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Arne Duncan, Sec’y of Ed, The Basketball Player

Posted by Steve Bzomowski on December 16, 2008

Arne Duncan at Harvard HoopsIn every newspaper and blog announcement, in President-elect Obama’s introduction and even in a question in the press conference following the naming of Arne Duncan as the new administration’s choice as Education Secretary, there has been mention of Arne as a basketball player, a “co-captain at Harvard” and a former overseas player in Australia. What doesn’t come through in any of this is 1) how good Arne really was (and, to some extent, I’m sure, still is) and 2) what that means, if anything, in his new position. That’s a point, after reading my brief (and incomplete history) I will let you decide on your own.

I came upon Arne when he was entering his junior year at Harvard, so what I know of his first two years I learned from others. He apparently came to Harvard, unrecruited, as a gangly, thin, weak 6’2″ player with no chance at making varsity. Most Division I schools don’t even have tryouts and if they do, it is pretty much pro forma. Arne played where he could, which meant JV. According to Julio Diaz, then the 2nd assistant (and now an assistant athletic director at Fordham) and thus in charge of the junior varsity, Arne was a “gym rat” and averaged something like 30+ points per game is freshman year. Harvard then under head coach, Frank McLaughlin, was on something of an upswing and after Arne’s freshman year, he was given no promises – and might have even been discouraged – regarding making the varsity squad the next year. (Here’s a funny story: Arne, it should be noted, spent all his basketball playing time in inner-city Chicago, seeking out  and playing with the best. Inner-city in Chicago means Polish-Americans and African-Americans. Let’s just say Arne wasn’t playing with the Polish kids. Hanging in those neighborhoods, Arne developed a manner of speaking that belied his ancestry. He sounded like “a brother”. Following his freshman year, desperate to prove he could play Division I, Arne, having grown now to 6’4″, got on the phone with a bunch of Ivy league schools and their basketball coaches. Sometime later, pre-season, Tom Miller, head coach at Cornell was talking with Coach McLaughlin about this and that and, as an aside asked, “who’s this, Arne Duncan, who called asking to transfer?” McLaughlin apparently gave his description of Arne and Miller said, “but he’s a black kid”. And McLaughlin said “no, he’s a white kid”. And Miller said again, “got to be a black kid, I talked with him”. And McLaughlin had to explain, “no, he just talks like that because that’s where he’s from”! Later in his career, Arne dropped 26 points on Cornell at Cornell, letting Coach Miller know exactly who he was.)

Arne came back sophomore year and made the varsity. By the end of the year, he was 6’5″ and starting on a team that finished very strong, winning 8 of the last 10 and finishing 9-5 in the Ivies. The next year (my first year on staff), with all the players returning, Harvard started out strong (swept Penn/Princeton at Penn/Princeton, the only time that has been done by any Ivy team EVER) but faltered badly down the stretch; Duncan meanwhile had emerged as a solid Ivy player. With a head coaching change and a bevy of new players, Duncan took the next year off to – take your pick: 1) go back to Chicago to work on his Senior Thesis (which even elicited a mention by Alex Wolff in SI) or 2) give his body another year to mature, allow the young players a year to develop and, finally, play his senior year with his best friend on the team, Keith Webster (future Utah Jazz draft pick).

When Arne and Webster came back in the fall, somehow they got the keys to the gym. Many a night I’d come back from being on the road recruiting, midnight, 1, 2 am and they’d be in the gym working out, doing all-out, game-speed shooting and ball handling drills. This was not something that you’d see at Harvard. You know, libraries open 24/7, all-nighters every night. But down in Briggs Cage working out? Nope. Another thing I remember is in pre-season pick-up games, Arne never called a foul when a defender fouled him. Never. I think he saw it, calling the foul, as an excuse he did not want to use if something had gone wrong – missed a shot, lost the ball or something. No excuses. Play through it. Get the job done. Overcome the obstacles, nobody bailing him out. Excuses equated to failure and he just did not see things that way. He was a brilliant player, smooth, crafty, unfettered by any defensive scheme or outside pressure (he was the top practitioner of what I call “The Sixth Principle of Zone Offense”), teaming with Webster to sweep Penn and Princeton early season in our gym; even pummeled a Pete Carril Princeton team 78-54! Earlier in the season, Arne led The Crimson to a near upset at Boston College, a game in which we had a 9 point second half lead, but faltered in the end, 87-86. During one stretch, Arne scored 14 straight points by himself. I mean no one else scored from either team (one being a Big East team). Somehow, on our last possession, we neglected to run the play for Duncan. Our bad.

