Robert Cornegy Jr. rebounds as New York City councilman
After leaving St. John’s and Alabama, the 6-foot-11 former basketball player stays the course in politics
Walking around Ultimate Fitness in Queens, New York, with retired New York Giants Super Bowl-winning tight end Howard Cross and his former St. John’s teammate, it took only a few minutes for Basketball Hall of Famer and St. John’s coach Chris Mullin to be recognized.
“He’s the coach at my school. Plus, the legend speaks for itself,” Samir Bendriss, a member of the squat yet massive brick gym on the Brooklyn Queens Expressway service road in Woodside, said as he waited to take a selfie with Mullin.
“Who’s that next to him?” asked another man waiting in the selfie line, pointing at Mullin’s former St. John’s teammate.
“That’s Latrell Sprewell,” his friend said confidently.
It wasn’t. Mullin was attending a fundraiser at the gym for ex-teammate Robert Cornegy Jr., a 6-foot-11 New York City councilman who represents Bedford-Stuyvesant. Nicknamed “Tree,” Cornegy was a bench player on the beloved 1984-85 St. John’s team that went to the Final Four.
A star center for Andrew Jackson High School in Queens when New York was a basketball mecca, Cornegy averaged 2.2 minutes and 0.4 points per game as a redshirt freshman stuck on the bench behind Bill Wennington, a 7-footer who went on to win three championships with Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls.
The crowds at Alumni Hall yelled “Tree” during blowouts when they wanted coach Lou Carnesecca to put in Cornegy. But Cornegy’s stat line in that Final Four loss to Patrick Ewing’s Georgetown Hoyas was a row of zeroes.
“Wennington never ever seemed to come out of the game,” said Cornegy, “and I really wasn’t ready anyway.”
While Mullin became a five-time NBA All-Star who played for 16 years and in two Olympics, Cornegy unexpectedly left the school after that Final Four season when the team brought in Italian 7-footer Marco Baldi. In an unusual move for the era, Cornegy decamped for the University of Alabama, where he became good friends with Cross.
But Cornegy never adjusted to the athletic culture there, which he claims included liberal use of the N-word by the coaching staff, and also left Alabama. Three decades later, Cornegy, 51, a married father of six, says his decision to leave St. John’s and his failure to take advantage of a second chance to show he could be an NBA-level player at Alabama continue to haunt him as his biggest failures.
“Stupidly, I listened to the streets. And what the streets were saying is they were going to Italy to get this kid to play and you are going to be relegated to spending the rest of your life on the bench,” said Cornegy.
But Baldi was a bust. Aside from his game-winning shot against Wichita State in the first round of the 1987 NCAA tournament, he averaged just 3.3 points per game over three seasons before returning to play professionally in Italy.
“If I knew then what I know now about resilience and about seeing things through, I never would have left. Rob Cornegy today says, ‘I wish you would fly a dude in here from around the world. I’m getting ready to destroy this dude,’ ” said Cornegy.
Cornegy wants to apply those lessons about resilience to his political career. He’s up for re-election in November but is also angling to become speaker of the New York City Council, arguably the most powerful unelected office in the five boroughs.
Being speaker is like being president of the City Council. The speaker sets the legislative agenda for the largest city in the country with an $85 billion municipal budget. The outgoing speaker served as a surrogate for Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton on the campaign trail and made national news by sponsoring legislation to fight President Donald Trump’s immigration policies.
Cornegy would be the first black speaker in a city where most voters are people of color. Those interested in the job have to persuade more than half of their City Council colleagues to vote for them. Jockeying for the position starts a year or more in advance.
Affable and well-liked with a booming laugh, Cornegy usually sports a thick pile of dreadlocks wrapped up into a bun. His name is mentioned in the conversation about who will be the next speaker, but always as a long shot. Some are already calling for him to drop out because he has not raised as much money as other candidates have. Unlike his time at St. John’s, Cornegy says, not only is he going to stick this race out until the bitter end, he’s going to win.
“I didn’t have this level of resilience back then. The only reason I’m not embarrassed is I have that now,” Cornegy said one humid summer afternoon in his Bedford-Stuyvesant City Council office, where framed team photos from St. John’s and Alabama adorn the walls.
