October 06, 2010
Of all the basketball books published the past few years, George Dohrmann's "Play Their Hearts Out" may be the one I'm most excited to read.
First of all, Dohrmann delivers an unflinching look at the seedy world of AAU basketball through the eyes of a group of highly touted young players he follows from middle school until they're ready to select a college. And adding to my intrigue, the players and coaches Dohrmann writes about are all folks I once covered at my former newspaper.
There's New Mexico sophomore Demetrius Walker, a kid who graced the cover of Sports Illustrated as "the next LeBron" in middle school only to be labeled a has-been by age 16 when he didn't meet expectations. There's Roberto Nelson, Aaron Moore, Rome Draper and a handful of other players who have gone on to varying amounts of college success. And there's Joe Keller, the Southern California AAU coach who brought the kids together as 10-year-olds and hoped to make it big off of shoe deals and his players' future NBA earnings.
Dohrmann was kind enough to chat with me on the phone recently about the book, which hit stores on Tuesday. I asked him about how he came up with the idea for the book, how the early exposure impacted Walker's career and what message he'd like young players and parents to take from reading what he wrote.
JE: How did you get the idea to follow this group of 10-year-olds until the end of they were ready to enter college?
GD: When I got to Sports Illustrated, the first story I pitched was about Tyson Chandler as he was making the jump to the league. There were a ton of people hovering around him at that time, agents and AAU coaches and what-not. During the reporting for that, I met this guy Joe Keller who was Chandler's first grass roots coach. He sort of discovered Chandler on the blacktops. So I interviewed Joe for the story. Then after the story ran, I saw Joe again, we started talking and he told me about this team of 10-year-olds he started that was going to have a bunch of NBA players on it and one kid was going to be better than Tyson Chandler. I thought about it and I'd written so much about AAU basketball but really hadn't done much that I felt was impactful. A lot of the stuff that gets written hits on stuff, but I'd never read anything where I felt like we saw what the machine does, how it operates from beginning to end. So I decided this was an opportunity to follow this team starting at when they're 10 years old and follow them all the way through.
JE: Was there anything you weren't allowed to see, or was it total access?
GD: There were things that Joe withheld from me, his conversations with parents and stuff like that. Then I'd usually be able to get that from the parent later. And then later on when Joe got in with Adidas, there were things he kept from me. But I think the vast majority of what went on, I had access to.
JE: Do you think the reason Joe felt comfortable doing this was the publicity was positive for his program and by the time the book came out, he'd have made his money?
GD: I think Joe took a short-term gain not knowing what the long-term would be. He liked the idea of having someone from Sports Illustrated follow around his program. He told me, 'mail me 30 of your business cards' right after we talked about me following his team. He'd send them out to parents, so in a way I became a recruiting tool for him. It was a trade we made. He could use me as a recruiting tool, but I'm going to get access. It was a short-term decision by Joe. Joe was very poor at the time and he was thinking about the next paycheck. He wasn't thinking about that what he said in 2001 would be published in 2010.
JE: The excerpt from the book in Sports Illustrated paints Joe in a bad light. At what point did it become clear to you that Demetrius and the other boys were being exploited?
GD: Early on, it was more complex than that. Joe did a lot for Demetrius. He took him to school, helped him with his homework and really was a father figure for Demetrius. It was sort of later as Demetrius' star rose, shoe companies got involved and money was on the table, then it became more about Joe setting himself up. You could see where that was going and how it was shifting. He started out with some good intentions but money got in the way.
JE: When did Joe's relationship with Demetrius sour?
GD: There was a turning point really. Around eighth grade, what we started seeing with Demetrius was that he needed to learn how to be a guard. He'd always been bigger, taller and faster so he was a post player, but it was pretty clear that he was always going to be 6-foot-2 or 6-foot-3 and he wasn't going to have the growth spurt Joe had hoped for. He needed to be a perimeter player and Joe didn't prepare him for that. That was happening at the same time as Joe's star with Adidas and in the basketball money-making machine was on the rise. He was becoming a grass roots star, the Sonny Vaccaro of middle schoolers. This was happening at the same time Demetrius was deteriorating. That was really the key moment. Demetrius really needed Joe to help him adapt to the perimeter and deal emotionally with struggling for the first time and Joe was pulling away to focus on his other business interests because that was what was best for him and his family. By the end of his freshman year of high school, it was pretty much over between Joe and Demetrius.
