Not your typical feel-good sports book
A good book will leave you laughing or crying. I just read one that left me wanting to take a shower.
It is titled “Play Their Hearts Out.” It is about youth basketball and the general slime that surrounds it. If you think Johnny and Joey get those college scholarships by shooting hoops over the garage door and being molded to greatness by venerable Coach Tom at Neighborhood High, think again.
First, some disclaimers. The book is written by George Dohrmann, who worked for me on the sports staff of The Times from 1995 to 1997. He is also the son of one of my college classmates.
Next, some background. He is one of a handful of sportswriters to win a Pulitzer Prize, a group that includes The Times’ Jim Murray. The others won for years of insightful reporting but more so for years of elegant writing. Dohrmann was 27 when he won his Pulitzer for documenting how Clem Haskins, then the University of Minnesota basketball coach, had schoolwork done for his players by a tutor. There was minimal elegance in that. Just dogged reporting.
This book took eight years of dogged reporting. Dohrmann received access to a grassroots AAU team of 9- and 10-year-olds with the agreement that if he wrote anything, it wouldn’t be until after they were out of high school. He traveled on his dime and in his free time away from his day job as a writer for Sports Illustrated.
In the current Internet age of so-called sports journalism, which often consists of someone sitting at a computer or in front of a microphone in pajamas and opining on things he or she knows little about, Dohrmann is a throwback and a bulldog. The best journalism remains that done with exhaustive documentation and backed by impeccable credibility. That’s why, unlike the yearly boatload of jock-sniffing sports books that are best suited for pep-rally bonfires, this one might actually get some attention and make a difference.
One main character is a coach named Joe Keller, who installed car stereos and did welding work in the Inland Empire before becoming a youth coach. Joe now lives in a big home in Moreno Valley, runs lucrative programs called Phenom Camps for basketball players still several years from being high school freshmen and has characterized himself to Dohrmann as a millionaire.
The other is Demetrius Walker, recruited by Keller at age 9 and showcased as the next LeBron. Walker, several years shy of puberty — but with a great jump shot and no father in his life — goes from the No. 1-ranked youth player in the country to a sullen, disillusioned kid. Eventually, Walker realizes that Keller has used him for his own purposes and discarded him, so he pulls himself up enough to make the college ranks and is now a player at New Mexico.
The world through which Keller takes Walker is one of shocking greed and ego, one where adults use and abuse children under the banner of sport. There are few good guys in this book, but certainly not the coaches who seek the big dollars of the shoe companies, nor the shoe companies that provide them.
This is how it works.
The shoe companies — Adidas, Reebok, Nike, etc. — are always looking for the next Michael Jordan, whose unmatchable endorsement power whetted everybody’s appetite for more.
The youth coaches gather teams, play win-at-all-costs games, emulate Bob Knight along the sidelines during games and hope that the shoe companies will not only hear about them and provide their young and impressionable players with free shoes and product, but also put them on the payroll.
Mom and dad allow their 9- and 10-year-olds to be used and yelled at because they have visions of college scholarships and pro contracts. Some parents allow their children to play only if the coach pays their rent. If the coach does so, it is most often with money from the shoe companies. If the parents have money, they bribe coaches to have their child included.
Hangers-on publish ratings of these almost teenagers, even though these raters often have never seen the players they are rating. High ratings of their players, in recruiting newsletters and on websites, mean more leverage for the youth coach with the shoe companies. They are also a recruiting guideline for college coaches, who know these ratings have minimal credibility and ought to know better than to use them.
These children play in multiple games and tournaments that become, to them, the only measure of their worth. The tournaments become meat markets for coaches, scouts and raters, as well the youth coaches’ auditions for the shoe companies.
It is a complicated world of disgusting sleaze that, although not new, continues to stay beneath the radar of high school associations and the NCAA. The NCAA might be alone in having the clout and resources to fix this, but it is usually too busy fixing the piles of sludge at its member schools.
There may be some redeeming qualities in organized basketball for 9- and 10-year-olds, but you won’t find any in this book.
It comes out Oct. 5. Read it. It’ll make you sick.