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Arne Duncan

Passion for the Game: Arne Duncan

  • Author:
    Craig Ellenport
  • Date:
    Jun 5, 2014

Some people play basketball for the competition. Some play for the camaraderie and fun of being part of a team. Others play to relieve the stress of a tough day at work.

For Arne Duncan, a prominent education reformer who previously served as the CEO for the Chicago Public Schools and is currently the United States Secretary of Education, all three of these reasons have fueled his love of the game.

“I started at a pretty young age,” said Duncan, 49. “My mother ran an inner-city community program on the south side of Chicago, so I was playing there, probably when I was 7 or 8 years old. It’s been a lifelong passion. It’s something that’s just so fun, and the life lessons I’ve learned have been extraordinarily profound for me.”

Duncan’s basketball journey took him from Chicago to Harvard University, where he was a co-captain and academic All-American, to Australia, where he played professionally from 1987-91. Since returning from Down Under, he’s been a huge proponent of 3x3 basketball.

“I think we’ve won something like eight of the last 10 national championships through Hoop It Up,” said Duncan, “and the last one here through USA Basketball.”

Duncan was in Colorado Springs, Colo., last weekend to support his 3x3 team, Ariel, which won the 2014 USA Basketball 3x3 National Championship on May 11. While Duncan cannot make the trip, the rest of Ariel will be in Moscow, Russia, this weekend competing in the 2014 FIBA 3x3 World Championship.

“We’re basically a Chicago-based crew,” said Duncan. “We have around eight guys who sort of rotate depending on who’s available.”

Duncan credits basketball with much more than anything he’s accomplished on the court.

“I was fortunate to not only have great coaches but to have great mentors,” he said. “I was the young guy playing with the older kids, and that had a huge, huge impact on me. All the lessons that I think make successful teams … are absolutely applicable to life: working hard, being very unselfish – remembering it’s never about you, but about the team.”

Working hard and being unselfish are traits Duncan already had by the time he reached Harvard, but they were cemented in his mind thanks to his assistant coach at Harvard – current Chicago Bulls head coach and USA National Team assistant Tom Thibodeau.

Before heading off to Australia, Duncan tried out for the Boston Celtics. Despite the fact that his college career was over, Thibodeau – whom Duncan calls “a lifelong friend” – went the extra mile to help him.

“Once I finished my senior year, I was no good to the team anymore at that point. The amount of time and energy he put into helping me get better was something I never forgot and never will forget.

“Having someone who is going to inspire you and challenge you to get better was hugely helpful. I know I would not have had a successful professional career had he not.”

Duncan said his favorite thing about playing basketball is being part of a team, and that he feels fortunate to still be out on the court competing and winning. He also recognizes the value of basketball as a stress reliever. Not only for him, but also for his current boss – President Barack Obama.

“Being able to play the president occasionally, that’s a lot of fun,” said Duncan. “That’s his stress relief – probably the only place where he can just be a regular guy. And we’re all going at it, trying to whoop each other.”

The game has been such a big part of Duncan’s life, it’s no surprise that his 10-year-old son, Ryan is starting to play organized basketball. He brought Ryan with him to Colorado Springs for the USA Basketball 3x3 tournament last month, and said it means a lot to him to have his son experience a trip like that.

Duncan is a big believer in what basketball can do for people off the court.

“I would say basketball absolutely reveals your character,” he said. “You can’t fake who you are as a person on the court – whether you’re selfish, unselfish, whether you have an ego, whether you don’t care if you lose, or winning means everything to you. There’s just so much about how people play that tells you about their character.

“So those lessons for me have been very, very helpful off the court. The values I’ve been able to learn, playing with amazing role models absolutely have helped shape who I am as a person way beyond the court. Way beyond the court.”

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