“You put a second- or third-tier player with top players and they are going to either rise to the level of those people that they’re with or they fade into obscurity. I guess my fate back then was obscurity, chosen by myself, in my own spirit,” he added.
Obscurity wasn’t the expectation for Cornegy coming out of Andrew Jackson High School, where the team went deep into the city championships. He was recruited by Temple and Syracuse. Cornegy thought he would contribute to that St. John’s Final Four squad, which was the AP and UPI consensus No. 1 team in the country for five weeks and finished ranked third, with only four losses.
Mullin remembers Cornegy as a “local kid” who was tight with future NBA player and coach Mark Jackson.
“Our whole team back then was all kids from the boroughs,” Mullin said on the gym floor of Cornegy’s fundraiser. “You learned from the guys in front of you because we stayed in school. It’s different now. If you’re good you leave, and there’s always that turnover. Back then we had the advantage of playing under someone, learning from a guy with a little more experience and passing that on.”
Carnesecca, 92, said Cornegy had serious potential.
“Nice size. He looked very good, moved well,” the legendary coach said during a phone interview before his raspy voice paused. “But his mind was not completely in basketball. He didn’t go all out like the other guys.”
The son of a preacher, Cornegy lived a comfortable life filled with activities such as jazz band. His family valued education, and there were no expectations about athletics. The summer before high school, Cornegy had what his mother called an “Oh, my God” growth spurt, growing more than 6 inches to 6-foot-9. The back-to-school clothes his mother put on layaway in July no longer fit.
“My mother’s first statement was: ‘I don’t know if I can clothe you or feed you anymore,’ ” said Cornegy.
Andrew Jackson coach Charles Granby, who became the first Public Schools Athletic League coach to win 700 games over the course of a 45-year career while coaching future NBA players such as Pearl Washington, Kenny Anderson and Kyle O’Quinn, noticed Cornegy’s growth spurt.
Granby, who died last year at age 81, saw Cornegy carrying his baritone saxophone and pulled him to the side. “Did you know that you can go to college for free through sports?” Granby asked. It was Cornegy’s last day in the band.
After a redshirt year at St. John’s and another season on the bench, Cornegy felt disconnected. He was doing poorly academically. And then he heard through the grapevine that Baldi was coming on board.
“Now you bringing in another dude to replace me, not showing no love and loyalty, in my opinion,” Cornegy said, his voice reflecting the anger he still feels three decades later. “I don’t know how many players would admit they’ve gone through this, but I thought I might not have done basketball if I were not 7 foot tall.”
Patrick Cohn — a sports psychology coach, and founder and president of Peak Performance Sports in Orlando, Florida — says Cornegy’s situation is not uncommon among young athletes.
“Often, you get recruited because of your size,” Cohn said. “But that’s just one part of the package. Physique doesn’t mean you will be successful. There is motivation, work ethic and the willingness to improve.”
Cornegy said he was recruited by a coach who was negotiating to be head coach at the University of Alabama. The idea of leaving St. John’s and starting over was enticing.
“The decision should have been to get my a– in the weight room. I should have ate, slept and drank basketball,” said Cornegy.
Instead, he silently plotted his escape. Cornegy waited until the very last minute to tell coaches he was withdrawing. Carnesecca tried to talk him out of it, telling Cornegy that he would have every opportunity to compete with Baldi. With three years of eligibility left, Cornegy still had a shot to prove himself.
Before Dirk Nowitzki or Kevin Durant started shooting 3-pointers and handling the rock like point guards, there were 7-footers who made NBA millions by clogging the lane, blocking shots and grabbing rebounds.
Cornegy cites Duane Causwell, a 7-footer out of Benjamin Cardozo who played at Temple and was the 18th pick in the 1990 NBA draft, as one of those guys. Causwell played 11 years in the league for Sacramento and Miami and averaged just under five points and four rebounds a game. He earned at least $17 million over his career, and his last contract in the 2000-01 season was for $4 million.
Even though Cornegy lacked soft hands and eventually realized that he might be better as a big forward, “there’s no way Duane’s talents was greater than mine, with all due respect to Duane. But he served his purpose in the league,” said Cornegy.
