Play Their Hearts Out: A Coach, His Star Recruit, and the Youth Basketball Machine
By George Dohrmann
Hardcover, 424 pages
List price: $25
The Education Of Demetrius Walker
September 27, 2010
During eight years of reporting on grassroots basketball, the author saw coaches, recruiting analysts and sneaker companies put the marketing of talented young athletes ahead of their development as players
BY GEORGE DOHRMANN
In the spring of 2003 stories about the prodigious ability of 12-year-old Demetrius Walker spread through the Southern California basketball community and beyond. His name appeared on message boards at SoCalHoops, a prominent website among hoopniks, and he got his first piece of college recruiting mail, a form letter from Miami (Florida). His performance at a spring tournament in Maryland had created some buzz, but it was mostly the result of tireless promotion by his AAU coach, Joe Keller. For three years Keller, age 32, had told anyone who would listen—parents, journalists, high school coaches, college recruiters—that Demetrius was a once-in-a-lifetime talent, and some were persuaded enough to pass the word along.
One man spreading the Gospel of Joe was Clark Francis, a dowdy former journalism student who had turned himself into one of the most quoted figures in basketball. Since 1983 Francis had operated a recruiting newsletter, The Hoop Scoop, out of his Louisville apartment, building a following among basketball diehards. His bulletins, which had begun as black-and-white mailers, consisted of pages and pages of notes on players Francis scouted at tournaments and camps; overwrought flattery of college and grassroots coaches; and "scoops" that weren't really scoops at all.
Francis did not play college basketball, which is apparent the minute you meet him. He is built like a Weeble, one of those egg-shaped toys that always rights itself because of the weight in its base. He is pale from all the time he spends in gyms across the U.S.—more than 200 days a year by his estimate—and talks so fast that he can be difficult to understand. Francis's lack of playing experience did not make him unique in his field. He had opinions and the means to distribute them, which was all anyone needed to become a recruiting analyst.
The bread and butter of most recruiting services, The Hoop Scoop included, are their rankings of high school players. But while other analysts, such as Bob Gibbons of All Star Report, would stop at the top 100 or 150 players, Francis's rankings seemed to go on until he ran out of names. "He'd have a list of the top underclassmen and it would go to 966," says Tom Konchalski, who publishes High School Basketball Illustrated. "It was like he was taking every name a coach gave him and putting it out there in hopes it would stick."
Konchalski and other veteran recruiting analysts liked Francis, but they drew a distinction between what they did and what he did. "Clark was more of a popularizer," Konchalski says. The other analysts felt their reputations were on the line when they ranked players—the college coaches who were their customers would know if they rated a kid highly and he couldn't play a lick—and they resisted doing national rankings. "We wanted to be able to see a kid over a period of a few years," Konchalski says. "One person can't do that nationally." But for Francis, who marketed largely to fans, there were no consequences to ranking 966 kids or putting a guard from Arizona he'd never seen play in his top 50.
Eventually Francis assembled a team of "editors" around the country to help him with rankings and his newsletters. Some were qualified independent scouts, but others were grassroots coaches, which created an obvious conflict of interest. For a spell, Francis's California editor was Dinos Trigonis, the longtime coach of the Belmont Shore Basketball Club. Not surprisingly, kids from his team appeared in Francis's rankings.
Francis would likely have remained among the minor recruiting analysts had he not moved to differentiate The Hoop Scoop from other scouting services. He was the first to rank the top eighth-graders in the country. Konchalski and Gibbons never did that, in part because the NCAA doesn't deem a player to be of age for recruiting until the 10th grade. They also considered the evaluation of kids before they reached high school too inexact a science. But Francis saw gold in going younger. He continued to push the limits, ranking sixth-graders and even fourth-graders. This innovation boosted the online Hoop Scoop's popularity and Francis's profile. He would eventually charge $499 for a year's subscription and claim that during the busy AAU tournament months of June and July, his site got nearly one million hits.
Among the largest subset of people who followed Francis's rankings were AAU coaches, and not only because some of them were on his payroll. Rankings from any scouting service, regardless of its credibility, were instruments with which to measure one's importance. If a coach had the No. 1 player in the country or several kids in the top 50, his value to the shoe companies, his popularity with college coaches and his ability to recruit new kids were enhanced.
