I had the privilege of working for Gov. Mario Cuomo during his third term in the early ’90s. Like so many of us, I was in awe from the first day. The non-stop schedule, the great speeches, the intense focus on service and the relentless push from the governor to make the world a better place. It was the best job I will ever have.
But in many ways, it was only later that his fierce dedication to people and competition came to light. During his third term, I began to play in the highly secretive and competitive basketball league that was a true passion for Mario Cuomo. He was a gifted athlete: strong, relentless and strategic. He was perhaps an even better coach and teacher. From his early days at St. John’s and his professional baseball contract to softball with staff and the Legislature to his inner obsession— basketball. The Governor’s League, later called New Yorkers Basketball, evolved after he left office and moved back to New York City in 1995.
For nearly a decade, I had the honor of being a captain and leading the league in its organization, but the guv was a force a nature. I would bring players in. His son Chris (an outstanding player, but don’t tell him I said that) would bring players in— most of whom were half the governor’s age and yet, no one was ever as strong or as tenacious or able to call a foul, mostly because to win a call you had to out-debate the guv … and let’s just say that was a challenging moment for each that tried.
There were daily negotiations about which players would complete the teams for the weekend games—the best players seemed to always end up on his roster. The guv was ferocious on the court and had a classic two-handed three-point shot to boot. He drove to the hoop with the will of a freight train. If you dared to drive to the hoop past him, you had to be prepared for a hit. Many players have scars, injuries and bruises still. I tore my ACL and had to have knee surgery one season, and remember perfectly that while on the floor in pain, he applied pressure and bent my leg and asked, “Does this hurt?” I shouted, “Yes!” This was a week after the guv had accused me of “mashing his clavicle” during a game. As he told The New York Times, “It was a week after my regrettable accident that he had his regrettable accident. They were not related. Post hoc, propter hoc—all that gives you is coincidence. That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it in Latin and in English.” He would often joke that players needed two forms of health insurance to enter the league.
Mario Cuomo loved sports. He was so proud of one of his premiere accomplishments: Riverbank State Park in Harlem, a true urban oasis filled with sports and cultural facilities to help kids and adults alike. It was at this park, and in gyms across the state, that I had the honor of forming the New York Midnight Basketball program for him, an aggressive effort to help young men and women who were vulnerable to the dangerous and tempting streets of the ’90s. The guv would attend and speak with the players and get personally involved in making sure everyone went on to school, a new job or career and steered clear of the awful fate of some of their peers. The guv did this for years after leaving office. I will never forget the way the gyms filled with young people and adults who wanted to hear the guv talk about life and the path forward. He always changed lives.
Mario Cuomo was much more than a governor. He is a way of life, a sure way to succeed if you follow his lead—hard work, honesty, extreme dedication to family and an tireless spirit to help, help whomever you can and as often as you can. Live life every day with a purpose. Basketball was clearly just a release, a vacation from the quest to make a difference. What I learned, and so many others did as well, is that his form of basketball was life changing and a permanent lesson in how to win—on and off the court.
Michael Klein is a managing director at McKenna Long & Aldridge LLP. He served as a regional representative to Gov. Mario Cuomo.
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