This past weekend, two men died. Mario Cuomo and Stuart Scott were from different generations, with very different career trajectories, and other than both being fathers and public figures—a politician and a sportscaster—didn’t have much in common. Governor Cuomo was 83 and died of heart disease hours after his son followed in his footsteps and was sworn in for his second term as governor of New York. Stuart Scott, who has two teenage daughters, died of cancer—which he publicly fought for the past seven years—at 49.
I had a real reaction to these deaths. Not simply because they were figures in two of my longest-held pastimes, politics and sports. It was because Mario Cuomo and Stuart Scott, bridging decades, reminded me of Sunday nights.
When I was 11 or 12, I used to listen to a transistor radio under my pillow after lights out (c’mon, Mom, you knew). Most of the time I listened to whatever local New York team was playing, whatever sport. One Sunday night, though, it must’ve been football season, or the Knicks were on the West Coast, or the Yankees had played in the afternoon, because there was nothing on. As I flipped though the stations, I stumbled on a guy talking in this thick New York accent, not a newscaster. He said something like “This is Lieutenant Governor Mario Cuomo, taking your calls for the next hour. I’m here to help.”
The next thing I knew, it was an hour later and I was hooked. He was friendly to some callers, combative to others. He had a rough job—New York was going through tough times and lots of people were angry or depressed. But what I remember was thinking, in my pre-teen way, that he was smart and he was kind. Now certainly not everyone will agree with the kind part—read Jonathan Mahler’s masterful Ladies and Gentlemen the Bronx is Burning to see a terrific take on the complexity of Cuomo’s early political career navigating the cesspool of local borough politics—but everyone knew he was smart.
From that point, I was a fan of Governor Cuomo, even when he seemed to dither about whether to run for president; even when he occasionally descended into the muck of negative politics. I think my obsession with the political process started those nights listening to a young Mario Cuomo tell Florence from Brooklyn that he’d look into why her neighbor was allowed to keep chickens in the back yard.
After I graduated from college and moved into my first apartment—a studio with a lovely view of the Hudson River until Donald Trump built high rises directly in front of my building—I began to watch SportCenter on ESPN, almost always The Big Show at 11 PM. I spent several years watching Dan Patrick and Keith Olbermann revolutionize the highlight show, and it was as much a part of my night as listening to the radio under my pillow growing up.
Eventually ESPN started a second station, and Stuart Scott joined ESPN2 for a while, then shifted over to work The Big Show, mostly in those days with Rich Eisen. And while Dan and Keith and Berman and Craig Kilborn were in some ways the dorks who took over, with their catchphrases and snark, Stuart Scott was a whole different thing. He was as cool as the other side of the pillow, to use one of his own phrases. He brought hip hop to SportCenter, made it even quicker. And like Lieutenant Governor Cuomo, he was so clearly smart and, it certainly seemed, kind. Sunday nights as a twenty-something watching Stuart Scott on ESPN were like Sunday nights as a kid listening to Mario Cuomo on the radio. It was the end of the weekend. I was tired and a little tense because I knew the new week was beginning, but I wanted to listen or watch. I knew I’d be entertained, and I often learned something. After I got married, Amanda and I would watch SportCenter a bit less often (though I’m lucky to have married a woman who shares my twin obsessions), and we saw Stuart Scott’s health decline. We saw him a couple of months ago for the first time in quite a while and were taken aback by how gaunt he looked. But he still had a twinkle, still put over the catchphrases, still entertained.
Look, I didn’t know either Stuart Scott or Mario Cuomo, and my perception of their character was shaped completely by what I saw and heard and read about them. But I know that, decades apart, they affected me in similar ways, on Sunday nights.