The season sort of went downhill from there; it was too bad. We lost a couple of games and the coaching staff didn’t/couldn’t figure out how to get the players going in the same direction as the coaching staff thought it should go. Duncan grew much closer to Assistant Coach Tom Thibodeau (now regarded as the top assistant in the NBA, with the Celtics, and seen as the “guru”  behind their defensive schemes). Duncan worked hard in the off-season with Thibs (as we called him) to prepare for CBA tryouts but ultimately played four seasons in the top-tier Australian Pro League.

The reason Arne Duncan was/is (after pro ball, he teamed with Craig Robinson – Obama’s brother-in-law and a great, great Ivy league player at Princeton – and two others to win multiple Hoop-It-Up National titles) a great player is because the game and what the game requires suites him to perfection. It’s cliché, but it’s team game; no way Arne Duncan gets any good at golf or tennis or, god forbid, downhill skiing. It’s the perfect game for someone who understands what working hard will do for you and is ready then to do that work. It’s a game that if you can see the possibilities where maybe others don’t see it – in the angles, in the subtle change of speed and change of direction, in the gaps and openings, in the beauty and satisfaction that comes with a shot made or a pass completed, in the pulling together, in the belief of the whole being greater than the sum of the parts, in the knowledge that there are lots of ways to get the job done. Arne Duncan was not a great talent, but boy, did he understand and see deep into the game. I think he believed in the game and in his belief that he could be very, very good at it even while others might not have thought so. Isn’t that what great teachers, what great educators possess? The unwavering belief that their pupils can and should and will succeed.


27 Responses to “Arne Duncan, Sec’y of Ed, The Basketball Player”

  1. Damian said

    Best piece I’ve read in a long time Steve. I don’t know why you’re not writing a book. Simply fantastic.


  2. Damian said

    Oh and my wife thought it was amazing as well. She just wanted me to add that.


  3. […] dskills Arne Duncan was just nominated by Obama to be Secretary of Education. As it turns out, Duncan was a basketball player at Harvard University when a good friend of mine – Steve Bzomowski – was an […]


  4. mcbias said

    Great post indeed, I always am intrigued to read other people’s hoops history. Too bad that team never gelled his senior year.


  5. Mcbias – – Thanks for the note. Yup, it really was too bad, but that story’s another story, perhaps best told another day. Still, when a team underachieves, the responsibility has to fall on the coaching staff, doesn’t it? Like a kid in a classroom who wants to learn. It’s the teacher’s responsibility to make sure that student succeeds. So, I was part of that. You don’t want to have regrets, but I do wish I could have that year back. I was a young coach. Today, I would do many, many, many things differently.


  6. […] like that because that’s where he’s from”!  — Steve Bzomowski, “Arne Duncan, Sec’y of Ed, The Basketball Player,” Never Too Late Basketball’s Tips & Tales [Ed note: A great post; read the full […]


  7. Pat Smith said

    Great story, Steve, and this from someone who was there to witness it. The team at Harvard when Arne was a sophomore ended up having four 1,000 point scorers (including Arne) and three who were drafted into the NBA (Joe Carrabino, Bob Ferry and Keith Webster). Thanks for the trip down memory lane.


  8. For those who read the previous comment: Pat Smith didn’t just “witness” the play of that team, he was the starting point guard, the glue that kept the team together. Pat played at storied Dematha Catholic HS just outside DC, was an assistant at Harvard the year after he graduated and then began a long tenure as the right-hand man for the legendary coach, Morgan Wootten at his alma mater. Pat among many other things was the best lefty free throw shooter for a right-hander that I have ever competed against! Tough, wacky and inventive in a game of H-O-R-S-E, too! Ninety percent FT shooter for his Harvard career.


