We knew for years, of course. You bet we did. Sure, we were a little biased because he was one of our own. But that didn’t mean we were wrong about Tim Cluess. Someone was going to give him a shot. Someone was going to give him a job, a big job, and he was going to win an awful lot of basketball games for them. We knew. Hell yes, we did.

The Cluess brothers were basketball icons for us kids growing up in West Hempstead. They weren’t just role models, they were royalty. Long Island was a basketball-obsessed colony in the 1970s and ’80s, and in West Hempstead if you rode your bike past the Cluess house, one of them would always be there and they always had time for you. Gods did answer letters in those days.

Hank, Greg and Kevin starred at St. John’s; the latter two both died impossibly young, Greg at 26 from lymphoma in 1976, Kevin from leukemia in 1986 at 33. Their kid brother, Tim, played a bit at St. John’s, transferred to Hofstra, became a Nassau County cop for a bit. But basketball was forever in his blood. Basketball would be his deliverance. We always knew that. We just waited for someone else to figure it out, too. Someone with a job to offer.

Ten years ago, Iona finally made that happen. Tim Cluess was 51. In modern basketball, 51 looks like a typo for a first-year coach. The problem, of course, is too many coaches get those jobs before they’re ready; Cluess had already put in 14 years at St. Mary’s High, and one in junior college, and another four at Division II LIU-Post.

Ready? By the time he hit Iona, he was ready to burst. And that’s what happened. Cluess coached at Iona for nine years. Six times, the Gaels won the MAAC and made the NCAA Tournament, an impossible number in a league defined by epic parity. Two other teams made the NIT. His first, 2011, was the runner-up in the CIT.

Four years ago, after capping another terrific run to the MAAC title, Cluess told me: “We bring players here who want to have the opportunity to play in games like that one, and who are willing to pay the price to make that happen. We know how hard it is to win a league like this.”

He didn’t coach this year. At the start of the season, he took ill, and his situation was described often as “serious, not life threatening.” Friday, he made official what everyone sadly knew was imminent, stepping down from the head coaching job. He leaves, arguably, as the greatest coach in the history of the MAAC, a place where an awful lot of fine careers were launched.

“Every day I coach,” he told me once, “is a gift.”

Much of his coaching philosophy was learned at the knee of a legendary Long Island powerhouse of a man named Frank Morris. The elder two Cluess brothers had played for Jack Curran at Molloy, but the younger two stayed closer to home, at St. Agnes of Rockville Centre where Morris ruled with style and grace for over a quarter century starting in 1961.

Back in the day, that only upped Cluess’ standing among us neighborhood kids. For many of us, St. Agnes was better than the Knicks — they played frantic, fullcourt, fast-break basketball at a time when so many high school coaches swore by the four corners. You could always tell a St. Agnes player at a park or playground because they were wearing a T-shirt or shorts stenciled with “12-7-4,” Morris’ motto — 12 months a year, seven days a week, four hours a day.

If you watched the Iona Gaels those nine glorious years, what you saw was the St. Agnes Stags in their full glory.

“It’s important to me,” Cluess said, “to let people know that this kind of basketball, and commitment, it goes back a long way.”

I wanted St. John’s to hire him last spring, and I wasn’t alone. He was by far the most popular choice among alumni eager to see the Johnnies bring a member of its royal family home again. That never happened. Sadly, it seems that one worked out for the best for both parties. So Cluess retires a Gael. At a school that has given us Jim Valvano and Pat Kennedy and Kevin Willard — and, as of Saturday, Rick Pitino — his name belongs on top of the list.

“If you love basketball,” Cluess said in 2017, “and you coach it the right way, you’ll get a chance to change lives. Every day.”

Of course, we always believed that, back in the day. We always knew. Thankfully, eventually, so did Iona.

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