Even my mother was rooting for the governor. "Nicky," she said, "you are my son and I love you, but you know that I think that Mario Cuomo and Ted Williams are the two most attractive men alive. Besides, Governor Cuomo is twice as old as you are. It would be unseemly to pull for you." The idea of playing in a one-on-one basketball game against Mario Cuomo, who is the 61-year-old, three-term governor of my home state of New York and one of the more compelling politicians of our time, and—word from Albany had it—a zealous basketball player, had initially seemed like a good idea. As the game approached, however, I was having my doubts.
There was, for instance, this telephone call from the governor's press aide, Chuck Porcari. "Nicky," he said, "you don't have to answer this if you don't want to, but how good are you?" The truth is, not very. Growing up in New England, I played hockey and wrestled in the winter, so I didn't learn to play basketball until I came to New York City after college and joined the weekly pickup game that a number of SI writers play with a group of professional stand-up comedians. The stand-up comedians' influence on my ball handling is obvious.
A bit worried about meeting Cuomo, I sought counsel from the best source I could think of, putting in a call to Red Holtzman, the legendary former coach of the New York Knicks, who, I knew, had seen the governor play. "Red," I said, "what can you tell me?"
"He looks pretty good," Red said. "He looks better on the drive, so don't give him all that room. His aides say he plays kind of rough, so you forget he's the governor."
December 13, 1993
"But, Red," I said. "How can I forget he's the governor?"
"Nicky," he said, "once the ball goes up and you get a chance to knock the governor on his butt, knock him on his butt."
The game was scheduled for 10 a.m. on a late fall Saturday, and on the appointed morning, an inauspiciously gloomy and dank one, I went to the New York State Police Academy gym in Albany. On my way to the locker room I passed a photograph of the governor in the foyer. He looked confident.
I dressed, walked out onto the floor and found him already there, loosening up by shooting lefthanded reverse layups. We shook hands, and I admired the red St. John's University T-shirt he was wearing. "Looie [Carnesecca] gave it to me," he said.
The game was played by executive-chamber rules, meaning that the first man to 10 was the winner. All shots were worth one point except for three-pointers, which counted for two. A young man dressed in a black-and-white-striped shirt was introduced as the referee. A few minutes before, when I had first met him, the young man had been wearing a T-shirt and had referred to himself as one of the governor's aides. But Cuomo is renowned in national politics for his probity, so I dismissed the hometown flavor of this officiating selection as pure coincidence. And so we began.
The gym was drafty, and both of us warmed up by missing our first few shots. I couldn't help noticing, however, that Cuomo is in terrific shape. He chases down loose balls with alacrity, using his elbows like a harried commuter. I finally hit a jumper, and then the governor answered with a strong drive to his right, zipping past me for two quick layups. Fortunately my jumper from the perimeter was enjoying one of its better mornings, and soon I was ahead by three. But not for long. Cuomo, who had been clanking three-pointers and gazing at the rim in disbelief—it was his rim—finally hit one. Then he forced me to dribble the ball off my knee and connected from the side, making the score 7-6, me.
By this time I was breathing hard, so I didn't appreciate it when the referee chose now to warn me about reaching in, nor did it please me when Cuomo checked the ball with me by throwing it three steps to my left. He smiled wickedly as I went to retrieve it while he caught his breath. He missed a shot, I hit a jumper, and thinking of Red, I checked the ball afterward by tossing it two paces to his right. The governor smiled thinly. We traded shots, leaving me ahead 9-8 and feeling more optimistic than I had in weeks. I hadn't attempted a drive all day and so now I did, but the governor coolly slapped the ball off my knee. Then he checked the ball by throwing it two steps to my left, smiled evilly, faked a drive and, with perfect two-handed-set-shot form, lofted a three-pointer and was shouting "Yesss!" even before it dropped through the cords. Final score: 10-9, the governor.
"It was a clean game, a gentleman's game," he said. "We play clean games here. Every Wednesday and every Saturday. You call your own fouls, and you can't be challenged. You can call a guy names, call him a phony, spit on him, but you can't take away his foul." I thought this was a good time to ask about the aide in referee's clothing. "You can't stand the fact that you lost," said the governor.
In fact, it turns out that I am the latest in a lengthy succession of Mario Cuomo's basketball victims. He grew up in South Jamaica, in New York City, and made the St. John's Prep varsity as a sophomore in 1948. "We played in black Keds," he says. "White sneakers were a novelty. We wore tank tops, high stockings and fur-lined knee guards that were belted behind the leg."
