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Play Their Hearts Out: A Coach, His Star Recruit, and the Youth Basketball Machine

Play Their Hearts Out: A Coach, His Star Recruit, and the Youth Basketball Machine

4.4 42
by George Dohrmann

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Winner of the PEN/ESPN Award for Literary Sportswriting
Winner of the Award for Excellence in the Coverage of Youth Sports
Eight years of unfettered access and a keen sense of a story’s deepest truths allow Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist George Dohrmann to take readers inside the machine that produces


Winner of the PEN/ESPN Award for Literary Sportswriting
Winner of the Award for Excellence in the Coverage of Youth Sports
Eight years of unfettered access and a keen sense of a story’s deepest truths allow Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist George Dohrmann to take readers inside the machine that produces America’s basketball stars. Play Their Hearts Out reveals a cutthroat world where boys as young as eight or nine are subjected to a dizzying torrent of scrutiny and exploitation. At the book’s heart are the personal stories of two compelling figures: Joe Keller, an ambitious coach with a master plan to find and promote “the next LeBron,” and Demetrius Walker, a fatherless latchkey kid who falls under Keller’s sway and struggles to live up to unrealistic expectations. Complete with a new “where-are-they-now” Epilogue by the author, this thoroughly compelling narrative exposes the gritty reality that lies beneath so many dreams of fame and glory.
Look for the exclusive conversation between George Dohrmann and bestselling author Seth Davis in the back of the book.

Editorial Reviews

Sean Callahan
…a tour de force of reporting, filled with deft storytelling and vivid character studies…
—The Washington Post
Publishers Weekly
Dohrmann, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter for Sports Illustrated, spent eight years chronicling the struggles and triumphs of a select group of California youths who chased their dream in his wonderful and immaculately reported first book. Dohrmann largely focuses his work on Demetrius Walker, the hoops phenom who seems destined for stardom at a young age, his travel team from California, and the club's complex and bombastic coach, Joe Keller. Dohrmann began reporting on the book back in 2000, when Walker and many of his teammates were only 10 years old, and followed them through to their high school graduation. Along the way, he shows the brutal nature of "grassroots" basketball, in which coaches can view their players as "investments," the power of sneaker companies in youth basketball, and the cutthroat antics of collegiate recruiting. But this is equally a story about relationships and the sad deterioration of many of them, whether it be among teammates, parents and son, or coach and player. It's a brilliant and heart-wrenching journey, and a cautionary tale to any basketball player who thinks the path to the NBA is a slam dunk. (Oct.)
From the Publisher
"An often heartbreaking, always riveting exploration of the seamy underbelly of big-time youth basketball—and one of the finest books about sports I've ever read."
    —The New York Times Book Review

"The sheer accumulation of transgressions makes for a deep and devastating portrait of an Amateur Athletic Union basketball team."
    —The New York Times

"A tremendous account...the book has kept me up at night reading."
    —The Cleveland Plain Dealer

"A unique and in-depth look at youth basketball, the players, the characters and how it all fits together, ala "Friday Night Lights." Nice insight into a very unique and complex subculture."

“Sit down and read the Friday Night Lights of youth basketball. Except the landscape is even darker here, greed and blind ambition stirred together in a toxic stew, the perversions of the modern American athletic dream even more perverted. This is nothing less than Dickens brought up-to-date, the characters in Oliver Twist dressed in Adidas warm-up suits. Amazing stuff. You’ll never watch basketball the same way again.”—Leigh Montville, author of The Big Bam

“Like a versatile baller, George Dohrmann swings seamlessly from position to position: investigative journalist, social critic, gifted storyteller. The result, Play Their Hearts Out, is a gem of a book that addresses the question central to contemporary basketball: How does such an unseemly culture spring from such an essentially beautiful game? You'll come away rooting harder than ever for the kids and harder than ever against the basketball profiteers.”—L. Jon Wertheim, author of Strokes of Genius

“What happens when the nation’s foremost investigative sports reporter spends eight years probing the fascinating underworld of grassroots basketball? You get a page-turning narrative that will absorb and repulse you at the same time. I thought I knew a lot about grassroots hoops, but the scope and depth of the reportage in this book just blew me away. Play Their Hearts Out is a must-read for anyone who has ever watched, played, coached, or otherwise worked in—and cared about—the sport of basketball.”—Seth Davis, author of When March Went Mad

"Think Friday Night Lights, but for amateur basketball."