  9. […] with very strong basketball creds, that clearly go a long way in the home of Michael Jordan.(see here  for description of his college basketball career)   Duncan closed schools and forced teachers […]


  10. Ethel Saltz said

    Looked him up in Wikipedia as I saw him live on C-SPAN just now. At least I know I’m normal and I can stereotype “black” accent. It’s so strange too. However, it teaches me a lesson. It’s effective because I just realized that it’s content. He uses English as it should be used. He English. Teamwork. Loved it that he ignored those who win by creating foul situations and figures out how to identify it all ahead of time and be quick enough in the brain to evolve his brain. It’s a very dangerous way to live on this earth. So he is extremely strong because of this attitude. Every single individual in a group is a challenge. There is such a thing as the “common law” and lives it. His attitude to strengthening the poorest community instead of running away from it is almost a miracle to me. I was born in 1929 on welfare and lived in public housing. So I grew up poor. But the neighborhood was always a safe community and I never knew fear. I learned fear when I became a mom and lived in the suburbs as Middle Class. Parents competing with each other with their children in public school. Teachers openly saying that children weren’t going to interfere with their ability to become Principals. Giving the best books to those who passed highest on tests before they even entered the first grade. Especially when there was no public kindergarten. The way he played sports shows it works better his way, if only it were realized by those in power.


  11. Arnie Duncan was a fierce competitor, who obviously understood the Zen belief; to immerse oneself in what you do at the moment and with that focus great things can happen. I remember in ’85, my sophomore year (Perry Bromwell, 1st Team All- Ivy and Honorable Mention All-American) at Penn playing to regain basketball prominence in the Ivy League, some thing only Penn and Princeton could claim until recent history- credit to Coach Donahue at Cornell. And, Arnie D. with a cast of other competitive team mates namely Bob Ferry, Danny Cabrino (sp)and others. I recall game winning shot I drained at their gym
    but later Arnie’s squad would upset us in the Palestra. I’m sure his passion for hoops is a common thread between him President Obama and Craig Robinson, who was also a terrific Ivy hoopster. Those were the good old days when Ivy League Basketball had more depth of quality players, who actually put in the work, also outside the class room and study hall. With the cycle certain things go through, I think the quality Ivy Basketball cycle is back….so is Penn and Princeton….coming back!


  12. Very nice information, thanks for sharing ^_^ i will come back tomorrow.


  13. […] Secretary Arne Duncan is a big basketball fan, too, and was once a good college basketball player. No doubt about that. So in one sense I understand why this morning Duncan announced 16 states are finalists for the […]


  14. BJ said

    Nice article.

    Arne definitely did not play four years in the top league in Australia (NBL), he had an injury towards the end of the first or second year and was cut at the end of that season (by a coach named Brian Goorjian who coached Australia at two Olympic Games and is now with the Chinese National Team).

    Arne then went to Tasmania and played in the Australian second division (semi-pro). He played in Launceston (northern Tasmania) for one season and then played for the team from NW Tasmania (2-3 seasons) who play in the same league. He also played in the NW Tassie league during the week (very semi-pro), driving from Launceston for games on Tuesday night to places many, many miles away.

    While in Tassie Arne worked for the State Government in the Social Services area……welfare officer for juveniles I think.

    The wikipedia note on Arne and also the NBL is incorrect, he did not meet his wife Karen while playing for the Spectres. The Spectres are a Melbourne team and Karen lived in Launceston (while attending university). They met during his first year in Tassie playing for Launceston.

    I loved watching Arne play. He sometimes looked so uncoordinated and unathletic, but then would make unbelievable basketball plays. He was a master of the baseline drive from the left side and as he got under the basket he would whip the ball around the back of his head to the player left open by help defence. He also loved the pull-up three-point shot in transition.

    Arne had a terrific cross-over series on the move (not stationary like an And 1 player)…….if you covered his first x-over, he immediately crossed back to the hand he started in, and if you were a good enough defender to stop the second he hit you with the third x-over. I don’t remember anyone ever stopping the triple!

    Your post is spot on – he is a true hoops junkie! Still playing 2-3 times per week well into his 40’s. On top and most important, a good person.


  15. […] once served as an assistant coach at Harvard University. One of the players he took under his wing? Arne Duncan, who is now U.S. Secretary of Education. Who’s Duncan’s boss? Barack Obama. For the […]


  16. Kevin Bresnahan said

    I just wanted to give props to Keith Webster, my best friend from HS. I was the 6’1″ center on our team and Keith somehow got me the ball (when he passed) at exactly the right time. Keith was the best and hardest working player around from elementary school on–overcoming so many obstacles and doubters right through the NBA draft and beyond. Pretty good for a 5′ 11″ farm boy from Monroe, CT.


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