At the end of our freshman year, we were standing around the U-High cafeteria comparing grades. We were the same height, both of us played guard, and both of us planned to play varsity the next year.
At the beginning of our sophomore year, Arne Duncan had grown about eight inches, and I was still the same size. We both played forward that year. I started varsity and he starred on JV and varsity, practicing with both teams about five hours a day.
When the school counselors asked what career ambitions we had, we had both put down pro basketball. Our counselors naturally wanted second choices, if the pro career didn't pan out. I said sportcasting; Arne said basketball coaching.
Although in four years of high school we never had a course together. I saw Arne nearly every day at the school gym. He would often be at girls' practice, scrimmaging against us or using any open basket. After his practice, he usually spent more hours at the University of Chicago Field House, playing in pick-up games or just shooting with his whole family. Sometimes a few of the kids from an after-school center his mother ran for underprivileged Black urban youth would join them. She had a gym at the center, and Arne would help her out and, of course, play basketball with the older guys, learning some of their moves.
Some Saturdays, when the gym would be open, I'd scrimmage against the Dunk, as we called him. He always forced me left, since I was right handed, and he'd let me get by him, then block my right-handed shot, until he taught me to use the left.
We both went to basketball camps during the summer to find the tougher competition our small league of Chicago private schools could not provide. Duncan went to a blue-chip camp in Kentucky that year. He was invited to play there so that college scouts could get a closer look. At the end of the summer he was considered one of the best guards in the state of Illinois.
It was that summer that Duncan gave up on the idea of going pro. Only a small number from every state make the pros, the camp emphasized in its Athletes for a Better Education doctrine. Duncan worried he was too slow.
The Chicago Tribune touted him as a "sleeper," one of the most talented players in the city whom no one ever heard about. College scouts called his home almost every night making him offers. Duncan turned down lots of them. He decided he would go for an Ivy League education instead.
He eventually chose Harvard over Princeton, convinced by the coach that he would play varsity his freshman year. But about 30 other guys had the same idea. I stopped playing ball to comp Crimson, so after the first week of playing at the gym with Duncan. I only saw him in the Freshman Union. We were at different ends of Harvard Yard.
Then I ran into him outside Store 24.
I asked him how basketball was going. "Terrible," he said. He had made what he thought was the last cut. The varsity team was at 16 when, the day before his first Harvard midterm, the coach called to tell him he'd been cut. "I could hardly concentrate on studying," he said. And he actually considered leaving Harvard.
"I know that it was really hard on him not playing with the varsity last year," remembers Harvard coach Frank McLaughlin. "But I think in the long run it was the best thing for him, because he got to play a lot more."
It's a good thing he didn't. He played JV, got an injury at the end of the season and had to take a month off from the game. But during the summer, he came back to full strength.
It was at the Murray Schoolyard Classic in Chicago that I saw him again at about the end of July, the summer after freshman year. His team had just won the tournament and he was MVP, but he didn't have any time to hang around and talk to his groupies, like me. He was off to another tournament. He was playing in two most of the summer. And working at MacWillie's camp, and running and lifting weights. "If I don't do it this year. I might as well forget it," he explained.
That is how he came to start against Princeton Friday and lead all scorers against Penn on Saturday. Duncan is smart, and he works hard, and he's been that way for a long time.
Over Thanksgiving, while he was playing ball here, I went to see U-High's boys' basketball. I only knew a couple of the players. One of them asked what Duncan was doing and whether he still thought he would play pro. "He wasn't that good," the guy said, "but he was fun to watch."
"He's doing pretty well," I said. "That's one of the plusses of going to Harvard, I can still get to see Arne play."