"A tour de force of reporting."
The Washington Post

"Eight years of reporting in sharp, syrup-free prose…indispensable for anyone curious about the flawed process of forging America’s premier basketball players."
The Wall Street Journal

"Read this book and it’s so plain to see that this broken system needs to be changed, even if it means steping on some toes in the process."

"Massively impressive reportage…a sort of Friday Night Lights-Blind Side mash-up."

"Chronicles the dark side of grassroots basketball—one that many of us on the edges may think we understand but have never seen at this disturbing level of detail."
The Chronicle of Higher Education

"An unflinching look at the seedy world of AAU basketball."
—Yahoo! Sports

Library Journal
What Alexander Wolff and Armen Keteyian (Raw Recruits) and Dan Wetzel and Don Yaeger (Sole Influence) did for college basketball recruiting, Pulitzer Prize-winning sportswriter Dohrmann does for grassroots basketball in this memorable book. Dohrmann follows California phenom Demetrius Walker through the cycle of Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) summer league hoops, from playing for ambitious hustler and coach Joe Keller to the face of grassroots basketball, longtime coach Pat Barrett. In a constant search for the next Lebron, just as before for the next Michael Jordan, AAU coaches, with support and financing from shoe giants Nike and Adidas, woo youngsters to their summer league basketball teams with gear, shoes, and promises of a college scholarship. This book has long roots: Dohrmann began his study when Walker was ten (he has since spent his freshman year at Arizona State but appears to be moving to another college); his insights into the seamy side of youth basketball are investigative journalism at its best. An easy VERDICT: this is one of the best sports books of recent years. Highly recommended.—Boyd Childress, Auburn Univ. Lib., AL

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Random House Publishing Group
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Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

The Frank A. Gonzales Community Center sits on the corner of Colton Avenue and E Street in a mostly Latino neighborhood in Colton, among houses with unkempt yards and low-sloped roofs and next to a baseball field with an all-dirt infield. Like many public buildings in the Inland Empire, it is less inviting the closer you get. The bottom third of the building is painted a reddish brown, the rest a dirty pink, and the whole rectangular structure appears in need of a good hosing. During a development spree in the 1990s, many similar structures were built—elementary schools, community centers, government buildings—and aesthetics were forsaken for speedy construction. All around the Inland Empire, these buildings rose along with cookie-cutter housing developments, each more soulless than its predecessor.

Standing outside the gymnasium, which takes up the left half of the center, you’re most aware of how the thick concrete walls and steel doors mute the life inside. Sneakers sliding, a leather ball pounding on the wood floor, coaches urging players to get back on defense, parents shouting at their kids to take the open shot—you hear none of it. The milieu of Southern California abounds: cars speeding by on Colton Avenue, the zip of an air gun from one of two auto-repair shops across the street, a constant hum from Interstate 10. The sounds of its residents, meanwhile, remain locked within that windowless cement box.

Inside the gym, on the far side of the court, Joe Keller stood with his arms folded in front of a black golf shirt. He had positioned himself at midcourt, behind the scorer’s table, which struck me as an odd place to stand. Fans seated behind him were forced to either end of the aluminum bleachers to gain a clear view of the court. Keller seemed oblivious to his obstruction, and it may have been intentional; it was like him to believe no one’s view of the court was more important than his.

He watched intently a game between a team from Santa Monica and another from Orange County. The kids on the floor were no older than eleven, some as young as eight, and it was difficult to see basketball greatness amid the chaos on the court. In the time it took me to walk from the door to the far side of the court, one small blond boy had a pass go through his hands as if they were coated in butter and the center for the Orange County team had bounced a pass off a teammate’s leg so strongly that the ball rolled into his team’s bench. Looking at Keller, I wondered if he possessed a clairvoyance that enabled him to see the game and its participants differently, to find greatness in the folly of children.

Another AAU coach, only twenty-five and in his first year of coaching, stood next to Keller. They discussed the players on the court, beginning with the eleven-year-old point guard for the Santa Monica team, the only girl in the tournament. She deftly dribbled through defenders, slipping the ball through her legs and around her back with ease, and her outfit was equally refined. The red rubber band holding back her ponytail matched the red trim on her jersey and on the black Vince Carter–model Nikes she wore.

