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."
"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.