They called him the Cobra in Australia, where he played pro basketball for four years. Maybe it was the way he would languidly uncoil his 6-foot-5 frame before striking with his jumper. Not even Arne Duncan himself knows why a “crazy announcer” gave him the nickname—and likely never will: “That guy’s dead.”
The moniker seems wildly ill fitted to the gentle-souled former U.S. secretary of education. Popping blue-and-white Community Trust–branded M&Ms and sipping apple juice in the conference room of the Michigan Avenue high-rise where he keeps an office these days, the sleeves of his crisp blue button-down rolled up and his close-cropped gray hair precisely coiffed, Duncan looks more like the guy who ran the DECA club back in high school than a venomous reptile.
He does share one trait with the cobra, however: It is the only snake that stays with its nest, relentlessly guarding its young until they’re ready to enter the wider world.
When he left President Obama’s cabinet last December, after seven years, Duncan, 51, had no shortage of options. But whatever he did next, one thing was nonnegotiable: It would be in his hometown of Chicago, where he spent his childhood playing pickup basketball and later served as CEO of public schools. After all, the city, his nest, is in crisis. Murders are at a 20-year high, and a staggering 46 percent of black men ages 20 to 24 are both out of work and out of school, according to an often-quoted study by the University of Illinois at Chicago’s Great Cities Institute.
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