Photo by Juan O'Campo/NBAE via Getty Images

Former Secretary of Education Arne Duncan talks LSU basketball phenom Ben Simmons and President Barack Obama's basketball skills.

By Nick Forrester
January 19, 2016

Before Arne Duncan became the Secretary of Education from 2009-15, he made his name on the basketball court. During his senior season at Harvard, Duncan was the co-captain, led the Crimson with 16.9 points per game and was a first-team Academic All-America. He then played in Australia's National Basketball League with the Eastside Melbourne Spectres. A regular in President Barack Obama's pickup games, Duncan took the court against Dave Simmons, the father of LSU freshman phenom Ben Simmons, in Australia. Obama mentioned Duncan's basketball skills at a press conference last week. The former Secretary of Education caught up with Campus Rush to talk hoops, education, Simmons and much more.

Campus Rush: You played against Dave Simmons, the father of LSU freshman standout Ben Simmons, in Australia's National Basketball League. You played for the Eastside Melbourne Spectres, and he played for the rival Melbourne Tigers. What do you remember most about playing against him?

Arne Duncan: Dave was tough as nails. He was not only big and strong, but he was also quick. He was probably a little undersized for the NBA, but if he was three inches taller, I have no doubt he would've been there. And it was a good rivalry. [The Melbourne Tigers] were a heck of a team, so we had some good battles. It was a rivalry, but definitely a friendly rivalry, so I've got a lot of respect for him.

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CR: What has impressed you about Dave's son, Ben, in his play for LSU this season?

AD: He has high basketball IQ, high intelligence, and he's very unselfish. To have a kid that's that big, is that good with the ball—it reminds you of somebody like Magic [Johnson]. He has great vision, he's unselfish and he has the ability to make his teammates better. That stuff is very, very appealing and attractive to me.

For me, to see this all happen to a great kid, a great family and a kid who doesn't have a selfish bone in his body, it's not only great for him, but it's great for the sport of basketball. It's great for younger kids to see someone like that be successful. Someone that has all the right values and plays the way you're supposed to play the game. Kids can watch someone like that and think, 'Maybe I don't have to shoot it every time, maybe I can maybe make my teammates better.' We need more role models like him.

CR: While in Baton Rouge, President Obama said "Ben is better" than you and Dave. Do you agree?

AD: Oh, it's not even close. He's a lot better. The President was being too kind to me and his dad. [Ben] is literally going to be in a different league.

CR: Speaking of the President, he's a big hoops fan. What was it like playing with him at the White House?

AD: The President and I usually ended up on the same team, and I loved playing with him. He was smart, he worked really hard and he plays to win. He's not just out there to get a work out and make some shots. He's very, very, very competitive. He was always pushing us to win, and we had a lot of fun.

But for both of us, that was a great stress relief and source of camaraderie. No one ever gave him a break out there just because he was the President, and we competed really hard. I think for his sanity, that was a big deal. It was almost the only place where he could be a normal person, which is really sad to say. He could go out there and not be "The President," but be Barack Obama, the kid who grew up loving the game.

Photo by Ralf-Finn Hestoft-Pool/Getty Images

CR: Before you played in Australia, you played college basketball at Harvard. What is your favorite memory of your playing days on campus?

AD: We weren't nearly as good as the [Harvard] teams are now, but we played Duke for three years, and we came within two or three points of beating them the first time, so that was a great memory. (The Blue Devils defeated the Crimson 89–86 on Feb. 8, 1984.) I also loved playing at Penn, at The Palestra. You think about playing at a place like that, with all of its history. Those two would be at the top of the list.

CR: So, you played against a Mike Krzyzewski-coached Duke team in just his fourth season leading the program. What do you remember about his Blue Devils from back then?

AD: We almost beat Duke the first go-around, but just watching how Coach K developed that group as a team together, and seeing how much they improved over those two or three years we played them, that was a lesson I'll never forget. That was the start of Duke being something special. I've always had huge respect for Coach K because of how much [Duke] improved not just individually, but as a team, over those years.

CR: Did Coach K's model at Duke provide any inspiration to you when you were Secretary of Education?

AD: At Harvard, we were truly students first, and same with Duke, a school with those liberal [arts] values. So, what I pushed very hard to the NCAA was that these kids have to graduate. I grew up playing on the streets in Chicago, where I played against amazing players, and too many of them went to college, had great careers, made tons of money for their universities, but didn't ever graduate. They'd come home and they had nothing to show for it. They were just totally abused. These guys have to be students first, and we have to care about graduation rates.

We pushed hard to get graduation rates raised to get to the [NCAA] tournament, and that was a big win. You see too many programs today where the values are totally out of line, the coaches are making millions, the universities are making millions and the students are being taken advantage of. That's just fundamentally wrong. I'm going to continue to challenge it and work on it.

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