If you are a basketball fan, I urge you to read George Dohrmann's new and highly acclaimed book, "Play Their Hearts Out," a captivating and compelling look into what is described as "the wildly dysfunctional, incredibly lucrative youth basketball machine" and "the Friday Night Lights of grassroots basketball."
You'll thank me in the morning.
Dohrmann, a senior writer at Sports Illustrated and the magazine's investigative reporter, spent more than eight years gathering information on youth basketball in southern California, the coaches, the players, their parents and their involvement with shoe companies. If you had a hint about what is going on, this book will broaden your education.
In 2000, while working for the St. Paul (Minn.) Pioneer Press, Dohrmann was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for a series of stories that uncovered academic fraud involving the University of Minnesota's men's basketball team. This is his first book. Trust me, you won't forget it. And you won't put it down.
Dohrmann was granted access to coaches and parents and a group of talented young basketball players as they traveled from coast to coast to participate in elite AAU tournaments. The two major figures in the drama are coach Joe Keller and Demetrius Walker, who once was rated as the No. 1 player in the nation as a 10-year-old.
There are other figures who receive plenty of exposure, including Sonny Vaccaro of Nike/Adidas/Reebok fame and the Godfather of grassroots basketball, Pat Barrett, a well-known AAU coach in the Los Angeles area who once was described by Nevada-Las Vegas coach Jerry Tarkanian as "the biggest whore in the business," and recruiting analyst Clark Francis of Hoop Scoop, whose national ratings are a driving force among pre-teens.
If you think grassroots basketball has all the respectability of an ambulance chaser and the integrity of a slave auction, you won't be disappointed or surprised by Dohrmann's findings. It is all there in glorious technicolor, one detail after another, one example after another, one quote after another, names and dates and places. There are no anonymous sources.
But if you think that it is a legitimate and upstanding way of helping kids to get exposure to college coaches and to obtain scholarships, this accounting of the exploitation that turns many youngsters' hoop dreams into nightmares--even before their teenage years, even before they enroll in high school--might open your eyes and your minds.
The power wielded by the shoe companies is astonishing. They have all the clout of Michael Madigan, maybe more, whether they are dealing with the NCAA or the NBA.
There are payoffs of at least $1,000 a month to mothers to move their sons from one school to another to another and at least $100,000 a year to coaches to wear the logo of Nike, Adidas or Reebok. Kids whose perception of a nutritious meal is a taco or pizza washed down with Gatorade are wooed with enough sneakers and warmup suits and merchandise to open their own stores.
Keller and Walker are fascinating characters and Dohrmann follows them from the time Keller proclaims that he has a master plan to establish the best youth program in the country and discover "the next LeBron," from the time that Clark Francis declares that 10-year-old Demetrius Walker is the No. 1 player in the nation in his age group to the point where Francis drops him to No. 250 as a 16-year-old.
In the end, there aren't too many hard feelings. Keller thrives on the publicity and continues to do his thing with a new crop of youngsters, leaving Walker behind. Walker earns a college scholarship but never seems to regain the magic he once had. Most of the other players in Keller's program also go to college. Barrett still is coaching AAU basketball. And the shoe companies continue to thrive and do business as usual, with the blessing of the NCAA and NBA commissioner David Stern.
Read the book. It isn't a stretch to compare what Dohrmann uncovered in southern California to what is going on in Chicago, Philadelphia, Atlanta, New York City, Detroit and other parts of the country...the coaches, players and parents...the exploitation, payoffs and greed...just change the names and the faces.