Dec 28, 2010

Roberto & Lost Chapter

Oregon State and Roberto Nelson host Arizona State on Thursday and it will be the first Pac-10 game of Roberto’s career. In his most recent action against Illinois-Chicago, Roberto finally looked like the special player that I wrote about in Play Their Hearts Out. He scored 14 points on six of eight shooting, and his conditioning and accuracy looked improved after his more than a year on the sidelines.

“You guys now can see what the hoopla has been about,” Beavers coach Craig Robinson said:  “After [Roberto] made that drive to the baseline . . . and just jumped over everybody and just made the shot. Coach [Doug] Stewart who was next to me on the bench said it was like watching somebody else’s player. Because we’ve never had that.”

Those who have read PTHO know that Roberto is one of my favorite players. I grew close to him and his father, Bruce, and Roberto and I still talk regularly, and I hope that we will remain close forever. Astute readers might also have noted that at the end of the book, in the epilogue, I wrote that Bruce was sent to prison during Roberto’s senior year. Beyond that one sentence, this major development in Roberto’s life was not covered in the book.

I didn’t intend to ignore that storyline. I wrote a lengthy chapter about Bruce’s trial and sentencing and the impact that had on Roberto, but that chapter was cut when my editor at Random House wisely suggested that I pare down the manuscript. On one hand, it was an easy cut; the chapter took readers away from the story of Demetrius Walker, which rightfully dominates the last chapters. As a journalist, however, I found it hard to omit such a huge storyline and worried that I would be accused of showing favoritism toward Bruce while being very critical of other parents.

The broad stokes of what Bruce did and its impact on Roberto are detailed in this article by Paul Buker of The Oregonian (http://blog.oregonlive.com/behindbeaversbeat/2010/12/oregon_state_basketball_for_ro.html). I’m relieved that someone has finally written about Bruce’ s crimes and how it hurt Roberto. (And kudos to Buker for arranging to speak to Bruce. It is not like you can just call the state prison in Chino, Calif. and ask for him.) It is important that people understand what Roberto went through and why his grades slipped his senior year and why he subsequently had to miss his first season as a partial academic qualifier.

I considered posting the entire “lost” chapter that I cut from the book, but instead I decided to go with two scenes that I think speak to what Roberto endured

 

SCENE 1:

 

One day shortly after Bruce was arrested, Roberto was walking with his girlfriend at school when a male teacher approached them.

“Are you alright?” he said.

“We’re fine,” Roberto responded.

“No, I wasn’t talking to you,” the teacher said in a lecturing tone. “I was talking to her.” He pointed to Roberto’s girlfriend, a slender Latino girl. “Are you alright?”

Roberto cried as he told his mother about the exchange later and threatened to punch the teacher the next time he saw him. “Please, baby, you have to be strong,” she counseled.

Interviewers from the local newspaper and television stations would ask to speak with Roberto about an upcoming football game or the start of basketball season and then ambush him with questions about Bruce.

“My dad keeps me out of all that,” he would say, which was true; Bruce never discussed his case with his son. Some reporters would press him and Roberto would shift his weight and bite at his lower lip, refusing to say another word about it.

After a particularly tough week, when reports about Bruce filled the news cycle and he learned that one of his former teammates called Bruce a “rapist,” Roberto sent a text message to his mom in which he wrote: “Mom, do you think people look at me like they look at dad?”

“I don’t think so, baby,” she responded.

A short time later, he sent Roberta another text message, which read, “I wanna get out of this place.”

 

SCENE 2:

 

On the night before the verdict was handed down, Bruce lied on the couch in his living room. He had been unable to sleep for most of the trial and Roberta, who was now living with them, had taken to giving him Xanax, but even that didn’t work. At around 4 a.m., less than 12 hours before he heard the verdict, Bruce paced the apartment, ultimately ending up in the doorway to Roberto’s room. He often peered into Roberto’s room on the nights he couldn’t sleep. He would stand and watch his son’s body rise and fall with each breath as a clock in the room ticked, as if counting down the time he had left with his son. He was in the doorway for only a moment before Roberto stirred and said, “Hey dad, I see you.”

“Sorry, son,” Bruce answered. “I didn’t mean to wake you.”

“It’s okay. I’ve been awake.”

Bruce walked to Roberto’s bed as Roberto slid over and Bruce lied down next to him. He wrapped his left arm over Roberto and told him how much he loved him and then Bruce sobbed. “It will be okay, dad,” Roberto said over and over. “It will all be okay.”

 

 So, in closing, cheer for Roberto this Thursday against Arizona State (7:30 PST on FSN NW) and in every game. He’s worth rooting for.

Dec 22, 2010

Reader Responses
I've gotten a lot of very kind and thoughtful responses from readers of Play Their Hearts Out. If I had to pick one that is my favorite, this is it:

Mr. Dohrmann,

I am a 16 year old from New Jersey. I just wanted to let you know that I am not a big fan of books and rarely read, but when I spotted Play Their Hearts Out at Barnes and Nobles, it looked interesting so I bought it. I finished it last night and absolutely LOVED it! It took me less than a week to finish, and I was hooked up from the beginning. I love basketball and play AAU myself, and am hoping to play college ball one day so this was a great read for me because it really applied to me. I loved it so much my mother has started to read it just to see how i could love a book so much. I just wanted to say thank you and keep up the good work!

Matt Hochberg

I'm not entirely certain why I liked this note so much. It might be that Matt is young and the book hit home with him, and I can remember when that happened to me in high school. I read Friday Night Lights and got excited and then I devoured sports book after sports book going forward. I also loved that Matt's mom had to read the book to discover what got him so jazzed. Really touching.