“That’s Monica DeAngelis,” Keller told the younger coach. “Her dad is smart playing her against boys. She’ll be in the WNBA someday.”

The last line was a definitive statement; most of what came out of Keller’s mouth was not up for discussion, not that the young coach would have disagreed. He was clearly deferential and at one point folded his arms in front of his chest and widened his stance, striking the same pose as Keller. Talk turned to the point guard for the team from Orange County, an Asian kid with whom the coach was clearly impressed.

“He’s killing people,” the coach said. “You like him?”

“I don’t do Asians,” Keller responded quickly, as if he’d anticipated the question.

“What do you mean?”

“Asians don’t get tall enough. That kid is fast, sure, but how tall is he going to be? Not tall enough.”

The young coach wasn’t sure Keller was serious. “That kid is blowing by everybody, Joe. You wouldn’t want him on your team?”

“Nope. I don’t do Asians.”

Keller liked the way that sounded and that he was enlightening a younger colleague. The guard again broke free for a layup, and Keller looked at the coach and while shaking his head said, “Still . . . no Asians.”

One could sense the young coach taking notes in his head. He next brought up the portly center on the Orange County team, the tallest player on the court. This prompted a dismissive glance from Keller that suggested he had never heard a dumber question in his thirty years.

“That kid’s a truck. He can barely move. Look at his legs. They’re stumps. He’ll be lucky if he ends up six foot two. If that kid was on my team, I’d tell his parents they needed to think about switching him to football.”

As if on cue, the chubby kid missed a layup while alone under the basket and then knocked the ball out of bounds while trying to rebound his own miss.

“That kid might be retarded,” Keller said, laughing, and he segued into a story. Six months earlier, in a tournament near San Diego, Keller’s team had faced an opponent that included a center who was mentally disabled. “I mean, he was wearing a helmet. I’m serious. A fucking helmet. A couple times, my guys blocked his shot into the stands.” Keller laughed vigorously for several moments, clapping his hands in front of him as if impersonating an alligator’s bite. “What kind of coach sends a retarded kid out there? Why do that to a kid?”

There were only seconds left in the game, and Keller fell silent as Monica’s team tried for the winning score. Coming off a high screen, she got free on the right wing for a clear, albeit distant, look at the basket. Her body scrunched downward like a jack-in-the-box; the elbow on her right arm dipped so low it seemed to touch her knee. She then sprang up and slightly forward in one sudden motion—more of a heave than a release—and it seemed unlikely a decent shot would emerge from such an ungraceful motion. Yet the result was a high-arcing shot with silky backspin. Monica hopped a little on her left foot as the ball floated toward the rim, and for a moment it looked good. But the ball grazed the front of the rim and rattled within the hoop before bouncing out.

As the Orange County team celebrated, Monica put her hand to her forehead and rubbed down her damp brown hair. She bent at the waist and placed her hands on her knees, staying there even as the next two teams to play circled the court, beginning their warm-ups. One of those teams, the Arizona Stars, wore white uniforms, and its players were a mishmash of gangly and squat, black and white, athletic and awkward. In short, they were a team of children, not unlike the two squads that had finished playing moments before. The other team, the Inland Stars, was something else. Every boy was African American, and they were bigger and taller. From just watching them circle the court twice, it was clear none possessed the clumsiness one associates with rapidly growing boys. They wore black warm-ups over black uniforms and black shoes, an intimidating ensemble that contributed to my first impression: There was no way they were in the same age group as the other team.

As Keller’s team divided into two lines for a layup drill, one of the tallest players broke ranks and walked over to where Monica stood. She was still bent over, despondent over her miss, and at first she didn’t notice him. He placed his hand on her back and she looked up. He said something only she could hear and pointed toward the basket, as if to show her how close her shot had come to going in. Monica straightened up and put her hands on her hips, listening as the tall boy, who wore number 23, went on. He was smiling the whole time, a wide smile that flattened his thick top lip, and he continually shifted his weight back and forth. Finally the boy said something and Monica shook her head, as if shaking off the defeat, and then she smiled too. The boy stuck out his right hand and Monica slapped it. Mission accomplished, he pivoted on his left foot and literally jumped away from her, bouncing back into line with his teammates.

