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Arne Duncan enlists Derrick Rose, Joakim Noah to help stop Chicago’s gun violence

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Updated: March 6, 2013 6:22AM

You could say it was the Sandy Hook grade-school slaughter seven weeks ago that set Arne Duncan’s gears into motion.

Or you could say it was the murder last week in Chicago of 15-year-old Hadiya Pendleton, a King College Prep student who was shot, along with two other kids, at 2 in the afternoon while standing under a park canopy to avoid rain.

That one was tough because Pendleton, who was shot in the back for no apparent reason, had just returned from Washington, where her school majorette team had performed at President Barack Obama’s inauguration.

Oh, and there was 17-year-old Morgan Park High School student Tyrone Lawson, who was shot and killed two weeks ago outside the gym where his school team had played Simeon in basketball.

Said Lawson’s mother afterward: ‘‘There is no safe place.’’

And that phrase, more than any or all of these horrific incidents, is what nearly has undone Duncan, a native Chicagoan who played hoops on the South Side and is in his second term as U.S. secretary of education.

‘‘I didn’t think it could get any worse,’’ he recently said in a lengthy and emotional interview. ‘‘I remember having to run off courts — and you had to go hide — because of gunfire. The guys I played with, so many of them were shot and killed. It has plagued me and haunted me ever since. It has scarred me. Those are visceral memories, and I know how the killings have harmed so many families in Chicago. You feel this anger, this rage, because of it. And now it’s gone on so long.

‘‘And it’s gotten worse. I didn’t think it could, but it has. I visited a school in Chicago not long ago, and a little kid had drawn a picture for me. It said, ‘If I grow up, I want to be a fireman.’ If I grow up! How is this possible in a civilized nation?’’

Duncan, who was raised in Hyde Park by his educator parents, began playing basketball with Obama when Obama started teaching at the University of Chicago in the early 1990s. Along with young Chicago financier John Rogers, a former Princeton team captain, the three became a sort of thinking-man’s hardwood triumvirate.

They recognized the special problems Chicago has as a large city, with a history of segregation, gang violence and political corruption, and they discussed ways that fairness, safety and legality could be made the rule, not just in privileged areas. They still are discussing it.

One thing is for sure: Many children growing up in poverty and violence will be stunted in frightening ways, perhaps even with their brains rewiring as a sort of psychological protection, because of the trauma around them. It is known that children who have seen too much shooting suffer from post-traumatic stress syndrome, just as soldiers returning from combat do.

Duncan said Chicago is different from, say, New York and Los Angeles, where shootings and murders are way down from years ago. There were 506 homicides in Chicago in 2012. And 2013 started with a bang, so to speak, with three men shot and killed Jan. 1.

‘‘Chicago is particularly bad,’’ Duncan said of youth killings. ‘‘It has a level of violence and murder that is inconceivable. John Rogers and I had a school called Aerial Community Academy, and one of our kids was shot in the head at a picnic.’’

The difference between Sandy Hook and Chicago, Duncan noted, is the difference between an explosion and a steady grass fire.

‘‘The president, the vice president, the attorney general, all of us are going to put it on the line to get all the things we’ve identified [for child safety] done,’’ Duncan said. ‘‘The president and I are acutely aware of this. We have to help Chicago. We have to help the country.’’

At the beginning of the ESPN film ‘‘Benji,’’ about the shooting death of Simeon basketball star Ben Wilson, there is a scene of street basketball being played in Chicago. It’s the Y.V.I. league — ‘‘Youth, Vision, Integrity’’ — and a young Duncan goes flashing down the court.

‘‘I’m the white guy,’’ said Duncan, who played college ball at Harvard and would be named the most valuable player of the Y.V.I. league in the summer of 1986.

Wilson had been shot to death in 1984, and Duncan said, ‘‘That hit me incredibly hard.’’

He knew there was danger, poverty, cheap guns and absurdity out there. In time, he would dedicate his life to trying to make things better.

‘‘I had two middle-class, caring parents,’’ Duncan said. ‘‘I played sports. I was going to be OK. But you can talk to kindergarten teachers now, and they’ll tell you already the two or three boys who are going to be at risk.’’

It’s all about boys, really. Chicago’s gangs primarily are made up of young males. According to USA Today, of the 62 mass killings in the last 30 years, all but one was committed by a male. The gangs and violence fill in for absentee fathers, broken homes, lost moral compasses.

Duncan and Bulls stars Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah stay in close contact, with all of them recognizing the anarchy overtaking the city.

‘‘Derrick and Joakim are two young men I have extreme respect for beyond their court skills,’’ Duncan said. ‘‘They both have stepped up and asked to do more.’’

That includes summer programs, youth games, even ads that might tell young Chicagoans that shooting isn’t good, that not snitching leads nowhere.

‘‘Oh, man, Arne is cool,’’ the still-injured Rose said at a
recent Bulls game. ‘‘I’ll do anything for him.’’

Noah was just as impassioned.

‘‘You play for the Bulls, you represent more than just an NBA player,’’ he said. ‘‘You represent Chicago. I’m a role model, and I love that. But we need to combine forces with players, the community leaders, politicians. We need to try to stop this. Arne? No question, I’m with him.’’

The needed changes are many, and they aren’t simple. Guns, families, idle time, poverty, police guidance, knowledge — all of it matters.

But Duncan said it must start.

‘‘I’ve cried many times,’’ he said. ‘‘I’m a huge supporter of the Second Amendment. People should be able to hunt and protect their homes. But to hunt children? What have we become?’’

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