NEW YORK CITY — It was one of those fall mornings that made all the aggravation that comes with living in New York City completely worth it. Even by the time I rolled out of bed, right around 9:00 AM, the sun was high in the cloudless sky, and a cool breeze promised to stick around through the evening. My girlfriend and I were making breakfast, and making plans for the days and weeks ahead, and then everything changed forever.
The day was September 11, 2001, and what happened that day was the single largest terrorist attack on American soil. I lived through it, and I still remember the raw emotions, the way people on the street looked at each other, the way a smell of burned wreckage lingered in the city for weeks after the attack.
The experience is something that affected all of us in different ways. For me, initially there was confusion — trying to get a grip on what was happening around us. Then there was fear — wondering if other parts of the city were safe. Then there was sadness — processing the massive loss of life. There was anger, and there was resilience, and… well, there were about a million other emotions, and they came and went without warning.
In the years that followed, Ground Zero became a place that visitors to New York felt compelled to go and see, both to pay their respects and, for younger people, to learn about what happened. A few hours ago, the players in town for tomorrow’s NBA Draft paid a visit to the National 9/11 Memorial and Museum. The players were all children when the attacks occurred, and as far as I could gather, this was the first time they’d been able to visit Ground Zero.
NBA Cares set up today’s visit in conjunction with Tuesday’s Children, a non-profit organization that “has made a long-term commitment to meet the needs of every individual impacted by the events of September 11, 2001.”
The players wandered the memorial plaza in today’s blazing sun, walking around each of the memorial pools. It was mostly quiet, as people on site respectfully looked at the names of all the victims ringing the pools and reflected on all that the memorial represented. The visit was also educational, as the players weren’t old enough at the time of the attack to fully remember the experience of living through 9/11.
“I remember being right in front of the TV set,” said Kentucky C Nerlens Noel. “I forget what I was watching, but it just took over every channel. It was really an emotional time, and I was young and was not really sure what was going on. I’m grateful to be here. To see all the names here, it makes you cherish life, and be thankful and not take things for granted.”
“So many of these players were young when 9/11 happened,” said Lynn Rasic, the Executive Vice President of External Affairs and Strategy for the Memorial. “So they’re part of this next generation that will help carry on the memory of all those that perished. But also, of how we all came together in the aftermath.”
As we walked around the twin reflecting pools, which sit in the footprint of where the Twin Towers once stood, we stopped and spoke with Lee Ielpi, a former firefighter who was a responder on 9/11. Ielpi lost a son, also a firefighter, in the attack, and is now a member of the 9/11 Memorial Board of Directors.
“I’m encouraged,” Ielpi said about his time with the draftees today. “I can’t say it enough. I’m encouraged. I’m inspired to see them here, because at least some of these people are leaving here with the attitude of, ‘Oh my God, what happened to beautiful people on 9/11.’ Coming here, seeing all these folks, hopefully, God willing, they leave with a positive experience.”
Greg Cove is one of Tuesday’s Children. He lost his father in the attack, and as a basketball fan, he loved today’s experience, particularly getting to take a photo with Michigan G Trey Burke. “It’s been a great time,” said Cove. “It’s awesome to see them come down here and pay tribute to the memorial. To meet them was awesome. These guys are going to be the stars of the NBA one day.”
The bond between the draftees and the kids seemed visceral, and, frankly, was heartening to see. “Everything they’ve been through, losing their parents or whoever, that’s when you realize this is real life,” said Georgetown F Otto Porter. “These kids are young but they wake up and, every day, their Mom or Dad or brother or sister are gone. That’s that feeling nobody ever wants to have, to wake up and have your Mom or Dad gone. So I can definitely understand what they’re feeling. It’s very emotional when they come here and look at their Mom or Dad’s name around the pool. It’s just very surreal.”
We often hear athletes resort to hyperbole or fall back on clichés, but I can confirm that Porter was doing neither. The experience did seem surreal. Even though I’ve had opportunities to visit the site, and have walked or rode past numerous times in the dozen years since the attack, today was my first visit. And even though I was there to report on the event, there was no escaping the sobering veracity of the afternoon.
One of my friends growing up was a kid named Adam White. We lived on the same street and went to the same school from fifth through twelfth grades. After high school (and before Facebook) we lost touch. I mostly thought of him whenever I was home in Atlanta and would drive by his parent’s home on the way to visit my parents.
A few days after 9/11, I read that Adam had moved to New York, was working for Cantor Fitzgerald and had died in the attacks. Every year during the remembrance services, I sit and wait to hear Adam’s name read from the list of victims, and I say a prayer for all of the victim’s families. Today I looked Adam up and found his name on the wall surrounding the north pool.
After 9/11, life eventually returned to something like normal, although it seemed certain that life would never be the same again. Today as I left the memorial, I was reminded that Adam, like all of the victims from New York, Pennsylvania and Washington DC, may be gone, but they will never be forgotten.