Harvard was up by three or four points, but its lead against the Princeton men’s basketball team was dwindling fast, recalls former guard Keith W. Webster ’87.
Webster’s teammate, current Secretary of Education Arne S. Duncan ’86, suddenly caught the ball as it nearly soared out of bounds near the half-court line. The 6’5” Chicago native held the ball for only a split-second before releasing it towards the distant hoop.
“When he shot it, I didn’t even watch the ball, I just kept staring at him like ‘What are you doing?’” Webster says. “It was the most absurd shot in the world.”
With an elegant swish, it was also a game-changing three-pointer, leading Harvard to victory that night.
Close friends and eventual co-captains Duncan and Webster were heading back over the Charles River an hour later, loaded down with winter gear and athletic bags, when Webster turned to Duncan and asked, “By the way, what the hell was that shot?”
Webster says that he’ll never forget Duncan’s answer.
“I knew if I made it, it would break their backs,” Webster recalls Duncan saying. According to Webster, Duncan’s insight and confidence in that game were illustrative of his driven, perceptive nature.
“He was one of the smartest players that ever played,” Webster says. “He knew exactly what he was doing.”
Between Duncan’s Sociology studies, a “Big Brother” mentoring role, and an indefatigable drive to improve on the court, Duncan impressed peers and teammates alike with his tireless work ethic and devotion to making those around him successful. These same qualities, friends say, have guided Duncan since his 2009 appointment to President Barack Obama’s Cabinet.
“He loves education, he loves helping the community and society,” Webster explains. “I knew that whatever he was going to do, he would cast a wide web and have a large influence on as many people as he could touch.”
POUNDING THE PAVEMENT
Duncan arrived at Harvard in 1982 and went straight to basketball tryouts.
“When Arne came to Harvard, he wasn’t a great player, he was a good player—but he had a tremendous work ethic,” recalls Frank McLaughlin, one of Duncan’s former coaches.
After a year on junior varsity, in which Duncan worked out at the gym early in the morning, ran drills late into the night, and often practiced between classes, Duncan made varsity in his sophomore year.
“I think the way he was wired, his DNA, said that in order to be successful you had to put the time in,” Webster says.