Martin Schram: A combative case of brotherly love

Tribune Content Agency

The TV news screen was wall-to-wall with Cuomos Monday night. CNN anchor Chris was in the left box, where he belonged, because this was his “Cuomo Prime Time” show. New York Gov. Andrew was in the guest’s box on the right. The Cuomo brothers were busy giving each other the business, New York Italian style. Which is to say, Cuomo style.

And my mind’s eye began focusing on two other guys we couldn’t really see — Lava Libretti and Connie Cutts. I was sure they were watching and beaming too. You don’t remember them?

Lava Libretti, a young 6-footer, played on the New York area’s Catholic league basketball teams in the early 1950s; he thought he was quite a scorer. Connie Cutts, identically sized, was a Bridgeport Bees minor league left fielder; he later claimed he could hit every pitcher in the league except a left-handed kid named Whitey Ford.

Libretti and Cutts were faces Americans could easily recognize — because they were really Mario Cuomo. Decades ago, then-New York Gov. Mario Cuomo confessed to me he made up those jock-ular pseudonyms so he could make some money playing pro and semipro ball, and still keep his amateur status as a student-athlete at St. John’s University. Really.

In this week that was painfully tough, but not shattering, it sometimes seemed as if brothers Andrew and Chris were channeling their dad’s most competitive persona — you could call it Mario’s inner Lava and Connie. I sensed the presence of Lava and Connie the moment Andrew and Chris jump-shifted from talking about coronavirus realities to jabbing about who always wins (or never wins) at one-on-one hoops.

Chris elbowed an on-air gotcha by claiming “Pop” told him Andrew played basketball with “banana hands.” He scored another with his tale about why “momma” (that’s Matilda) taught only Chris her secret pasta sauce recipe (because only he was worthy of that exalted honor). But Andrew gotcha’d back, telling Chris “I love you” and adding, just as they went off the air: “Meatball!”

That made me recall a day in 1989 when I was in Andrew’s office reporting for an article about his dad. Andrew, never shy, had just told me he always beats his father at basketball — “I’m bigger than he is; I’m faster than he is” — when Andrew’s phone rang. He answered; his eyebrows arched: “He wants you, not me.” Speaking into my left ear, Mario (who clearly knew Andrew’s ways as well as he knew Lava Libretti’s) suggested I ask Andrew about a one-on-one basketball game at the governor’s mansion, watched by Andrew’s girlfriend. So I did. “A friendly game. Nobody kept score,” Andrew told my right ear. Then Mario told my left ear: “Score was kept. And I won.” Mario hung up. And Andrew regained access to both ears: “Like I was saying: I’m bigger and I’m faster. He’s dirtier.” But earlier, Andrew had given me his real final word on the subject of his dad: “Mario is my best friend.”

Andrew, being 12 years older than Chris, often raised his brother as a stand-in for their always-in-demand dad, who was America’s most famous Democrat who never ran for president. Mario, who died in 2015, saw Andrew be elected and reelected to his old job in Albany. Now, as coronavirus has shattered our world, Andrew has evolved from being an official “(D-NY)” to being our de facto “(D-USA).” Andrew’s televised daily news briefings filled America’s leadership vacuum. He has become our nation’s trusted teller of tough truths and our resource of reassurance.

So it was a reality thunderbolt when Andrew announced (just hours after doing Chris’ Monday night show) that his younger brother had just tested positive for COVID-19. Typically, America’s governor turned that sad news into a public service. He told us what it feels like to be in a family that gets this news. And he discussed what he called “Matilda’s Law” (named for his mom) which is a PowerPoint list of essentials we must do to protect ourselves and our families.

Tuesday and Wednesday, a very sick but very determined Chris did his show live from the basement of his New York City home. He reported to us about having a hellish sleepless night of fever, shakes and hallucinations: “My dad was talking to me. I was seeing people … I haven’t seen in forever.” The next night, he said, he saw a dancing Andrew dressed a la “L.A.” That must have made Lava and Connie blink in disbelief.

Meanwhile, Andrew told us his most private feelings: “We’re talking about my little brother. This is my best friend. … It’s frightening because there’s nothing I can do and I’m out of control.” He praised Chris’ “gutsy courageous” decision to let the world see his coronavirus reality, adding: “My pop would be proud. I love you little brother.”



Martin Schram, an op-ed columnist for Tribune News Service, is a veteran Washington journalist, author and TV documentary executive. Readers may send him email at


©2020 Tribune Content Agency, LLC

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.