Anyway, thanks to Matt and all the readers who have reached out via email or on Facebook and Twitter. I love hearing your thoughts, positive and critical. Keep them coming.

Dec 1, 2010

Catching up with one of the good guys.

 

One of the really good guys in PLAY THEIR HEARTS OUT is Ryan Smith, who coaches Demetrius Walker during his sophomore season at Fontana (Calif.) High.  He helps Demetrius rebuild his game and his confidence.  In the bigger picture, he represents something too rare in Demetrius’ life (and in all of grassroots basketball): A coach motivated solely by the joy he gets from teaching and mentoring kids.

 Since the book came out, I have received a number of emails and tweets mentioning Ryan and so I thought it would be good to provide an update on what he is doing and share some of his thoughts on the book and Demetrius.

 

So where are you working and coaching now?

 

I’m still at Fontana High teaching special education. I’m not coaching there anymore, however. I’m in my second year at Azusa Pacific University (APU) as an assistant coach for men’s basketball. We played in the NAIA National title game last and we’re hoping to make it back this year. I help out with recruiting in the Inland Empire and all the coaches do a little bit of everything so that we are balanced, well-rounded coaches.

 

In the book, you meet Demetrius when he is at the bottom, after his freshman season in high school. He had fallen in the rankings to the 200s, but more importantly his confidence was gone and his game was a mess. I assume the book gave you a better understanding of how he got that way.

 

I had a decent understanding of him while he was here, but the book brought a whole new light on why he acted the way he did before I was coaching him, the faking injuries and not working hard, all the bad things I had heard. It was a long fall for him, and as you said I got him at the bottom, which was kind of nice because he was more than willing to work. The biggest thing I learned about him from the book was that I thought the fame and the popularity was something he was pushing for, but in the book you see that Joe Keller was always leading him, pushing him along. Demetrius was a pawn.

Knowing everything now, I have more respect for Demetrius because it was tough to get through that. I probably wish I had more sympathy for him then. I probably would have given him more hugs or offered to talk with him more. He’d been through some rough stuff.

 

You didn’t have a lot of dealings with Joe Keller, as he was mostly out of Demetrius’ life when you came along, but there were two instances, no?

            

Joe called me one time and asked me if I wanted Adidas uniforms and I politely told him “No.” I told him to come to the games, enjoy the games, but I told him we were good on all that stuff even though we weren’t. I just didn’t want to get involved with him and all of that.

He also came to one of our games and he sat in front of my father. He didn’t know my father was behind him and the whole game he was making negative comments about me, questioning my coaching tactics. I remember one thing he talked about was how unprofessional I was because I wore a pair of Vans. I had on khaki pants and a collared shirt but was wearing Vans and he kept talking about that. Reading the book and learning about him, how he acted on the sideline and all the profanity he used and his lack of basketball knowledge, I find it funny now that he called me unprofessional.

 

There was a time when Demetrius didn’t trust you. His remark in the book was that he didn’t know what your angle was. Before you, he hadn’t had a head coach who didn’t want something from him. Given how close you were to your high school coach growing up, I wonder if that was difficult for you to read?

 

I always loved the ideal of a high school coach because they get nothing from their players. They do it because the love the game and love working with kids. Travel coaches do it to get paid. My high school coach taught me a lot more than basketball. He taught me about the value of hard work, of listening, of teammate, everything you are supposed to learn from coach. Of course it is hard to hear that Demetrius didn’t have that kind of relationship with his coach growing up. He should have had that.

 

One of the more gut wrenching sections of the book is when Demetrius decides to go against your advice and play for Pat Barrett, a notorious AAU coach and corrupt profiteer, which ultimately leads to him leaving Fontana High and you.

 

It was the wrong decision. After his sophomore year, Demetrius was shooting the ball better, and he had all this confidence after the season because he had a great year. He thought he was complete, ready to show the world that he was back. But I knew he wasn’t ready and that he would struggle, and I told him it was not the time for him to play AAU ball again. But he wanted to get his high ranking back and he thought he would go out over the summer and score and shoot well.  Anybody who was not Demetrius knew that was not going to happen; he needed more than a year to change his game. But he went out and struggled and he got hooked up with Pat and that lead to him transferring to JSerra High in Orange County. I wish he would have stayed at Fontana. I saw him play for JSerra a year later and he hadn’t gotten any better, and he is still playing catch up.

 

Do you still talk to Demetrius?

 

We talk about once a week. Usually about basketball or he tells me about his tattoos and he talks about his knees, how rehab after surgery is going, and about school. I tease him about his shooting and his ball-handling and about how he can’t get a girlfriend. It’s like he never left. We are still close.

 

Demetrius transferred from Arizona State to New Mexico and is sitting out this season. I think it could be good for him to just take a year and work on his game. What are your thoughts?

 

It could be the best thing for him. But the big “If” is: Will he work on what the coaches want him to work on and then do those things in practice or games. He can’t just do it in practice. The feeling I got from last season at ASU was that he went through the routine to appease the coaches but once on the court he was like, “I’m going to do my thing.” He can’t do that. You have to be a complete basketball player. I hope he looks at the way a kid like Kendall Williams (another PTHO kid) is doing at New Mexico and that motivates him that players he played against and with might be passing him by. I hope he takes this year really seriously. He’s got some good coaches there who can help him catch up.


What is your plan for the future?


I’m looking to get into a doctorate program, probably at APU, so I can teach in college. I’d like to get a college job teaching and then also coach as well. I don’t fancy the mortality rate of the assistant coaches at the Division I level, who are there for three of four years and get fired. NAIA or D-II is as high as I’d want to go. Division I is where you get into all that stuff that was in the book and I don’t want to be around that. I like the small college atmosphere of a place like Azusa, where I can build relationships with the kids that will last forever.