Education Secretary Arne Duncan teams with Jeremy Lin and others for a game truly worth winning


U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan, here at Pond Early Childhood Center in Bloomington, Minn., in July, oversees the program “Let’s Read, Let’s Move” that targets young children in an effort to encourage being physically active. (Elizabeth Flores/AP)
Mike Wise
August 3, 2013

Before he faced a gantlet of young talent Thursday afternoon, Arne Duncan chose sides to ensure he had a good chance of competing.

First pick: Jeremy Lin, a stop-and-pop point guard from the Houston Rockets who, like Duncan, once captained Harvard’s basketball team.

Mike Wise is a sports columnist for The Washington Post. View Archive

Next pick: Hill Harper, Ray Allen’s old high school teammate from “He Got Game,” an actor now starring in USA Network’s “Covert Affairs” with mad social-conscience skills.

The front line could just as easily school you. I mean, when the U.S. secretary of education is picking the team, your front line has to do that, no?

Throw in a tough cop from the District and a former playmaking bruiser of an NFL player nicknamed “B-Mitch,” and Duncan had himself a squad to keep the court all day.

“I don’t just bring anyone in here,” Duncan said Thursday afternoon as he parted the crowd in the Education Department’s Barnard Auditorium. “They’re all successful in their own right but they have to have something more, too. You can tell; they care.”

On Thursday, I saw a great sporting event in the District: After they were read “Where The Wild Things Are” and “The Day The Crayons Quit” by Duncan, Lin, Harper, Interior Secretary Sally Jewell and D.C. Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier, about 300 kids followed Brian Mitchell outside toward Independence Avenue and . . . played. In the sweltering heat.

They ran shuttle drills. They shot jumpers toward a giant inflatable hoop. They got sweaty and grimy and not one I saw complained that they weren’t indoors holding an Xbox controller.

Yes, this is an unapologetic fluff column about Duncan hosting the Education Department’s fourth “Let’s Read! Let’s Move!” event, targeted at getting preschool and young elementary-age kids to understand eating healthy and being physically active trumps sugar and sedentary any day of the week. (Seriously, can’t the first lady come up with a “Get Your Lazy, Sweet-Tea Behind Off the Sofa” program for American adults? I’d join.)

I went to the event Thursday not just because childhood literacy and obesity rates should be seminal to us all, but also because I’m tired of all the big stories in sports this summer, which run somewhere between unsavory and unbelievably ugly and tragic.

One NFL player has been jailed for allegedly murdering a friend. Another just vacated Eagles training camp to be counseled for the racial malice in his heart shown in a video.

In between, we learned baseball is still juiced, and the newest round of drug cheats gets to negotiate their suspensions as if they were $252 million contracts.

Against that backdrop, I’d take talking hoops and hope for the next generation with Duncan and Lin in Duncan’s office any day. Besides, with the litany of laptops kids can now open and so much of their free time competed for by dueling interests, getting their message to take hold isn’t a given.

“You’re right — tech, computer games, all that stuff” leads to distraction, Duncan said. “But I think there’s something inherently human in getting outside. A lot of times it’s less about kids being sedentary; it’s a lack of opportunity. So I guess, on this one, I’m a little bit of a ‘Field of Dreams’ guy. If you build it, they will come. If you create the opportunities. . . .

“I still play video games,” Lin quipped. One of the few players who finished school before his NBA career, he added, “I think in a lot of ways people who stay four years in college, there’s something different about them in terms of when they come and play in the NBA and their understanding of the game and understanding of team, too.”

Though an Ivy League player, Duncan was like every D-I kid after his senior year: He wanted to play at the next level. He got a tryout with the Celtics and was promptly cut. Tom Thibodeau, now the Chicago Bulls’ coach, used to coach Duncan at Harvard. He sold him hard to an Australian coach, telling him Duncan’s game resembled Larry Bird’s but that Duncan was “better with the ball.”

Turned out that quote was double-edged, as Duncan recounted in a commencement speech at Morgan State in May:

“So, I landed on a pro basketball team in Australia, on the other side of the world. And every time I made a mistake on the court, my coach in Australia would roll his eyes and repeat Coach Thibodeau’s line like a parrot: ‘Like Larry Bird, but better with the ball. . . .’ ”

He would play four years Down Under, work with kids who were wards of the state and coach a team of urban Aborigines.

For the past four-plus years, one of the genuinely gratifying parts of Duncan’s job has been putting teams of celebrities and power brokers in different professions to help instill a needed message to the most impressionable among us:

It’s okay for kids to marry their brains and their brawn, “they’re mutually reinforcing,” Duncan said.

“I think people like to put these things in boxes and separate them out,” he said as Lin nodded across the conference table. “It’s actually the opposite.”

Two former Harvard basketball captains would know, no?

For more by Mike Wise, visit washingtonpost.com/wise.

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