by

New Book Offers Disturbing Portrait of Youth Basketball

Chronicle of Higher Education

You may wonder what a book about middle-school basketball phenoms has to do with college sports. Unfortunately, a lot. In Play Their Hearts Out, George Dohrmann, a Pulitzer Prize-winning sports writer, chronicles the dark side of grassroots basketball—one that many of us on the edges may think we understand but have never seen at this disturbing level of detail.

Dohrmann spends eight years following the rise of Joe Keller, who installed car stereos and did welding before becoming a youth-basketball coach in the recruiting hotbed of Southern California. His prized player, Demetrius Walker, could dunk a basketball just years out of elementary school, and is profiled in Sports Illustrated at age 14. For much of the book, Keller plays surrogate father to Demetrius as they cross the country showcasing his enormous talent. But when the kid stops growing and is forced to transition to a new role, his game is exposed for the shortcomings any decent coach would never have allowed him to have.

Keller, meanwhile, is exposed as a money-grubber, constantly angling for a bigger shoe contract for his team, which he uses to bribe players, and plotting a chain of camps for elite grade-school players that would ultimately make his fortune. As that comes together, he sends a heartless text message to Demetrius, deserting him just as he did his wife when, years earlier, he flew off to a tournament as she was about to give birth.

Demetrius is one of the many casualties in a story full of villains, a surprising number of whom are college coaches. Although most don’t make an appearance until the players are well into high school, some prowl the sidelines before they are allowed to have contact with young athletes. Pete Carroll, the former USC football coach, meets the father of one of Demetrius’s teammates after watching him star in a basketball game. The kid’s father tells the coach that his son is an even better quarterback. A few days later, several boosters of a wealthy California high school try to get their hooks into him.

If there’s one coach portrayed anywhere near as unflatteringly as Keller, it’s Tim Floyd, USC’s former basketball coach, who dangles a scholarship at Demetrius and would probably have pulled it in a minute if his program hadn’t come under NCAA investigation. Instead, Demetrius, who ultimately rehabbed his game by moving out of the cesspool of Southern California, is the one holding the cards. Although he had verbally committed to USC, once he took an unfettered look at the program, he didn’t like what he saw.

When he heard the player had cold feet about his commitment, Floyd called Demetrius with some words that he (and anyone reading this) will have a hard time forgetting.

“You’ve been committed to us for months. Why are you having these feelings now?” Floyd asked.

“I don’t know, Coach. I don’t know why I am having these funny feelings, but it’s how I feel.”

“I don’t really have time for this,” Floyd said. “There are other guys out there we can recruit. I don’t have time to be waiting around for you.”

“Well, that’s your choice. I don’t want you to sign anyone else right now. I’d like you to wait like two days, just give me some time to think.”

Floyd accused Demetrius of wanting to look at other schools, and then the conversation deteriorated, the author writes.

“I see what kind of person you are,” Floyd said. “You are a liar and you are not a man of your word. … I’ll tell you this: If any NBA teams interested in you come talk to me first, I am going to tell them who the real Demetrius Walker is.” Then the coach hung up.

Demetrius was so distraught about jeopardizing his future career, he considered calling the coach back and signing. Instead he committed to Arizona State, where he spent last season before announcing in April that he would transfer to New Mexico.

There’s so much slime surrounding the scenes in this book, just out from Ballantine, that some reviewers have said they felt like they needed a shower once they finished reading it. I just felt sad for the many ways the supposed adults in this story let the kids down. The mother of one player shockingly forces her son to keep playing for a high-school coach whom her son said had made sexual advances toward him. “Whoever pays the rent is who you’re playing for,” she says.

In one particularly moving scene, Keller is driving back from a tournament with Dohrmann, with Demetrius asleep in the back seat.

“Joe,” the author asks. “What happens if D doesn’t make the NBA?”

The coach shot him a look like he had insulted his wife. Keller thought for a moment, and before he answered, he looked to the back seat to make sure Demetrius was still asleep, the author writes. The player was lying on his side, facing the front, and his hands were wrapped together and tucked under his cheek. He looked like a little boy lost in his dreams.

“Well, then all this would have been a waste of time,” Keller said. “Demetrius would have been a bad investment.”

Return to Top