JE: How did Demetrius change with everything he endured being anointed a star at such a young age?
GD: Demetrius was always an old soul. He was a latch-key kid at 5-years-old. He got himself ready for school, he came home to an empty house and he was also around adults a lot because his mom wasn't around a lot. He was hard working and even when he got rated by Clark Francis and appeared in Sports Illustrated the first time, he was pretty humble. That held true until after the Sports Illustrated article. Then when he started to struggle, that combination really hurt him. He became a little selfish, a little arrogant. It was partly a defense mechanism. As he struggled, he didn't know how to deal with it and he would blame other people. So he went through a period of two years where he was insecure and at times could be arrogant. Then when he moved to Arizona, I think that really helped him. He got away from the machine, he played basketball to play basketball and he led his team to a state title. I think he found some joy in the game again. And now he's found good perspective. He knows he's been scarred. He got hyped and exploited in a way he shouldn't have been and that affected him, but he's determined to write a happy ending.
JE: How much do you think it hurt Demetrius that we are now evaluating prospects in middle school as opposed to closer to college?
GD: If they had first judged Demetrius when he was 15 years old, they would have said, oh, here's a 6-2 guard who's very athletic. He's got a lot of potential. He needs to work on his ball handling, but he's a freakish athlete. He's a nice player. You wouldn't have said he's the next LeBron. But two years earlier when they started ranking him? He's the next LeBron. At least wait until high school. When the coaches call you and Clark Francis call you, don't take their calls. Don't talk to them after tournaments. Just play the game.
JE: This is something I always wondered following Demetrius' career. If nobody knew who Demetrius was until he got to college and he'd just been a normal kid, how different do you think he'd be as a player and a person?
GD: I write in one chapter about two other local AAU coaches, Keith Howard and Julius Patterson. I sort of set them up as honest AAU coaches in a den of sharks. I think the logical plan would have been for Demetrius to play at Fontana and picked up on their teams. They're really great guys, they had Darren Collison, they had a bunch of guys and they were known in the area for being good coaches. Most likely he would have been found by those guys and nurtured in the right way and brought along slowly. So I think the model for what Demetrius might have been is Darren Collison. You've got to think Demetrius would have been with Julius and Keith, he probably would have gone to Etiwanda (High School) and he would have been that kid that Darren Collison was, which was under the radar until his senior season. I don't know that Demetrius would have been as good a player as Darren Collison, but I do think the script in terms of him flying under the radar and then being better than people expected would have been a more likely script. As far as him as a person, I think he would have been more confident. Demetrius will come across as very confident, but it often masks genuine fear about living up to what people put on him. There were times where he hid on the court and shied away from challenges. That would never have been planted in him had he come up the way Darren Collison did.
JE: What message do you hope a kid in Demetrius' position now would take from reading the book?
GD: I think I would just say slow down. Follow the Roberto Nelson example. What Roberto did was put the machine at bay. He didn't even really play AAU ball one summer. He decided to stay at home and work on his game. If you're good enough, you're good enough. You don't need the ranking and you don't need the hype. Here's a great example of this. Demetrius was the No. 1 eighth grader in the country, right? Well, where was John Wall ranked? I don't know, but I don't think it was in the top 10 of Clark Francis' ratings. John Wall and Demetrius are in the same class. Where's John Wall now and where's Demetrius? It just isn't important. If I was a kid, I'd do exactly what Roberto did. Work on your game but don't let the machine run you, don't let these shoe companies tell you need to play in this game or that. Too many kids feel beholden to these shoe companies and these coaches, and what they really should do is be basketball players and be kids.
JE: How hopeful are you that the book will be an instigator for change?
GD: I don't know if it's possible. There's some debate over what the problem is, and I think if you read the book you know that the problem is with the developmental system of basketball. Until we remove the shoe companies' control and interests, it won't change. I'm not that optimistic that the book will spark any reform because the system is so corrupt and it's so embedded in the way that the talent comes up. But I at least hope that some important people like David Stern or the head of the NCAA or some prominent coaches do give it a glance and put aside this charade that Nike and Adidas are going to do what's good for basketball in America. They're going to do what's good for their companies and to think they're going to serve a dual purpose and take the high road is a joke that they need to stop perpetuating.