Keller had pointed this boy out earlier. His name was Demetrius Walker, and Keller spared no hyperbole in describing his abilities. He was “the best ten-year-old in the country,” so good “he could start for most high school teams right now,” and “an NBA first-rounder for sure.” This was the boy Keller believed would be better than Tyson Chandler, the child who would bring him success and riches.

At first glance Demetrius appeared to be unique. He had a large head and well-defined cheekbones, which could be evidence that he was taller and more athletic than other boys only because he matured earlier. But his arms, shoulders, chest, and legs were those of a prepubescent boy, smooth and lacking definition. Unlike his teammates, he didn’t let his shorts sag to his knees. He pulled them up to his true waist, and that gave the impression that his legs bypassed his hips and connected directly to his chest. His arms were unusually long, and one could imagine opposing coaches describing him as a kid who was “all arms and legs.” In other words, he looked like a kid with a lot of growing left to do. There were other indicators I learned about later, such as his shoe size (14) and the height of his relatives (his mom was six foot one, his uncle six foot eight), but at first I was not sure how to judge his potential. Few endeavors are less exact than trying to forecast athletic greatness in still-developing children. Keller might have unearthed something special, but how could anyone say for sure?

Keller sidled up to me as Demetrius and the rest of the Inland Stars continued their warm-ups. Away from the young coach he’d been schooling, Keller’s demeanor changed. “Look, I don’t know how we are going to play today,” he began. He said the boys had been lethargic in practice the day before and a few were nursing minor injuries. He alerted me to a player he’d recently added to the team, a smallish guard named LaBradford Franklin. “The kid’s got balls, but he is a year younger than my guys.”

His remarks felt sincere—as if he was providing important information—but also calculated. He badly wanted me to see Demetrius and his players as he did, to validate his beliefs, but he was also ready with a bagful of excuses just in case I didn’t. With the game about to start, Keller left me with one final caveat: “I know what you are going to say after the game, and so I’m saying now: Please don’t say I’m crazy like Bobby Knight. I know that is what you’re gonna think, but don’t say it.”

Just before the start, the Inland Stars gathered in a circle around Keller in front of their bench. As he spoke, he scowled and punched downward, as if he were hammering a nail with his clenched fist. “Take their hearts out!” he shouted. “Take their fucking hearts out!” His words reverberated around the gym, and no one—not his wife, Violet, who sat near the door, or the little kids playing under the bleachers— could have missed his directive. Apparently, Keller didn’t see the rules painted high on the west and east walls of the gym, one of which read:

Many different age levels use the gym and Community Center. Please consider your language — No Profanity.

Most of the Inland Stars had their heads down as Keller spoke, but Demetrius looked down the court, sizing up the Arizona Stars. They had two guards who looked athletic but otherwise didn’t match up. This was most obvious when Demetrius stood facing their center for the opening tip. They were the same height, but the Arizona center had chunky legs accentuated by white socks pulled up to his knees. When the referee stepped between them and tossed the ball skyward, the center didn’t (or couldn’t) jump and just tried to swat at the ball. Demetrius exploded off the floor, getting to the ball more than a foot above the Arizona player’s hand. He tapped the ball to a teammate, who cruised in for an uncontested score.

Keller’s team set up in a half-court trapping defense, and as the Arizona Stars inbounded the ball, he jumped up and down, screaming something incomprehensible even from where I sat fifteen feet behind him. Whatever he said, it was clearly a command for the top two players in the press to trap the ball handler. His players reacted instantly to his barks, moving toward the opposing guard with such speed that they overwhelmed him. He panicked and aimed a pass across the court to a teammate, but Demetrius stepped in front of it and walked in for a layup. The next two possessions ended with similar results, and I began to wonder if Arizona would ever get the ball across half-court.

Despite his team’s immediate dominance, Keller screamed nonstop, reacting negatively to almost everything. If one of his players missed a shot, even if it was a good attempt, Keller berated him. If an Arizona player made a miracle 3-pointer, Keller went ballistic. He reacted so strongly to perceived mistakes that he lunged forward as if he were going to run onto the court, grab one of his players by the jersey, and rip him out of the game.