To Joe Keller, Francis was the most important opinionmaker in America, the key to creating a national groundswell about Demetrius and Keller's team, the Inland Stars. Beginning in 2000 Keller made courting Francis a priority. He called Francis regularly with "tips" about the great players on his team, and eventually Francis took the bait.
In April 2001, in a report before the Kingwood Classic, a well-attended tournament in Houston, Francis wrote on his website, The Inland Stars in the 10-Under Division might be worth a look as well, because this top-rated team includes tremendous size with ... 5'8" Joseph Burton ... 5'8" Demetrius Walker ... and 5'5" Rome Draper. In a newsletter dated three days later, Francis wrote, The last time the Inland Stars were this good at so young an age, they had 7'0" Tyson Chandler from Compton (Dominguez) CA, 6'6" Josh Childress from Lakewood (Mayfair) CA, 6'5" Cedric Bozeman from Santa Ana (Mater Dei) CA, and 6'11" Jamal Sampson from Santa Ana (Mater Dei) CA. But this team promises to be better.... Their best player is 5'8" Demetrius Walker.... Sure some Tyson Chandler comparisons are in order, but ... Walker plays a lot harder. Also, Walker's father is 6'8" and his mother is 6'1". So his potential for growth is scary.... Unfortunately, we only got to see this team for about a quarter, because we had to go to the 15-Under Championship game.
To read the rest of the article, go to the SI Vault (link).
Grass-Roots Basketball: 9-Year-Olds, Shoe Fortunes
by NPR Staff
October 3, 2010
Listen to the Story (link)
All Things Considered on NPR
[8 min 36 sec]
Coach Joe Keller (top row, left) and his team, the Inland Stars, celebrate victory in a tournament in Arizona. The 11-year-olds were led by Demetrius Walker (number 23, third from right in the back row). Photo: Rob Bock
At age 9, Demetrius Walker was dunking basketballs into a 10-foot hoop. By the time he reached 11, Demetrius was signing autographs. And as an eighth-grader, he made the cover of Sports Illustrated.
Big shoe companies were clamoring to have Demetrius wear their gear, and much of the hype was generated by the man who discovered and then later abandoned Walker: Joe Keller.
Pulitzer Prize-winning sportswriter George Dohrmann spent eight years hanging around Keller, Walker and the cutthroat world of youth basketball. That's the focus of his new book, Play Their Hearts Out.
"Basketball is this sort of unregulated world," Dohrmann says, "where anybody can wake up tomorrow and start a club basketball team, recruit players and start playing."
The best of these teams, he says, get sponsorship from shoe companies and travel from coast to coast playing games.
Like coaches across the country, Keller scoured playgrounds, rec centers and middle schools looking at athletic kids he thought might grow up to be great players.
Keller was competitive and ambitious when he began scouting but had little coaching experience. "He couldn't even demonstrate a proper defensive stance," Dohrmann says.
As a result of his inexperience, Keller relied on sure-fire physical signs to help him spot the most talented players." Maybe they were tall or fast," Dohrmann explains, "but he was sort of looking for that one or two things that held the promise of greatness."
Keller is portrayed in Dohrmann's book as a yeller who demonstrates few real teaching skills. He wins over parents by clothing and feeding some of the kids, becoming almost like a father figure to them.
"For Demetrius and a few others, he was truly the only father that they ever knew," Dohrmann says. "He understood how parents, kids, dreamt of college scholarships and the NBA. And he put that out there: He said, 'If you trust me, I can get your kid there.' "
The book describes how Keller built a team around Demetrius — a "latchkey kid who had to grow up very fast," according to Dohrmann.
"They just spent so much time with each other — they were never apart," the author explains. "Demetrius spent more time with Joe than he did with his mother, who was working two jobs. So as they go forward, they kind of grow together."
Dohrmann describes the relationship between Keller and Demetrius as "something that he had never seen before." It could not be defined as either coach/player or father/son, but was far more complicated and complex.
In the eight years that he spent with them, Dohrmann watched Demetrius go from child to young man. He also witnessed firsthand Demetrius' fallout with Keller.
In high school, Demetrius leveled off at 6-foot-2 and didn't have the growth spurt that Keller had originally predicted. Frustrated, he had trouble turning his game into that of a guard.
