbee player, he has competed in numerous National and World Championships and, perhaps more importantly, his teams won the Westchester Summer League (WSL) championships in 2011 and 2013.
He lives in Manhattan with his wife and children.