A Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist offers an up-close and unforgettable narrative that reveals the gritty reality hiding behind the romanticized hoop dreams of America's basketball prodigies. Winner of the PEN/ESPN Award for Literary Sportswriting and the Award for Excellence in the Coverage of Youth Sports.
Winner of the PEN/ESPN Award for Literary Sportswriting Winner of the Award for Excellence in the Coverage of Youth Sports
Eight years of unfettered access and a keen sense of a story's deepest truths allow Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist George Dohrmann to take readers inside the machine that produces America's basketball stars. Play Their Hearts Out reveals a cutthroat world where boys as young as eight or nine are subjected to a dizzying torrent of scrutiny and exploitation. At the book's heart are the personal stories of two compelling figures: Joe Keller, an ambitious coach with a master plan to find and promote "the next LeBron," and Demetrius Walker, a fatherless latchkey kid who falls under Keller's sway and struggles to live up to unrealistic expectations. Complete with a new "where-are-they-now" Epilogue by the author, this thoroughly compelling narrative exposes the gritty reality that lies beneath so many dreams of fame and glory.
NAMED ONE OF THE BEST SPORTS BOOKS OF THE YEAR BY THE LOS ANGELES TIMES - THE CHRISTIAN SCIENCE MONITOR - KIRKUS REVIEWS
Look for the exclusive conversation between George Dohrmann and bestselling author Seth Davis in the back of the book.
George Dohrmann is a senior writer at Sports Illustrated and the magazine's investigative reporter. In 2000, while working at the St. Paul Pioneer Press, he won a Pulitzer Prize for a series of stories that uncovered a college basketball team's academic fraud. Dohrmann lives in San Francisco with his family. This is his first book.
"Often heartbreaking, always riveting."--The New York Times Book Review
"Tremendous."--The Plain Dealer
"Indispensable."--The Wall Street Journal
"A tour de force of reporting, filled with deft storytelling and vivid character studies."--The Washington Post
"One of the finest sports books of all time."--Harper's Magazine
"Amazing stuff . . . The Friday Night Lights of youth basketball."--Leigh Montville, author of The Big Bam
"A landmark achievement in basketball journalism."--Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
"Often heartbreaking, always riveting."-- The New York Times Book Review
Chapter One 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 twenty-five and in his first year of coaching, stood next to Keller. They discussed the players on the court, beginning with the eleven-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 ten-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 six foot one, his uncle six foot eight), 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 m