Accolades and oft-told anecdotes have been rolling in ever since Mario Cuomo — the most famous politician of his era who never became president (indeed, never even ran for the job!) — died of heart failure on New Year’s Day, at age 82.
But there’s a gap in the rolling portrait of recollections about New York’s former three-term governor. And today we can complete that portrait by recounting something Cuomo told me about, quite proudly, when he was still governor.
It concerns a few personages from his past, whose very existence he’d once kept carefully hush-hush:
Lava Libretti, a six-footer who played basketball for Catholic league teams in Brooklyn, Queens and New Jersey.
Matt Dente, another New York borough basketball player, who famously once talked the refs out of forfeiting a game because only four of his team’s players showed up; so they played four against five — and won;
Glendie LaDuke, a more obscure Catholic league player who got into games only when Libretti and Dente didn’t show up; and Connie Cutts, a left-fielder for baseball’s minor league Bridgeport Bees, who later spread the word he could hit every pitcher in the league except a lefty kid named Whitey Ford.
Each became an American household name — Mario Cuomo.
Those names were jock-ular pseudonyms Cuomo created as a student so he could play some off-limits basketball and make some pocket money playing baseball — yet still preserve his amateur eligibility to play on St. John’s University’s baseball and basketball teams.
Of course, none of that alters Cuomo’s extraordinary legacy. He was, as many have noted, a beacon of liberal idealism, oratorical eloquence and intellectual persuasiveness. He was the rarest politician: he championed positions determined by his principles and not his pollsters. And mainly, he was a proud Italian-American who became an icon of America’s triumphant immigrant heritage.
But sports was always at the heart of the way Mario Cuomo lived and led. In 1989, when he regaled me with those tales of his youthful wink-and-play past, he was especially proud of having been Lava Libretti — Italian slang for “always hot,” he said.
Back then, Cuomo was the Democratic Party’s “always-hot” prospective presidential nominee. It is hard for many today to grasp just how desperate Democrats were back then. From 1980 to 1988, America overwhelmingly rejected the under-inspiring candidacies of incumbent Jimmy Carter, Walter Mondale and Michael Dukakis. Democrats felt trapped in a loop of quixotic quests to find just one presidential candidate who wouldn’t be rejected by his own bathroom mirror. Yet Cuomo twice tortuously pondered — but rejected — pleas to run for president.
But he loved to compete — and win. That competitive Cuomarian way was on display, doubly, one day in 1989 when I interviewed Cuomo’s older son, Andrew, who at age 24 had managed his dad’s gubernatorial victory. We were in the office of the organization Andrew had founded to help homeless people find jobs and housing.
Andrew wanted to explain what he called the essential difference between him and his father — “I’m bigger than he is; I’m faster than he is …” — when a special telephone rang. Andrew answered, his eyebrows arched to his forehead and he handed me the phone: “He wants you, not me.”
The governor, who knew Andrew’s competitive ways as well as he knew Lava Libretti’s, said he’d hold on while I asked Andrew about the day he brought a girlfriend to the governor’s mansion and she watched father and son play one-on-one basketball.
So I asked and Andrew answered: “A friendly game. Nobody kept score.”
But in my telephone ear, New York’s governor launched into debate mode: Score was meticulously kept, he insisted — “and I won.” He hung up.
Andrew had stopped denying — but, having now gained sole access to both my ears, he recouped, Cuomo style: “Like I was saying: I’m bigger and I’m faster. He’s dirtier.”
Earlier, Andrew had said of his dad: “Mario is my best friend.” And the day before, Mario had said of Andrew: “We started in politics together; he was 16, I was 44… It’s a special closeness … for a person you’ve come to admire.”
Mario Cuomo not only lived long enough to see Andrew twice win the governorship he’d treasured, but he saw his much younger son, Chris (12 years Andrew’s junior) become CNN’s morning anchor. And Mario was also alive when CNN last year had its prime anchors travel to explore their family roots.
I’d wondered if Mario had also managed a smile when he saw CNN’s ace researchers had somehow overlooked that special, camouflaged branch of the Cuomo family tree that belongs to Connie Cutts, Glendie LaDuke, Matt Dente and, especially, Lava Libretti.
Email Mr. Schram at firstname.lastname@example.org.