Arne Duncan, the Secretary of Education for all eight years of the Obama presidency, is well-known for his hoops ability. He played college ball at Harvard, serving as co-captain of the team, before spending several years playing professionally in Australia.
Duncan has said that the lessons he learned on the basketball court have translated to his everyday life and helped him in attaining the level of success he has. One in particular that stands out is his theory that says watching how someone plays pickup hoops can tell you everything you need to know about what kind of person they are. Since Duncan has known President Obama for more than two decades, we figured we would ask him to apply his theory to his former boss.
“Not surprisingly, unbelievably cerebral, really really smart player” said Duncan of Obama’s game when he stopped by the CBS Local studios on Monday. “What the public didn’t see-because I do think you can’t fake character, you are who you are and basketball is the ultimate in revealing that-he is also unbelievably competitive. He didn’t play to get a workout. He’s playing to win. There would be times where we’d be down or the game would be tied and he’d be like ‘Arne let’s go!’ And I’m like, I’m trying not to get fired here, I’ve got to make this shot.”
“The other part that was interesting? No ego,” said Duncan. “There would be games honestly where, he wouldn’t even take a shot. He would pass and play defense and move. Then there would be other times when he would take big shots and make them. Never the point. Never said I scored this. He wanted to win. He wanted to be a good teammate.”
President Obama isn’t the only big name that Duncan has had the opportunity to play pickup with. Duncan also had the chance to play pickup with LeBron James. While the game was “more social” in Duncan’s words, he saw some of the same characteristics in James that were present in the president’s game.
“The commonality? Shares the basketball,” said Duncan. “Unbelievable passer. Teammate first, make everybody look good. He could score and we know that, he’s going to end up one of the leading scorer’s in the NBA, but I would argue he’s a better teammate, a better passer than he is a scorer.”
How about the man James is most often compared to: Michael Jordan? Yes, Duncan has played against Michael as well and he got an inside look at the all-time great as Jordan was making his return to the game following his first retirement in the mid-90s.
“Jordan is actually an interesting story, I haven’t told this one before. When Jordan was coming back from playing baseball, and he was starting to think about a comeback, I was working out with him and playing against him almost every day,” said Duncan. “We never talked about where he was going, but we sort of got the feeling that he was aiming to come back. And when we first started, he was really rusty and we could actually compete and go at it. Those were good match-ups for awhile. But, that didn’t last too long and he got his groove back. I worked out with him for awhile and then when the summer came, NBA players, Paul Pierce, Antoine Walker, guys started coming back and I got subbed out while those guys came in.”
“Killer. Killer. Talked trash, talked real quiet but talked the whole time,” said Duncan. “It’s funny, it’s like the president. Obviously a whole different level of skillset but, nicest guy in the world off the court, great smile. But, an absolute killer on the court. Mike would try to beat you mentally, beat you psychologically, before he would beat you physically.”
Duncan has played basketball most of his life, but he’s been in the education system even longer. His new book, How Schools Work, published by Simon and Schuster, details the successes and failures of the American education system. It’s now available in both print and digital copies.