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Game Changer

A basketball-loving education secretary ensured that an emphasis on NCAA student-athletes will be an Obama administration legacy

BASKETBALL HAS been extravagantly good to Barack Obama. His first ball—a Christmas gift from his father during their last visit together, when he was 10—introduced him to the game that would help forge his racial identity as he grew up black in Hawaii. Obama scored points with his wife-to-be after Michelle Robinson's brother, Craig, a former star at Princeton, vetted him during a pickup game. In 2008 the candidate introduced himself to voters by playing in public, particularly in the hoops precincts of Indiana and North Carolina, the two reddest states he would flip to blue. And in office Obama actually used the sport to govern: After the balky rollout of the website, he enlisted NBA greats to rally sign-ups for the new health insurance exchanges, a push that helped save the Affordable Care Act.

But by the fourth quarter of his presidency Obama had steadily drifted off to golf, and today he no longer stands as the Basketball Man in his own administration. When Secretary of Education Arne Duncan leaves the cabinet next month—he plans to spend more time with his family and hopes to continue working in education—the president's longtime pickup buddy will do so as the most consequential basketball figure in Washington, on the court and off.

The former Harvard co-captain came to D.C. with a hoops résumé as colorful as it was distinguished. He played for the USBL's Rhode Island Gulls. He earned the nickname Cobra during four seasons as a professional in Australia. He helped Michael Jordan play back into shape for his 2001 comeback with the Washington Wizards. He had a cameo in Benji, the ESPN 30-for-30 documentary about slain Chicago high school star Ben Wilson, as the white guy in the background of game footage. And talk about your Common Core: As a Hoop It Up three-on-three player between 2004 and '13, he played on teams that won nine of 10 possible national championships.

In 2014 Duncan pulled off a double that would have been impressive for someone of any age, much less a 49-year-old bureaucrat. In February he won the MVP trophy in the Celebrity Game at NBA All-Star weekend, scoring 20 points, grabbing 11 rebounds and dishing out six assists, one of which—a blind flip over his shoulder to a cutting Skylar Diggins for a layup—went viral. Three months later, playing for Team Ariel, Duncan joined former Princeton center Mack Darrow and ex-Northwestern players Craig Moore and Jitim Young to win USA Basketball's national three-on-three championship. The title qualified Team Ariel for the FIBA 3 × 3 Worlds in Russia, though Duncan had to bow out for scheduling reasons. But the point had been made: Whatever his day job, Duncan doubled as the Secretary of Schoolin' People, the beau ideal of a pickup teammate. "He played with relaxed ferocity, combining opportunistic defense with slashing moves to the basket, shrewd passes and feathery hesitation jumpers," reported Carlo Rotella, a high school classmate of Duncan's at the University of Chicago Lab School, after playing in a noontime run with him in 2009.

The son of two white educators, Duncan nonetheless grew up under racially diverse circumstances, much like the president he has served. From the time Arne was a toddler his mother, Sue, took him with her to the after-school tutoring center she ran in a church basement on Chicago's South Side. Sue Duncan sometimes had to face down local gangs; one firebombed the center after the pastor refused a demand that it be used instead as an armory. Arne, then six, remembers the aftermath, carrying salvaged books to another church down the block.

Arne essentially grew up at "Sue's," bonding with local kids over basketball. By the time he reached his teens, he had begun to play farther afield, including on a court across from a crack house. "It was an extraordinary experience, not just to develop as a ballplayer, but to learn whom to trust and how to survive," Duncan says. "Obviously I was the outsider, and guys on the streets frankly protected me. To this day I owe my life to them. The community never let us down."

Duncan won broad respect as much for his even temper as for his game. John Rogers, who sponsored Team Ariel, remembers the day a fight broke out in a South Side gym. "Arne waded in like a referee does, and one of the guys punched him," he recalls. "The gym went silent. They got that guy out of there. There were like threats on his life because he'd punched Arne."

