On Saturday, January 19, 2019, former United States Secretary of Education Arne Duncan visited Baskètbòl pou Ankadre Lajenès (BAL)’s Cité Soleil site. Immediately after arriving in the Projet Drouillard neighborhood of Cité Soleil where BAL’s activities are implemented, Duncan visited École Laurier Rose de Yolande, a community school whose classrooms BAL uses for its tutoring program and other academic activities. Prior to each basketball training session, BAL’s Cité Soleil beneficiaries gather in one of the school’s classrooms to learn about the Quote of the Day. Through this activity, the youth learn wisdom from successful individuals who have distinguished themselves in a variety of different fields throughout history. In 2019 thus far, the youth have had quotes from Benjamin Franklin, Oprah Winfrey, Mary J. Blige, and Swami Vivekananda. In addition to the quotes, which are shared in both English and Haitian Creole, the youth are provided with a short biography of each illustrious individual. Following each training session, the beneficiaries are obligated to write a paragraph of reflection on the quote, which they have the opportunity to read aloud to their peers at the beginning of the next training session.

After his visit to the school, Duncan proceeded to the adjacent community basketball court where BAL’s basketball training sessions and scrimmages are held, and he received a warm welcome from the nearly 120 BAL beneficiaries in attendance, representing both the Cité Soleil and Martissant sites. BAL’s Founder & Executive Director, Dave Fils-Aimé, introduced Duncan to the public and the guest of honor expressed his great joy in being able to make it to Cité Soleil to meet BAL’s beneficiaries and staff.

After Duncan’s remarks, eight beneficiaries had the opportunity to share with him their reflections on the following quote: “Basketball both reveals and develops character – you can’t hide who you are on the court”. This quote from Arne Duncan was the Quote of the Day for the previous day’s practice. The eight beneficiaries selected to share their reflections were two boys and two girls from each of the organization’s two sites. Duncan was truly impressed by the level of depth and introspection demonstrated by these teenagers as they read aloud their respective interpretations of the quote from their notebooks. As an example, two of the beneficiaries referenced Haitian proverbs to support the quote’s claim that “you can’t hide who you are on the court”. One of the proverbs, “Kay koule twonpe solèy, men li pa ka twonpe lapli”, cited by Hérode Durandis, translates to “A leaky house may fool the sun, but it can’t fool the rain”. Durandis explained that, just as one is able to notice it sooner or later when a house has a leaky roof, one is also able to discover a person’s true nature sooner or later through his or her behavior on the basketball court. To support this same premise, Rose Guetchina Jean-Baptiste referred to the proverb “Manti mèt kouri jan l kouri, laverite ap kenbe l” which translates to “A lie may run as it may, but the truth will catch up to it.”

To complement this enriching experience, Duncan shared a second quote with the youth: “Chase your dreams, but catch an education.” He initiated a discussion about the quote by asking the youth to raise their hands if they would like to play in either the NBA or WNBA in the future. Upon noticing that a sizeable portion of the public responded affirmatively, Duncan explained that he, too, had wanted to become an NBA player when he was their age. However, he knew the importance of education, and so he made sure to also focus on his studies. This approach allowed Duncan to excel both on the basketball court and in the classroom as a high school student in Chicago. He went on to attend Harvard University where he majored in sociology and co-captained the Harvard Men’s Basketball team as a senior. Duncan explained to the youth that after his graduation from college in 1987, he tried out for the Boston Celtics, a dynastic team that boasted a roster featuring Hall of Fame players Larry Bird, Kevin McHale, Robert Parrish, and Bill Walton, among others. Duncan was unsuccessful in his quest to join the Celtics but soon after, he was presented with an opportunity to play professional basketball in Australia and did so from 1987 to 1991.

Duncan went on to tell the youth that the main message he would like them to retain from the quote is that they should focus on their studies as much as basketball, if not more. He explained that even if someone is able to make it as a professional basketball player, an injury could end that person’s career at any moment. However, an education is something that a person has for life, and that no one can take away. In that regard, Duncan is most definitely a great example of someone whose education allowed him to flourish beyond his career as a professional basketball player. After his last season in Australia, Duncan began his career in the education sector, and would eventually serve as CEO of Chicago Public Schools from 2001 to 2008. Immediately after, he served as U.S. Secretary of Education from January 2009 to December 2015 during the Obama administration.

After Duncan shared his reflections on the quote, his exchange with the youth continued in the form of a Q&A session during which they had the chance to ask him several questions. Of the many probing questions asked by the youth, perhaps the one that elicited the most unexpected response was the following: Who was the toughest adversary you encountered during your playing career? Duncan did not take long to provide his answer: Michael Jordan. To the utter amazement of the public, Duncan recounted that when Jordan was getting ready to return to the NBA in 1995 after his first retirement, they would play against each other as Jordan attempted to regain his old form.

As the Q&A session came to a close, Fils-Aimé presented Duncan with a BAL basketball uniform set made by the Haitian Swagg apparel company. Duncan was truly pleased to see his name inscribed on the back of the jersey along with the number 9, selected in light of the fact that he had served as the 9th Secretary of Education of the United States. Duncan proceeded to put on the jersey and he invited the youth to join him on the basketball court to partake in some basketball drills. For over an hour, the youth were able to work on their dribbling, shooting, rebounding, and passing skills though the different drills that Duncan had them do.

Thereafter, a full-court basketball game was organized, featuring one team led by Duncan versus a second team led by Fils-Aimé. In addition to the two captains, both teams counted members of BAL’s coaching staff and some of the more advanced BAL beneficiaries among their ranks. Children and adults alike from the community made their way to the stands to view the spectacle that was about to unfold. The two teams did not disappoint as evidenced by the frequent cheers from the crowd. Duncan, in particular, delighted the crowd with his play as he put on full display some of the skills that earned him the MVP Award at the 2014 NBA All-Star Celebrity game.

After the game, Duncan joined BAL’s staff and volunteers in distributing snack bags to BAL’s beneficiaries and other youth from the neighborhood. The youth greatly enjoyed these snacks prepared by one of BAL’s top supporters, Johny Mathurin.

The entire experience proved to be as inspiring for Duncan as it was for BAL’s beneficiaries and staff, and Duncan departed with the promise that he would be visiting them again soon. 

Former U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan Visits BAL

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