From the Hardcover edition.

Meet the Author

George Dohrmann is a senior writer at Sports Illustrated and the magazine’s investigative reporter. In 2000, while working at the St. Paul Pioneer Press, he won a Pulitzer Prize for a series of stories that uncovered a college basketball team’s academic fraud. Dohrmann lives in San Francisco with his family. This is his first book.

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Play Their Hearts Out 4.4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 42 reviews.
that1guy More than 1 year ago
This is an outstanding book which chronicles the rise and fall of youth phenom basketball player Demetrius Walker and Coach Joe Keller who discovered him. Joe Keller is an opportunist who wanted the wealth and notoriety he saw other youth basketball coaches enjoying thru their associations with shoe giants Nike and Adidas. Because the high school AAU programs were already ruled by well-entrenched, legendary youth coaches like Pat Barrett and the Pump brothers, Keller found his niche evaluating and coaching the next generation of high school superstars, 10 and 11 yr olds. Keller's dream of putting together the best 10-11 yr old team in the country and keeping it together thru high school in an effort to get on the big shoe companies radar worked, sort of. This is an amazing book about the inner workings of what the author calls 'grassroots basketball' in America. It's filled with stories of opportunists and profiteers, both coaches and parents, searching out the next LeBron James in elementaries and middle schools. This is an outstanding, page-turning read from this first time author. I found myself constantly wanting to Google the players and coaches documented in the book so I could see what happened but held out till I finished the book. Read it!
MinTwinsNY More than 1 year ago
Rating: 4 of 5 stars (very good) Review: The world of youth basketball, also known as grass roots basketball, has produced some great players who had success in the professional game such as Tyson Chandler.  It has also produced stories of players who were expected to go far in their basketball careers at the age of 11 and 12 and buckled under the pressure of great expectations.  The story of one coach and his team of players in Los Angeles is told in this interesting book by George Dohrmann.  I was expecting stories like this about the players, but all of the main characters in this book were important to the story.  Coach Joe Keller is the main man of this tale, wanting to put together the best group of kids ages 10 and 11 and keep them together through high school in order to gain fame, fortune and to be the one to produce the next great player.  Keller thought he had that player in Demetrius Walker, a young impressionable boy who, like many other players, sees his coach as his father figure. What follows is a story that will make the reader cheer, laugh, but mostly shake his or her head when it is revealed just how far Keller goes to ensure that Walker is noticed and hyped as much as possible. There is considerable discussion about the role that shoe companies such as Nike, Adidas and Reebok play in the grassroots game. There are rankings of players online, recruiting of these players as early as age 9, and deals made in order to bribe parents into allowing their children to play on these teams.  Keller paid rent for more than one of his player’s living accommodations – if that player wasn’t spending most of his time at Keller’s house.  He did that and more for Walker’s family.  Walker was good enough to have his picture on the cover of Sports Illustrated.  What happens eventually to him and some of his teammates made me keep on listening to the book. The narration provide by Speer for the audio book was very good as she told the story of young men and their interactions in a manner that you didn’t realize the gender difference or that it was a woman speaking language and phrases that young men share only with other young men.  I felt that by listening to instead of reading this book, I was able to stay connected to the basketball players.  I was cheering for them to all have happy endings by the end – whether that happened is something that I will not give away here.  If one wants to learn more about the inner workings of youth basketball, this is an excellent source of information for that topic.  Pace of the book: It moves along very well. The story stays on track as the author rarely veers off topic on side stories.  They are all about Coach Keller, his team, his players or their families.    Do I recommend? Yes – although be prepared for some melancholy stories as not all of the boys have successful endings.  If the reader wants to learn more about grass roots basketball, both the good and the ugly, this book covers it all. Book Format Read: Audio book
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VoraciousJP More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This book shows why some many kids don't pan out because everyone can say "you never no he might not pan out" well this books shows exactly why and how even some kids at this age were not superstars they surpass the kids who are only connected to AAU coaches and there method of "In the moment" and what goes through an overhyped cocky teenager (Demetrius Walker) and some many stories and situations that players will not compete do to their rankings. This is a most  read if your involved in Grassroots basketball in anyway.
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