Duncan arrived at Harvard in 1982 lightly recruited and looking very Obamaesque—6'2", scrawny, lefthanded. He started on the jayvee as a freshman, then made the varsity after sprouting three inches over the summer. Before his senior season he took a year off and returned to Chicago, to study why some ghetto kids make it and others don't. Using his mother's tutoring center as a base, he carved out time to coach and play between stretches of teaching, mentoring and interviewing. His findings wound up in a senior thesis, "The Values, Aspirations and Opportunities of the Urban Underclass," for Harvard's sociology department, which awarded him an A.B. magna cum laude.

In Cambridge the Harvard coaches noticed, Duncan would never call a foul during pickup games. To call one, remembered Steve Bzomowski, then a Crimson assistant, was "an excuse he did not want to use. Excuses equated to failure, and he just did not see things that way." As a cabinet secretary the former Chicago public schools chief would take flack from the left, for challenging teachers' unions; and from the right, for his support of Common Core standards. But if he seemed impatient when a stakeholder in the world of education invoked some extenuating circumstance, perhaps it was just another example of his longtime aversion to excuses. "Arne Duncan was not a great talent, but boy, did he understand and see deep into the game," Bzomowski said. "I think he believed in the game and ... 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."

In January 2010, Duncan took the NCAA itself to school. The organization had recently moved to bar from postseason play any program that failed to achieve a satisfactory Academic Progress Rate (APR), the metric that measured athletes' progress toward a degree. But the minimum was set too low to be much of a deterrent. At the NCAA convention in Atlanta, Duncan delivered an impassioned call for higher APR standards, ripping colleges that failed to graduate more players, especially African-American ones in revenue-producing sports.

His remarks resonated with an understanding of life on the far side of 47th Street, the dividing line between the world Duncan came home to each evening as a child and the one in which he spent his afternoons. A year later, when the NCAA tightened its minimums for postseason eligibility, Duncan knew he had been heard. "We pushed very hard for [a higher minimum] and actually made it happen," he notes. "We took some heat, but I'm proud of that."

In 2013 the University of Connecticut became the first major school to sit out an NCAA tournament for APR deficiencies in its men's basketball program. "A team that has 13 or 15% of its African-American guys graduate—you're just using those guys," Duncan told ESPN at the time. "We want to make sure that those teams that get rewarded by going to the tournament do the right thing by getting it done in the classroom first.... Everyone wants to go to a Division I school because they want to play in the tournament. [But if a school's] not eligible, I'm going to go someplace else. You have to change behavior."

The Huskies returned to the tournament the next year, winning the national championship. On the victory podium after beating Kentucky, UConn guard Shabazz Napier told the nation, "This is what happens when you ban us!"

Yet the President and his Secretary of Education stood squarely with the spirit and intent of the modest academic expectations that had sidelined the Huskies the previous season. If anything, they wanted to see even stronger incentives and penalties. "The bar should be raised higher," Duncan says. "UConn, the poster child for not graduating players, is now graduating them. The battle's not won, but that was real progress."

Eight months later, in December 2014, Duncan discussed bipartisan legislation to establish a presidential commission to push college sports reform even further, including steps to address such issues as academic fraud, scholarship security and escalating coaches' salaries.

With Obama's time in office winding down, and Duncan returning to Chicago and his family—wife, Karen, daughter Claire and son Ryan—after the second-longest term of service of any member of the President's original cabinet, the work mandated by that proposed legislation will probably be left to another president and Congress. Duncan has nonetheless laid down a marker borne of a world he had seen and felt and touched.

"This stuff is very personal to me," he says. "I grew up playing with guys who never graduated college, never made the NBA. They were on national TV, making millions for their universities, and now they're back on the streets. As a teenager, that got seared into my mind. To me, enriching universities and coaches and sponsors and TV, with nothing in return on the academic side, is morally unacceptable."

By his teens, Duncan was playing on a court across from a crack house.

Adapated from The Audacity of Hoop: Basketball and the Age of Obama by Alexander Wolff. Used by permission of Temple University Press.

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Next A co-captain at Harvard, Duncan went on to play four years as a pro, mostly in Australia.