At the time, Keller was focused on his newly-formed all-star camps for sixth, seventh and eighth graders. (He told Dohrmann that those camps had earned him as much as $4 million a year.) The author argues that the coach was more concerned with the financial revenue and sponsorship coming from these camps than with helping Demetrius grow as a player.
"He made this choice: He said, 'I'm going to step away from the team and from Demetrius and just focus on my camps and making money.' "
Cash From The Shoe Companies
Shoe companies are no strangers to sponsorships — we've all grown accustomed to seeing their brands worn by high school and college players. But the emphasis on sponsorship of 9- and 10-year-old kids by major brands such as Reebok, Nike and Adidas is a recent phenomenon.
In the case of Keller and Demetrius, "what Adidas did was they identified Joe's team — Demetrius and a couple of other star players — before they reached high school," says Dohrmann. "They sponsored Joe Keller and made Joe Keller one of their signature coaches. And this was a monumental shift."
Today, Demetrius is in his sophomore year of college. He played last season at Arizona State, but transferred this summer to the University of New Mexico. And compared to a few of the other players profiled in Play Their Hearts Out, he is faring well.
Joe Keller is still running all-star camps but is now more focused on his son Jordan's baseball career than on basketball. Although regardless of the sport, Keller is still known for his rabid competitive streak.
"It's amazing," Dohrmann says. "I could probably sit down right now and start another book on Joe Keller and youth baseball because it's almost like that journey is at the starting point."
Excerpt: 'Play Their Hearts Out'
by George Dohrmann
LANGUAGE ADVISORY: This excerpt contains language that some readers may find offensive.
The Frank A. Gonzales Community Center sits on the corner of Colton Avenue and E Street in a mostly Latino neighborhood in Colton, among houses with unkempt yards and low-sloped roofs and next to a baseball field with an all-dirt infield. Like many public buildings in the Inland Empire, it is less inviting the closer you get. The bottom third of the building is painted a reddish brown, the rest a dirty pink, and the whole rectangular structure appears in need of a good hosing. During a development spree in the 1990s, many similar structures were built—elementary schools, community centers, government buildings—and aesthetics were forsaken for speedy construction. All around the Inland Empire, these buildings rose along with cookie-cutter housing developments, each more soulless than its predecessor.
Standing outside the gymnasium, which takes up the left half of the center, you're most aware of how the thick concrete walls and steel doors mute the life inside. Sneakers sliding, a leather ball pounding on the wood floor, coaches urging players to get back on defense, parents shouting at their kids to take the open shot—you hear none of it. The milieu of Southern California abounds: cars speeding by on Colton Avenue, the zip of an air gun from one of two auto-repair shops across the street, a constant hum from Interstate 10. The sounds of its residents, meanwhile, remain locked within that windowless cement box.
Inside the gym, on the far side of the court, Joe Keller stood with his arms folded in front of a black golf shirt. He had positioned himself at midcourt, behind the scorer's table, which struck me as an odd place to stand. Fans seated behind him were forced to either end of the aluminum bleachers to gain a clear view of the court. Keller seemed oblivious to his obstruction, and it may have been intentional; it was like him to believe no one's view of the court was more important than his.
He watched intently a game between a team from Santa Monica and another from Orange County. The kids on the floor were no older than eleven, some as young as eight, and it was difficult to see basketball greatness amid the chaos on the court. In the time it took me to walk from the door to the far side of the court, one small blond boy had a pass go through his hands as if they were coated in butter and the center for the Orange County team had bounced a pass off a teammate's leg so strongly that the ball rolled into his team's bench. Looking at Keller, I wondered if he possessed a clairvoyance that enabled him to see the game and its participants differently, to find greatness in the folly of children.
Another AAU coach, only 25 and in his first year of coaching, stood next to Keller. They discussed the players on the court, beginning with the 11-year-old point guard for the Santa Monica team, the only girl in the tournament. She deftly dribbled through defenders, slipping the ball through her legs and around her back with ease, and her outfit was equally refined. The red rubber band holding back her ponytail matched the red trim on her jersey and on the black Vince Carter–model Nikes she wore.
"That's Monica DeAngelis," Keller told the younger coach. "Her dad is smart playing her against boys. She'll be in the WNBA someday."
