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Tracking An Unusual Inner-City Talent

Arne Duncan

By Jonathan Putnam

Harvard's Arne Duncan returns to Cambridge after taking a year off to research his sociology thesis in Chicago. Only in the Ivy League. (Sports Illustrated, Fall '86 college basketball preview)

Actually, Duncan's move was rare even for the Ancient Eight. Despite the attention the Ivies pay to academics, few if any top-flight players willingly leave school for academic reasons.

Yet Duncan, the Harvard men's basketball co-captain who plays his last collegiate game tonight at Dartmouth, spent the 1985-'86 academic year in inner-city Chicago, working on his thesis and volunteering at a ghetto school.

The otherwise-improbable choice of location was far from accidental; Duncan, you see, comes from inner-city Chicago.

"We live in a middle class neighborhood but it's bordered on three sides by the ghetto," Duncan says. "Obviously, playing basketball, that's where the best basketball was."

Sociological concerns, though, were what drew Duncan home for what would have been his senior year in Cambridge. Duncan, a sociology major, wrote his thesis on understanding why most kids fail escape the ghetto, and used personal experiences as research.

But Duncan did more than just observe. "It wasn't just to work on my thesis--though everyone thinks it was," Duncan says. "My mom runs a school in the ghetto and I was working there, teaching the kids, tutoring, coaching, that kind of stuff."

In a way, Duncan represents the other side of his own thesis work--he grew up in a family situation which allowed him to leave the inner city. "I could never have made it here [Harvard] without coming from that background," he said. "I'm just very fortunate--a lot of players a lot better than I was never made it out of the area."

There's still more than a bit of the inner-city left in Duncan. He talks with a thick accent, and his play is littered with flamboyant, dipsy-do, touches. Against Brown last month, Duncan, caught up in the air with his back to the basket, hurled a shot off the top corner of the backboard which spun into the net. Duncan ran downcourt with a completely straight face--you never admit luck on the playground.

The 6-ft., 5-in. forward's contributions have been far more than chance this season. Going into tonight's finale, Duncan leads the Crimson in scoring (17.0 points per game) and steals (53), ranks second in rebounds (121) and three-point shots (30-for-68), third in assists (92) and field goal percentage (50.8), and fifth in free throw percentage (75.7).

Statistics tell an incomplete tale, however. Duncan is Harvard's ice to fellow Co-Captain Keith Webster's fire, the cool floor leader who clams the young Crimson squad. Duncan is also a great ball-handler for a big man, and probably Harvard's finest passer.

"I think my best natural skill is as a passer, setting up other players," Duncan says, "but I had to take more scoring burden myself this year."

"He lives for basketball," Harvard Coach Peter Roby says, "and I think it's infected the rest of the guys."

"Arne has a tremendous work ethic and a tremendous love for the game," Roby continued, "and it's worn off on our kids. He's given us tremendous leadership and set a fine example."

That example extends to the classroom as well. Last month, Duncan was named to the 1987 GTE Academic All-District I men's basketball team.

And while the maturity and leadership skills, both on and off the court, have developed over time, Duncan has always been a quality player.

"I guess I've always loved [basketball]," Duncan says. "I've probably played since I was three. Of course when you're little you love all the sports, but I'd say by the time I was 10, 11, 12, I played only basketball. I'm 22 now, so that's about 20 years of playing."

Duncan captained the University High School team his senior year and earned Special Mention on the all-city and all-state teams by averaging 24 points, 11 rebounds, and nine assists per game.

With those kind of numbers Duncan felt ready for major college basketball, and set out looking for the biggest-name school that would offer him a scholarship. But at a summer hoop camp, the director took a "personal interest" in Duncan. "He told me it'd be stupid for me not to go to the Ivy League," Duncan reports. "Realistically, the pros were a long-shot, and you can't beat an Ivy education."

So Duncan looked East, and selected Penn--the defending Ivy champion--as his first choice. A Penn coach advised Duncan that he probably couldn't help the Quakers, so Duncan chose Harvard where "I thought I was really wanted."

His freshman year brought painful disillusionment. Duncan was axed in the final varsity cuts, and had to spend the year playing for the Crimson JV. "It about wiped me out," Duncan says. "I considered transferring after that year if I could play--basketball's too important to me to go to school and not play. That was a tremendous blow--that really hurt."

But after a lot of soul-searching and discussion ("I talked to [then head] Coach [Frank] McLaughlin, I talked to Coach Roby, I talked to the athletic director," Duncan said. "I talked to everybody.") Duncan stuck it out.

His goal for sophomore year was just to make the varsity squad, but he ended up a starting forward midway through the season.

That year marked two seasons of contention for Harvard basketball, two years in which the Crimson cagers came close to their first-ever league title only to falter late.

Duncan's role in those seasons was low-profile; Joe Carrabino and Bob Ferry were the stars and Duncan added 11 points a game. In his junior season, he was second on the team in rebounds and assists, and third in scoring. His 86.7 percent mark from the free throw line during his sophomore campaign was 13th in the nation.

Return to Cambridge

When Duncan returned from his year off, he faced a pair of tensions: the contrast between the inner-city and Harvard, and the contrast between the Harvard basketball team he had left and the one to which he returned.

"It's two completely different situations, from the style of the play to the personalities on the team," Duncan says. "It's two different eras in Harvard basketball."

McLaughlin had been replaced by Roby. A slow game had been replaced by an up-tempo offense and defense. And, most significant, Carrabino and Ferry had been replaced as the stars of the team by Webster--and Duncan himself.

"My dream was to come back and lead Harvard to the Ivy title," Duncan says with a touch of irony. "That was one of the reasons, I remember, that I wanted to come to Harvard--coach told me that Harvard had never won a championship and I've always thought of myself as a winner and I thought I could help lead Harvard to that first championship. So this year has been very tough on me--a lot of re-evaluation of myself."

But Duncan's place in Harvard history is all but assured. He enters his final game tonight with 999 points, a single point away from the milestone of any college career (after only three varsity years), and 29 points short of 10th place on Harvard's all-time list.

"That doesn't mean anything to me," Duncan says of his career marks. "If you're into individual goals and stuff, you play golf or you play tennis--basketball's a team sport. One of the reasons I love basketball is working so hard together."

The Duncan presence will continued to be felt at Briggs in the person of younger sister Sarah, a sophomore and currently the second-leading scorer on the Harvard women's basketball team.

"This year she's come into her own--I think she's got a real good shot of becoming first team all-Ivy," the elder sibling says. "I'm just very happy things have worked out so well for her."

A younger brother, Owen, currently a high school junior, may be waiting in the wings. "He's in real good shape academically and a real good basketball player," Arne says. "[In the end, though,] he's got to do what's best for him."

Arne Duncan is not sure what the future will bring for him. He is interested in the possibility of pursuing basketball for a few years--most likely in Europe, although nothing is definite. A late-round pick in the NBA draft is not out of the question, either.

Ultimately, Duncan knows he wants to stay involved in the inner-city life he grew up with. "I really respect the [youth basketball program located at] Riverside Church [in Manhattan] and what Mr. Lorch has done and I'd really like to start up something like that in Chicago," Duncan says. "He's doing a lot of good, and I'd have a lot of fun doing something like that."

Whatever happens, Duncan will come away from Harvard with a poignant sense of the two cultures he has spent the last five years of his life transversing.

"Sometimes, especially this past year when I was home, I'd be hanging out with my friends," Duncan says, "guys I played ball with--and we'd see crazy stuff going on, and my friends would just laugh and say, `if the kids from Harvard knew you were around here they wouldn't believe it."'

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