You'll have to pardon former men's basketball Co-Captain Arne Duncan if he misses Commencement this year. He's got a date that day, on a basketball, court in New Jersey with the New Jersey Jammers of the United States Basketball League.
Duncan is a member of the Rhode Island Gulls, New England's entry in the eight-team summer professional basketball league. And for the past two weeks, while most of Cambridge has sweated through finals, Duncan has been in Rhode Island, finishing a few papers for his classes and and playing pro ball.
Passed over in the USBL draft, Duncan made the squad in a regular free agent try-out. About 50 players showed up, but, according to Harvard Coach Pete Roby, "Arne just went down there and played so well [in the try-outs] that they couldn't get rid of him."
As far as anyone can recall, Duncan is Harvard's first alum to play professional basketball in the United States (others, such as all-time scoring leader Joe Carrabino '85, have played pro ball in Europe).
"I think it's a tremendous thing for him," Roby says. "To say that he's playing professional. basketball, that's a hell of a thing to be able to say. He can be very excited about that--I know we are."
The United States Basketball League was formed several years ago as a summer professional league to showcase lesser known players, most right out of college. A number of USBL players have gone on to bigger and better things in the Continental Basketball League and even the NBA.
Two summers ago, these very same Gulls had probably the most celebrated cast in the USBL's brief history. Among their ranks that summer were Spud Webb, Manute Bol and John Williams, now all prominent NBA performers. Many a picture of teammates Webb, who stands 5-ft., 7-in., and Bol (7-ft., 6-in.) floated around that summer.
Despite once boasting these star performers, the USBL remains a relatively modest undertaking. Five of the eight franchises are in the Northeast--Philadelphia, Staten Island, Long Island, New Jersey and Rhode Island--and the other three, for some reason, are in Florida (Miami, West Palm Beach and Tampa).
This year's season is 30 games long, with the finale coming on July 18. The Gulls, who were 1-2 going into last night's game in Florida, carry 10 players, among them college notables Tyronne Bogues of Wake Forest and David Kipfer of Providence College.
Randi from the Gulls' front office offers to help me. The team's regular public relations man is on the road, leaving Randi and myself to try to unearth Duncan's performance to date over the phone.
"Okay," she says, "I have the sheet here from our first game against the New Jersey Jammers. Okay, under `F-G' he has a `zero,' and under `F-G-A' there's a `one.' Do you know what all those stand for?"
I assure Randi that I do.
"Okay, he's got a `zero' under `F-T' and `F-T-A' as well, and a `zero' by the `A' and the `R'," she continues.
"Well, how about minutes? Does the sheet have a minutes played column--an `M'?'' I ask.
"Hmmm, yeah there's one here, but it's not filled in for this game," Randi says. "I guess Arne's not playing that much--but I don't want you to write that he's doing really poorly or anything. It's a team game, you know, and everybody, just by being on our team, helps out."
Arne Duncan certainly knows all about team efforts. In his three varsity years at Harvard he scored over 1000 points and was among the team leaders this past season in steals, rebounds, assists and field goal and free throw percentages.
Duncan--who took a year off between his junior and senior years to work on his sociology thesis in Chicago--also shone off the court, gaining first team academic All-America honors this past year.
The first few games of Duncan's professional career have been a big change for the 6-ft., 5-in. forward who regularly played 35-38 minutes a game with the Crimson. Duncan has played "sparingly" according to Gulls' General Manager Todd Abedon.
But making the USBL all-star team isn't Duncan's main goal for the summer. Instead, the Chicago native wants some exposure--and maybe a shot at one of the European professional leagues.
"He's looking at going to Europe [after this summer]," Roby reports.
But whatever Duncan decides about the rest of his hoop career, the fates have conspired to create one hell of a trivia question for future generations:
What do a 7-ft., 6-in Dinka tribesman-turned-NBA shot blocker, a 5-ft., 7-in. ACC freak show-turned-NBA slam dunk champion, and an academic All-America sociology major from Harvard have in common?
The answer, of course, is that all three have had the honor of wearing the blue and white of the Providence Gulls.