The last line was a definitive statement; most of what came out of Keller's mouth was not up for discussion, not that the young coach would have disagreed. He was clearly deferential and at one point folded his arms in front of his chest and widened his stance, striking the same pose as Keller. Talk turned to the point guard for the team from Orange County, an Asian kid with whom the coach was clearly impressed.
"He's killing people," the coach said. "You like him?"
"I don't do Asians," Keller responded quickly, as if he'd anticipated the question.
"What do you mean?"
"Asians don't get tall enough. That kid is fast, sure, but how tall is he going to be? Not tall enough."
The young coach wasn't sure Keller was serious. "That kid is blowing by everybody, Joe. You wouldn't want him on your team?"
"Nope. I don't do Asians."
Keller liked the way that sounded and that he was enlightening a younger colleague. The guard again broke free for a layup, and Keller looked at the coach and while shaking his head said, "Still ... no Asians."
One could sense the young coach taking notes in his head. He next brought up the portly center on the Orange County team, the tallest player on the court. This prompted a dismissive glance from Keller that suggested he had never heard a dumber question in his thirty years.
"That kid's a truck. He can barely move. Look at his legs. They're stumps. He'll be lucky if he ends up six foot two. If that kid was on my team, I'd tell his parents they needed to think about switching him to football."
As if on cue, the chubby kid missed a layup while alone under the basket and then knocked the ball out of bounds while trying to rebound his own miss.
"That kid might be retarded," Keller said, laughing, and he segued into a story. Six months earlier, in a tournament near San Diego, Keller's team had faced an opponent that included a center who was mentally disabled. "I mean, he was wearing a helmet. I'm serious. A fucking helmet. A couple times, my guys blocked his shot into the stands." Keller laughed vigorously for several moments, clapping his hands in front of him as if impersonating an alligator's bite. "What kind of coach sends a retarded kid out there? Why do that to a kid?"
There were only seconds left in the game, and Keller fell silent as Monica's team tried for the winning score. Coming off a high screen, she got free on the right wing for a clear, albeit distant, look at the basket. Her body scrunched downward like a jack-in-the-box; the elbow on her right arm dipped so low it seemed to touch her knee. She then sprang up and slightly forward in one sudden motion—more of a heave than a release—and it seemed unlikely a decent shot would emerge from such an ungraceful motion. Yet the result was a high-arcing shot with silky backspin. Monica hopped a little on her left foot as the ball floated toward the rim, and for a moment it looked good. But the ball grazed the front of the rim and rattled within the hoop before bouncing out.
As the Orange County team celebrated, Monica put her hand to her forehead and rubbed down her damp brown hair. She bent at the waist and placed her hands on her knees, staying there even as the next two teams to play circled the court, beginning their warm-ups. One of those teams, the Arizona Stars, wore white uniforms, and its players were a mishmash of gangly and squat, black and white, athletic and awkward. In short, they were a team of children, not unlike the two squads that had finished playing moments before. The other team, the Inland Stars, was something else. Every boy was African American, and they were bigger and taller. From just watching them circle the court twice, it was clear none possessed the clumsiness one associates with rapidly growing boys. They wore black warm-ups over black uniforms and black shoes, an intimidating ensemble that contributed to my first impression: There was no way they were in the same age group as the other team.
As Keller's team divided into two lines for a layup drill, one of the tallest players broke ranks and walked over to where Monica stood. She was still bent over, despondent over her miss, and at first she didn't notice him. He placed his hand on her back and she looked up. He said something only she could hear and pointed toward the basket, as if to show her how close her shot had come to going in. Monica straightened up and put her hands on her hips, listening as the tall boy, who wore number 23, went on. He was smiling the whole time, a wide smile that flattened his thick top lip, and he continually shifted his weight back and forth. Finally the boy said something and Monica shook her head, as if shaking off the defeat, and then she smiled too. The boy stuck out his right hand and Monica slapped it. Mission accomplished, he pivoted on his left foot and literally jumped away from her, bouncing back into line with his teammates.
Keller had pointed this boy out earlier. His name was Demetrius Walker, and Keller spared no hyperbole in describing his abilities. He was "the best 10-year-old in the country," so good "he could start for most high school teams right now," and "an NBA first-rounder for sure." This was the boy Keller believed would be better than Tyson Chandler, the child who would bring him success and riches.
