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Basketball power broker

In the current New Yorker, Carlo Rotella profiles Arne Duncan, who is portrayed as possibly the most powerful education secretary in U.S. history.

Duncan has been making news in basketball circles lately for some comments he made about big changes in NCAA sports, which he says have been giving athletes a raw deal.

Duncan himself knows about NCAA sports, as he was a top player at Harvard (one of his coaches was current Celtics assistant Tom Thibodeau) who went on to play professionally in Australia (where, reportedly, his nickname was "the Cobra").

I had been thinking that Duncan mattered, in terms of basketball, because he was a likely candidate to change important parts of basketball. And that's certainly true.

But reading this profile, it's clear that there's another reason for a basketball writer to concern himself with Arne Duncan. Duncan is defined by basketball. This is a general audience profile of an education secretary, and basketball is laced through every element of the article. Arne Duncan's life story is in many ways a story of what basketball can do.

There's no way to tell the story of Arne Duncan without telling the story of his mother Sue, who says she was asked to teach a Bible study class at a black church in Chicago's Kenwood neighborhood, and found that none of the nine-year-olds she taught could read. She took on the problem in a major way, and since 1961 has been running an after-school program most people call Sue's. "I was the crazy white lady," she tells the New Yorker, "driving around in a blue van full of black kids." The Sue Duncan Children's Center thrives still and has an impressive list of alumni, including I.B.M. Fellow Kerri Holley, education executive Ron Raglin, the actor Michael Clarke Duncan of "The Green Mile" fame and even R. Kelly. (This testimonial, from martial artist Michelle Gordon, is powerful.) That part of Chicago was run by gangs like the Disciples and Blackstone Rangers. The Rangers firebombed the church where the program met. Sue Duncan persevered. "It was face to face," recalls Holley. "She'd say, 'You can't come in here. You gotta leave.' But the gangs respected it. She's here. She's doing what she's doing. She won't back down." Through all of her chutzpah and wisdom, Duncan had a connection to some of the best basketball players in Chicago, and he played with them constantly. When the games were in terrible neighborhoods, kids from Sue's helped keep him safe.

Arne Duncan's mission as education secretary, his stance on NCAA sports, his mom's program, and basketball are all present in this passage from Rotella's article:

Once, when Duncan was in high school, a basketball star he knew from Sue's came to him for help in studying for the A.C.T. test. "He was being recruited by some big places," Duncan said. "He was thinking Marquette, something like that. And we sat down, and he couldn't read. He was a B student at Martin Luther King. This was the year they won the state championship. He was a good kid. He stayed clear of gangs, drugs; his teachers liked him. He did everything right, everything that was asked of him, and he was functionally illiterate. It wasn't his fault. He'd been lied to all his life. We had a heart-to-heart talk, and I had to tell him. And he didn't make it. He went to junior college, but he didn't make it."

Duncan told me another story about the boys at Sue's. "There's a photo of our group, the inner circle from my mom's program, taken back in the late nineteen-seventies," he said, "and some of those guys are dead. Growing up down there, and having friends from the program and from the streets die when I was twelve, thirteen -- that scarred me. It was hard to comprehend. As much as the success stories have shaped me and given me hope, those deaths might be an even bigger motivator. The guys who got killed were the guys who didn't finish high school. It was literally the dividing line between you live or you die. Nobody who went to college died young."

The full version of the article is not online -- only in print. But it's worth seeking out. Some other tidbits:

  • No one in the history of the planet has a more impressive pickup basketball resume than Arne Duncan. Playing pickup basketball with Barack Obama is among the most coveted invites in the modern political world, and Duncan has been a regular in that run for nearly two decades. Has there ever been a game more good players hope to play in? If there ever has been it was likely the games Michael Jordan organized in Chicago, when he was playing himself back into NBA shape. Rotella reports that Duncan -- a Chicago native -- was part of those games, too.

  • Education has a stat geek issue similar to basketball's. There are big dollars on the line, and new kinds of numbers to help show who is succeeding. In hoops, they're useful to pick the good players and coaches. In education it's mainly about teachers and students. But people aren't sure how best to use which numbers. One economist is quoted pointing out that test scores are very noisy measures of how a teacher is doing (just like, say, wins and losses don't perfectly demonstrate the best coaches). The race is to find a model that measures the teacher's efforts as distinct from the effects of the community and the kids in the class -- the best teachers are often assigned some of the toughest kids, which is as it should be, but unfairly punishes the best teachers. I have a feeling that when there are smart solutions to this problem in education, they'll probably be adaptable to hoops, or vice-versa.

  • We are being governed by people who have a belief in common with a lot of TrueHoop readers -- that how you play basketball tells a lot about your character. Rotella calls that "an article of cultic faith in Obama's inner circle." Which I find oddly reassuring.

UPDATE: On the New Yorker's website, writer Carlo Rotella tells of playing pickup basketball with Duncan in Chicago, during the research for his article:

Late in the second game, Duncan threaded the ball to me through a tangle of bodies, then darted between defenders to the basket, his gait becoming ducklike when he forced an unnatural burst of speed. He took my return pass in stride and gently laid it in, completing a pretty little throat-cutting give-and-go. I felt good about it until the end of the third game, when with a few seconds left on the clock and our team ahead by a basket I tried a similar exchange with Duncan and got too cute with my pass, allowing the other team to steal it and sink the winning three.

I could have just held the ball until the clock expired. I felt as if I’d personally let my teammates down and should make it up to them by doing a better job next time and every time after that. Then I snapped out of it. What kind of poltroon runs out the clock in a pickup game?

The prevailing sentiment in Obama’s ballplaying inner circle is that on-court behavior reveals character. But, like the line attributed to the Duke of Wellington about the battle of Waterloo having been won on the playing fields of Eton, this notion doesn’t hold up. Generous souls can become monstrous ball hogs on the court, and terrible jerks will set picks, make the extra pass, and otherwise devote themselves to the greater good of the team.

It is more true, however, that the necessary negotiations and improvisations of pickup ball -- and especially playground ball -- do teach lessons in practical politics.

Duncan then goes on to share the techniques he used to get along as a basketball player in Chicago's worst neighborhoods.