William Cohen won by wide margins every time he ran for a U.S. Congressional seat in his native Maine, elected three times to serve in the House, then three times to the Senate.
What he did not win, however, was the leadership award on the Bowdoin College men’s basketball team during his junior year of 1960-61.
“If someone fouled me, I’d foul back,” Cohen said. “I was fouled out of a considerable number of games, ejected from a few for fighting.”
“When it came time for the leadership award, I figured that I was in the running for it. I was leading the team in scoring. But I was told my conduct was not up to standards.”
Forty years later, he retired from a distinguished career in public service that culminated with four years as Secretary of Defense under President Clinton. Cohen, a Republican, was the first elected official in modern U.S. history to be chosen for a Cabinet post by a president from another party. As secretary, he helped modernize the military, increased retention among servicemen and women by increasing pay and benefits and strengthened relationships with countries around the world.
His conduct was up to standards, unlike that junior year when his take-no-prisoners style of basketball led to two broken jaws, a cracked collarbone and three broken ribs.
Basketball provided a competitive release to Cohen, a year-round passion that he discovered at age five. Yes, year-round even in Maine; in wintertime he would shoot baskets outside, the plop in the snow between shots just a minor inconvenience. He learned how to constantly strive for improvement from his father, an 18-hour-a-day, six-day-a-week baker who refused to heap praise on his son even after a 43-point night in a teenage church league game.
“He put his arm around me and said, ‘If you hadn’t missed those two free throws, you’d have had 45,’” Cohen recalled. “I was momentarily crushed. The lesson was, don’t ever be satisfied with what you’ve done, you can always do better. That’s stayed with me for a lifetime.”
Cohen could have played basketball at a number of schools, but he chose small Bowdoin in Brunswick, Maine, then still an all-male school, for its emphasis on academics. It was no match on the court for the likes of Harvard and MIT, equally strong academic institutions with much bigger basketball players. Bowdoin won 22 of 89 games in Cohen’s four-year career, and home games would be lucky to draw 100 fans – a far cry from his winter nights at big Bangor High that might see 7,500. Polar Bears hockey took top billing, then football, then basketball.
Cohen had some mobility, though not great size (he was just under 6-feet tall) and had honed a two-hand set shot that was effective from long range, albeit before the 3-point line came into existence. Getting off that shot was considerably more difficult after his freshman year, though, when a writer at the Portland Press-Herald wrote Cohen could score 40 points on a good night, 20 on a bad.
“Every team saw that, they were going to prove that writer and me wrong,” said Cohen, who found himself facing near-constant double-teams. “I faced a lot of obstacles the rest of my career.”
Still, he was talented enough to be named to Maine’s all-state college teams and harbor dreams of playing professionally, though, admittedly he couldn’t jump high enough to dunk the ball. Cohen instead went to law school at Boston University and, after practicing law and serving as a city councilman and mayor in his hometown of Bangor, was elected to the U.S. House in 1972.
Basketball remained a daily part of his life, with pickup games in the Capitol gym. CBS televised one mid-1970s game against a Russian embassy team while the network was in town for a Georgetown game. Games were a little less frequent in the Senate – more workload, fewer members who could ball – but then he played a little more over four years at the Pentagon.
“Once you step on the court, your rank doesn’t count. You are in deep trouble because these guys were bruisers and they didn’t spare the rod,” Cohen said.
As soon as he left his post as secretary of defense, perhaps in part due to those bruising games at the Pentagon, Cohen got his hip replaced and now spends more time cheering for his grandchildren. But he remembers well the kinship he had in Washington with fellow players.
“When I was in Congress, the friendships I built on the court were instrumental as helping me as a politician. You tend to gravitate to people who have a common experience – Bill Bradley, Jack Kemp,” Cohen said. “You build a spirit of people who share that experience of having to compete against each other. It’s a real solid foundation for the rest of your life.”
And let the record show in his senior year at Bowdoin, he won that team leadership award.
“I learned a good lesson about the essence of sportsmanship,” Cohen said. “I was so used to fighting back. I had a lot of maturing to do.”
To contact William Cohen, visit www.cohengroup.net.
Top photo courtesy of U.S. Department of Defense.