At first glance Demetrius appeared to be unique. He had a large head and well-defined cheekbones, which could be evidence that he was taller and more athletic than other boys only because he matured earlier. But his arms, shoulders, chest, and legs were those of a prepubescent boy, smooth and lacking definition. Unlike his teammates, he didn't let his shorts sag to his knees. He pulled them up to his true waist, and that gave the impression that his legs bypassed his hips and connected directly to his chest. His arms were unusually long, and one could imagine opposing coaches describing him as a kid who was "all arms and legs." In other words, he looked like a kid with a lot of growing left to do. There were other indicators I learned about later, such as his shoe size (14) and the height of his relatives (his mom was 6-foot-1, his uncle 6-foot-8), but at first I was not sure how to judge his potential. Few endeavors are less exact than trying to forecast athletic greatness in still-developing children. Keller might have unearthed something special, but how could anyone say for sure?
Keller sidled up to me as Demetrius and the rest of the Inland Stars continued their warm-ups. Away from the young coach he'd been schooling, Keller's demeanor changed. "Look, I don't know how we are going to play today," he began. He said the boys had been lethargic in practice the day before and a few were nursing minor injuries. He alerted me to a player he'd recently added to the team, a smallish guard named LaBradford Franklin. "The kid's got balls, but he is a year younger than my guys."
His remarks felt sincere—as if he was providing important information—but also calculated. He badly wanted me to see Demetrius and his players as he did, to validate his beliefs, but he was also ready with a bagful of excuses just in case I didn't. With the game about to start, Keller left me with one final caveat: "I know what you are going to say after the game, and so I'm saying now: Please don't say I'm crazy like Bobby Knight. I know that is what you're gonna think, but don't say it."
Just before the start, the Inland Stars gathered in a circle around Keller in front of their bench. As he spoke, he scowled and punched downward, as if he were hammering a nail with his clenched fist. "Take their hearts out!" he shouted. "Take their fucking hearts out!" His words reverberated around the gym, and no one—not his wife, Violet, who sat near the door, or the little kids playing under the bleachers— could have missed his directive. Apparently, Keller didn't see the rules painted high on the west and east walls of the gym, one of which read:
Many different age levels use the gym and Community Center. Please consider your language — No Profanity.
Most of the Inland Stars had their heads down as Keller spoke, but Demetrius looked down the court, sizing up the Arizona Stars. They had two guards who looked athletic but otherwise didn't match up. This was most obvious when Demetrius stood facing their center for the opening tip. They were the same height, but the Arizona center had chunky legs accentuated by white socks pulled up to his knees. When the referee stepped between them and tossed the ball skyward, the center didn't (or couldn't) jump and just tried to swat at the ball. Demetrius exploded off the floor, getting to the ball more than a foot above the Arizona player's hand. He tapped the ball to a teammate, who cruised in for an uncontested score.
Keller's team set up in a half-court trapping defense, and as the Arizona Stars inbounded the ball, he jumped up and down, screaming something incomprehensible even from where I sat fifteen feet behind him. Whatever he said, it was clearly a command for the top two players in the press to trap the ball handler. His players reacted instantly to his barks, moving toward the opposing guard with such speed that they overwhelmed him. He panicked and aimed a pass across the court to a teammate, but Demetrius stepped in front of it and walked in for a layup. The next two possessions ended with similar results, and I began to wonder if Arizona would ever get the ball across half-court.
Despite his team's immediate dominance, Keller screamed nonstop, reacting negatively to almost everything. If one of his players missed a shot, even if it was a good attempt, Keller berated him. If an Arizona player made a miracle 3-pointer, Keller went ballistic. He reacted so strongly to perceived mistakes that he lunged forward as if he were going to run onto the court, grab one of his players by the jersey, and rip him out of the game.
From Play Their Hearts Out by George Dohrmann Copyright 2010 by George Dohrmann. Excerpted by permission of Ballantine Group, a division of Random House Inc. All rights reserved.
Not your typical feel-good sports book
George Dohrmann's book 'Play Their Hearts Out' exposes the dark side of youth basketball, a world tainted by shocking greed and ego.
September 25, 2010|Bill Dwyre|The LA Times
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.