Play Their Hearts Out

BOOK OVERVIEW

The NBA has returned to prominence on the backs of such phenoms as LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, and Kevin Garnett. The media promotes them, the shoe companies pay them, and America applauds. But how exactly do such players reach the pros? What do they do to get there? And what happens to those who fall short? In PLAY THEIR HEARTS OUT: A Coach, His Star Recruit, and the Youth Basketball Machine (Ballantine Books; On Sale: October 5, 2010), Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and Sports Illustrated senior writer George Dohrmann uncovers the tough truths hiding behind the romanticized hoop dreams of America’s basketball prodigies and their families as they navigate this high-pressure world of big business and hoped-for NBA stardom. This is narrative nonfiction at its absolute best—by turns illuminating, maddening, heartbreaking, page-turning, and ultimately hopeful.

Based on eight years of research and unfettered access, Dohrmann details what he learned from his years spent embedded with a group of talented young recruits from southern California as they travel the country playing in elite Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) events. It’s a cutthroat world where boys as young as eight and nine are subjected to a dizzying torrent of scrutiny and exploitation. Coaches vie to have them on their teams. Sneaker companies ply them with free shoes and gear. All-star "camps" are glorified cattle auctions, providing make-or-break opportunities to secure the promise of an elusive college scholarship and a possible NBA career. Following a team of pre-adolescents from its humble origins through national championships and high school, PLAY THEIR HEARTS OUT exposes a shady system in which talent is a commodity even before puberty and where big business rules the day.

At the book’s heart are the personal stories of two compelling figures: Joe Keller, an ambitious AAU coach with a master plan to find and promote "the next LeBron"—thereby paving his own path to power and riches; and Demetrius Walker, a fatherless latchkey kid who falls under Keller’s sway at the tender age of nine and struggles to live up to the unrealistic expectations his supposed benefactor has set for him. As their fortunes take shape and the pressure mounts—Demetrius finds himself profiled in Sports Illustrated at age fourteen by a reporter who caught onto the hype, while Keller cultivates his business empire—Dohrmann weaves in the stories of numerous other parents, coaches, and players. Some of them see their prospects evaporate as a result of poor decisions and worse luck. Others learn how to thrive in a corrupt system by playing the right angles.

Written with incomparable detail and insight, PLAY THEIR HEARTS OUT is a gripping and thoroughly unique narrative the reveals the inner workings of an American game, exposing what lies beneath so many dreams of fame and glory.

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REVIEWS

 Kirkus Reviews, June 15, 2010 [Starred review]
Though Sports Illustrated senior writer Dohrmann is not the first to expose the seedy side of elite youth basketball leagues—a world in which middle schoolers are exploited by shoe companies and avaricious men intent on building fortunes without regard for the welfare of their charges—he is the most ambitious. Rather than profiling a single player, the author developed a relationship with an inexperienced, underqualified, but desperately determined young coach named Joe Keller and spent eight years chronicling his players’ struggles during their coach’s improbable rise from no-name youth coach to multimillionaire power broker. Before Keller, companies like Nike and Adidas fought over the most promising high-school prospects in the hopes of signing the next Kobe Bryant or LeBron James. Keller, however, set his sights on a previously taboo pool of players: still-developing nine- and ten-year olds. Despite his ambiguous morals, the coach displayed an impressive eye for talent, recruiting a team of young phenoms led by Demetrius Walker, who was soon ranked as the top player in his age group. Keller’s ascent within the grassroots community contrasts sharply with Walker’s struggles to live up to the hype generated by his power-hungry coach. Dohrmann’s account of Walker’s rise, fall and resurrection is more than a simple indictment of the grassroots system; it’s a warning shot across the bow of the basketball community to end the exploitation of good kids from difficult backgrounds whose opportunity to use their athletic gifts to forge a better life is stolen by morally bankrupt companies and shady middlemen. On the surface, it’s an easy story—unscrupulous white men making money off the sweat of undereducated urban youth—but in the author’s skilled hands, a potentially trite morality play becomes a powerful, nuanced chronicle populated with struggling parents, coaches both villainous and virtuous, and confused kids whose innocence is too readily exchanged for a long shot at glory before they understand the price. A landmark achievement in basketball journalism.

Publishers Weekly, July 26, 2010 [Starred review]
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.

Library Journal, September 1, 2010 [Starred review]
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.

Booklist, May 15, 2010
Basketball fans frequently hear references to AAU (Amateur Athletic Union) summer leagues, in which young players have a chance to hone their games. The AAU leagues are often criticized for exploiting young kids, but most of these charges have been based on rumor or hearsay. Until now. Dohrmann, the last sportswriter to win a Pulitzer Prize, spent approximately nine years researching this book; the story begins in 2000, when he convinced AAU coach Joe Keller to give him unfettered access to his team, the Inland Stars. The only condition was that the book wouldn’t be published until the players—then 9 and 10 years old—were in college. Keller is a fascinating subject, a mix of positive characteristics—he is a genuinely caring father figure for many of his players—and profoundly negative. In Dohrmann’s portrayal, Keller emerges as a shameless promoter of himself and his players, a poor coach, and a man for whom ethics are always relative. Money, of course, is key; surprisingly, there are lots of ways for coaches to profit in the underground basketball world, mainly from shoe companies (the real villains in this story) in the form of cash as well as products, prestige, and influence. In fact, as Dohrmann shows, everyone makes money in this "amateur" enterprise except the kids. An eye-opening look at the underbelly of modern American sports.

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BLURBS

"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 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 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. It 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

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