In 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.