“I could block shots. I could rebound. Maturity would have told me that I could write my own ticket. I think that’s what frustrated people, including Coach [Carnesecca], the most.”
Cornegy pauses at the weight of the admission and is silent for a minute. Talking about his athletic failures is like the therapy he never received.
“How does that happen for Duane and not me? Definitely something mental was missing for me. I don’t mean mental in a crazy way, I mean mental in making those connections that are necessary to succeed,” Cornegy continued.
Carnesecca still seems to assign himself some blame for Cornegy’s failure to develop.
“I don’t think I reached him. At that age, you have to motivate them,” said Carnesecca. “He worked in practice, but if he had really focused on basketball, he would have performed at a higher level.”
After stops at El Camino Community College and Shelton State Community College just outside of Tuscaloosa, Alabama, to satisfy NCAA requirements that transfers at least have an associate degree, Cornegy arrived at the University of Alabama, where he was teammates with Derrick McKey. The coach who had recruited him never ended up coaching there.
Cornegy says he was shocked in those early practices when the coaching staff would say things such as: “You n—–s need to hurry up.” Coming from the Northeast and New York, Cornegy’s first response was anger and defiance.
“Where I come from you can’t call people n——,” said Cornegy. “I came from Lou, who kicked you in the a–, literally, but he never called you a n—–. He never alluded to you being less than because of your color.”
Cross, an Alabama native, says Cornegy experienced culture shock in the Deep South.
“He didn’t understand what it was to be black,” said Cross. “Big Rob came down and he was like, ‘Oh, s—.’ This is what the world is for us. In the South, that’s the reality.”
Coach Wimp Sanderson didn’t recruit Cornegy and didn’t like his attitude but had to honor the scholarship offer. Cornegy recalled Sanderson telling him, “Son, you will never play here.”
Instead of digging in, Cornegy left after his junior year. He played for teams in Turkey and France and made it to the final cut of the veterans camp for the Philadelphia 76ers. Up until his early 30s and in between dead-end jobs, Cornegy would get calls about trying out. He’d get back in the gym and put a few pounds on his frame until, one day, the calls stopped.
“Now you look and say I didn’t do s—. I didn’t accomplish goals for myself. Now you’re back where you started.”
Cornegy found himself back on the streets of Bedford-Stuyvesant, where his well-known father once had a church. He heard about playground legends whom he had modeled his game after facing tough times. Richie Adams, the University of Nevada-Las Vegas star, was convicted of murdering a 15-year-old girl and sentenced to 25 years in prison. Carey Scurry, who led LIU Brooklyn to the NCAA tournament and played for the Utah Jazz, was struggling with drug addiction.
“Carey Scurry played for the Jazz, and then to see him ask me for $20,” said Cornegy. “I can name 10 dudes who were in the exact same position as me — 7 feet, big-bodied, and everyone expected big things from them — who either had mental breakdowns or substance abuse issues.”
Cornegy used some of his overseas earnings to start the Cornegy Residence, an 18-bed shelter for men suffering from mental illness and drug addiction. He went back to school to complete his education and started working as a district leader, doing the grimy grunt work that makes politics go, and as a legislative aide for the City Council.
After Cornegy spent $400,000 of his own money on the Cornegy Residence, it closed three years later. Cornegy learned that he could have been getting grant money from the city to help people. That made him want to become a candidate. Cornegy lost miserably in his first attempt at office, but he won the Democratic primary in a race against one of Rev. Al Sharpton’s associates by only 68 votes in 2013.
During his first term, Cornegy is in the top 10 percent of sponsored legislation. He’s written legislation to place alarms on school doors after an autistic child escaped unnoticed from one school in Queens and wound up dead in a nearby river. He’s brought gifted and talented programs for high-performing students back to Bedford-Stuyvesant and is working to have them placed in more socioeconomically diverse neighborhoods in the city. Spike Lee’s classic movie Do The Right Thing and the late rapper Notorious B.I.G. now have a street and a playground, respectively, named after them.