By the time Cuomo got to St. John's University, he was well-known, after a fashion, in the metropolitan area for his basketball skills. In those days promoters would assemble teams of players and enter them in "amateur" weekend tournaments in gyms—and makeshift gyms—around the city, such as the Renaissance Casino Ballroom, in Harlem, or Sunnyside Garden, in Queens. The promoters would then bet $1,500 or $2,000 on the game, with the winner splitting the pot with his players. Competing against the likes of Ray Felix, Ray Lumpp and Al McGuire, young Cuomo made a little pocket money this way, although nobody knew he was Mario Cuomo because he played under such assumed names as Gaylord Estabrook, Glendy LaDuke and his favorite, Lava LaBretti. "I was always hot," says the governor. It was while playing as Matt Dente for a team called the Austin Celtics that he arrived at a court on Long Island for a game against the Baisley Park Civics, the first-place team in the Long Island Daily Press Unlimited Division, to find that only three of his teammates had shown up. It was reported in the next day's sports pages that the four Celtics had defeated the Civics 38-34 behind Matt Dente's game-high 14 points. "Nobody believes I was Matt Dente," says the governor wistfully.
While still in college Cuomo stopped playing basketball, accepted a $2,000 bonus to sign a baseball contract with the Pittsburgh Pirates and married Matilda Raffa, now his wife of 39 years. When he didn't prove to be Mario Mantle, he began focusing on a career in law.
It wasn't until four years ago that Cuomo began playing basketball again, in regular league games at the police academy with the executive-chamber staff and assorted legislators and other state political panjandrums. "The truth is that I put this together for these guys, who all work for me and are terrifically hardworking people," he says, gesturing out to the court, where a game had just begun. Cuomo is the senior player, and he says, "It's a miracle I go home on my' own." Even genteel policymakers tend to abandon some of their civility on the basketball court, and the governor has gone home with stitches over one of his eyes and some loose teeth, courtesy of Larry (Elbows) Malone, staff counsel to the state Public Service Commission. The latter injury was especially ill timed, because it came four days before Cuomo was scheduled to give the speech at the 1992 Democratic Convention nominating Bill Clinton for president. If the governor looked nervous that night, it was not because he doubted his abilities as an orator. "I was worried my teeth were going to fall out," he says. "My wife thinks it's ridiculous, and it is. I won the Catholic High School foul-shooting championship in 1949, and last week I missed the rim twice shooting fouls, I was so exhausted."
Still, basketball has its salubrious qualities for Cuomo. "There are risks involved," he says, "but it's almost impossible to worry about environmental conservation problems while you're playing basketball. Besides," he adds, rising and putting in his new mouth guard to enter the game in progress, "Larry Malone is on my team today."
In a full-court game the six-foot, 190-pound Cuomo's basketball acumen is obvious. He runs the floor well, makes lovely no-look passes, always dishes off when he's double-teamed, sets oaken picks and sticks the open set shot. During timeouts he's full of observations about his opponents. Today his team plays three games to 38 and wins them all. "I think he's a phenom," says Malone, 48, afterward. "He's one of the better three-point shooters in the league."
Clark Whelton, the special assistant to Lieutenant Governor Stan Lundine, also admires Cuomo's play, as he should, since the governor has vanquished him twice in one-on-one competition. "I'd love to beat him, but he's so fast and strong," says Whelton, who is in his mid-50's. "He plays standard New York City playground basketball. He's quick and fearless."
Another of Cuomo's past victims is Jayson Williams, then a 6'10" St. John's forward, now a member of the NBA's Nets. Williams started out with a thunderous slam dunk, after which the governor pulled him aside. "You know, Jayson," he said, "you're gonna make a lot of money playing basketball, and I control the state tax rate."
Jayson realized Cuomo had a point and walked cheerfully off the court.
After I had learned all this, I was not surprised to hear that once the governor had received his scouting report for our game, he was sufficiently confident that he arose at 5 a.m. to read some of Emerson's essays and gather his thoughts for an interview he was giving the next day on This Week with David Brinkley, in which the theme would be "Whither the American nation?" For Cuomo, of course, has a lot more on his mind than basketball. Yet his passion for the game seems to complement his work as a statesman. His aides say that sometimes when the boss is weighing how he feels about a sticky bit of legislation, he drives out to the police academy and shoots baskets while making up his mind. Basketball also appears to lend focus to this most cerebral of politicians. "In 1982 I wrote in my diary that life is motion, not joy," says Governor Cuomo. "If the way you measure success in life is by how much joy it brings you, you're measuring inaccurately. Life is also sadness, defeat, striving. It is many things. I want to go home winning these basketball games, but the important thing is that I played the game, maybe not as well as I could at 21, but just as hard."