It’s tough to spot good guys in youth bas­ket­ball

Los Angeles Times - - Inside Baseball - BILL DWYRE

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 ami­cro­phone 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 jock­sniff­ing 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. 1ranked 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-atall-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 9and 10-year-olds, but you won’t find any in this book.

It comes out Oct. 5. Read it. It’ll make you sick.


Eight years of re­port­ing went into Dohrmann’s book.

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