The neighborhood loves him. One spring Saturday, Cornegy arrived at the corner of Decatur Street and Throop Avenue on his supertall bike in a tan suit and a pink shirt to be part of a ceremony renaming the street after deceased community activist Tohma Faulkner, who fought for affordable housing and economic empowerment as the neighborhood gentrified.
The city’s Department of Transportation had already put the sign on the wrong corner.
“That ain’t my fault,” Cornegy told the crowd in order to defuse some of the annoyance as they walked, accompanied by African drummers and at least two libation pourers, from the corner where the sign was supposed to be to where it was incorrectly installed.
As Cornegy stood with other elected officials and Faulkner’s family and friends, a young man holding the twine tied to the brown paper covering the new green fluorescent street sign was told to pull hard. If not, the string attached to the new sign’s covering would fly free, leaving the brown paper wrapping in place. When the countdown hit one, the young man pulled the string, but the paper covering didn’t budge. All eyes in the crowd turned to the almost 7-foot Cornegy.
“Get to work, Rob. Get up there, Rob,” the crowd shouted.
“That’s the only reason they invite me to these things,” Cornegy said as he helped the young man scale the streetlight.
The crowd’s laughter echoed off the block’s beautiful brownstones, and Cornegy flashed a smile that said, “I am at home here.”
“You can’t make up for what you missed. I think that’s why I go so hard at what I do now, so that I don’t have to look back on this as a missed opportunity,” Cornegy said later.
Cornegy is pulling out all the stops to win speaker. He’s been reluctant to marry his political career with his sports past, but not anymore. Standing with Mullin at Ultimate Fitness, Cornegy explains the complicated process of becoming speaker.
Normally, the Democratic county parties from the Bronx and Queens get together and choose a speaker from Manhattan. Democrats outnumber Republicans 6 to 1 in New York City. The two borough machines then share the patronage spoils of war, such as powerful chairmanships. Brooklyn, outnumbered, has no choice but to go along.
“How do I fit in?” Mullin asks.
Cornegy wants to rejigger the equation by bringing Brooklyn and Queens together to support his bid. But the chairs of the Brooklyn and Queens Democratic parties don’t get along. Cornegy, with his connection to Queens and Brooklyn, believes he can be the person to bridge the gap.
“Nobody ever said I couldn’t be speaker. What they said was can I put it together? Can I show the correlation between the boroughs? Can I get these guys to come together?”
Kenneth Sherrill, professor emeritus of political science at Hunter College, said Cornegy is “liked by his colleagues, hardworking and knowledgeable” but that it won’t be easy bringing Brooklyn and Queens together.
“I think you have better chance of peace in the Middle East. It’s not impossible, but it does involve trying to overcome deep ancestral antagonism,” said Sherrill.
The mayor is also starting to have more influence on who becomes the speaker. Mayor Bill de Blasio, who is 6-foot-5 and is normally the tallest politician in the room at any city political event unless Cornegy is there, is expected to win a second term.
Brooklyn is de Blasio’s political base of support, and he is already wildly popular with the city’s black and Caribbean residents. Cornegy may not give de Blasio anything he needs politically.
“Cornegy reminds me of that old Chicago saying: ‘We don’t want nobody nobody sent,’ ” said Christina Greer, a professor of political science at Fordham University. “I feel like that’s Cornegy’s uphill battle: Nobody asked for you.”
Although 40 people purchased tickets to the fundraiser, it’s largely empty. One city councilwoman comes to the event, but an assemblyman who was supposed to endorse Cornegy doesn’t show up.
Mullin posts up on the left side of the court and pretends to back Cornegy down as a photographer gets promotional pictures to show Cornegy’s connection to Queens.
Roughhousing with Mullin reminds Cornegy that he did play a role in that St. John’s Final Four team by being tough on his teammates in practice. No one was just strolling down the lane. They had to hoist their shots over a 7-footer.
“I’ve honestly just gotten to the place where I can look back and see where the learning in my situation was. I’m just glad I didn’t go down an abyss based on those failures,” Cornegy said while standing between Cross and Mullin, two reminders of difficult days past that he’s purposely chosen to connect to his future.
“Who else could call a Hall of Famer and a Super Bowl champion and ask them to come out to a fundraiser at a gym in Queens just because?”