Play their hearts out

There's a political movement underway in basketball. Powerful people, from Sonny Vaccaro and William Wesley to Billy Hunter and David Stern are all fed up with the status quo, and they and their allies have been trying to do something about it for the better part of a decade.

They dream of reforming American basketball development. All those coaches and runners buying and selling players. All those agents and sneaker companies bribing their way close to teenagers with potential. All those top players surrounded by, coached by, and essentially raised by, connivers -- while the best mentors in the world are fed up, marginalized, or out of elite development entirely. Nobody going to much trouble to see to it the athletes get an education, a decent childhood, good parenting or meaningful relationships.

Everyone knows the system is broken. But as much as power brokers and insiders have long realized something fishy was afoot, (they started iHoops!) and all this, nothing, essentially, has changed.

If they were a political party, they would have lost ten straight elections, despite strong insider connections. What gives?

The problem is the message. The message of this hoops reform movement is ... what exactly?

NBA agents, Nike, the NCAA and a few others run the show now. But no one can agree if some or all of those powerbrokers should be kicked out, or empowered to lead the reform. A complicating factor is who will pay for all of this, and those power brokers have deep pockets. Kicking them out is expensive.

So the movement is left trying to fire up the base, even while left unanswered are key questions like: Who are the bad guys exactly? Who are the victims? What are the crimes?

A fight against dirty youth basketball is like a fight against pollution. Nobody likes pollution. But it doesn't seem that bad in most places, and finding who's responsible seems like a lot of work nobody has all that much time to do. And while there have been several good books about the filth of hoops, there has not yet been the book.

Until now.

"It was an insane thing to do," admits Sports Illustrated investigative writer George Dohrmann. "I had just won the Pulitzer. I was young. I didn't think about anything like book sales, marketing, long-term anything. I just thought that I was going to tell this story, no matter how long it took."

Eight years later, "Play Their Hearts Out," is done. It's the tale of an AAU coach in California, Joe Keller. Before he found basketball, Keller's great passion was winning one of those car stereo competitions. He was obsessive enough about the project, and willing to spend beyond all sense for it, that he pulled it off. He won.

Then he became obsessive about basketball. Not about the game. Not about coaching. Not even about the players. But about the money that could be made by those who earned the best players' trust.

As Dohrmann outlines, Keller was very close to a young Tyson Chandler, but let rival AAU coach Pat Barrett come between them. By the time he had made the NBA, Dohrmann reports that Barrett received hundreds of thousands of dollars from Chandler, as a thank you. Barrett also had the potential to earn untold amounts for steering Chandler to this or that sneaker company or NBA agent.

Keller was a laughingstock among his AAU peers. As Dohrmann's book opens, Keller resolves not to make the same mistake again. The first step in the process was to find a prospect so young that Keller would have no obstacles to becoming the child's de facto father. They'd have years to bond before the player was a cash cow. Eventually, Keller found an outstanding sixth grader, Demetrius Walker. Keller attached himself to Walker like a barnacle, to the exclusion of Walker's mother, and Keller's own wife and children.

Dohrmann spent the better part of a year with Keller, but now that the book is out, he says he never expects to hear from Keller again. And it's no wonder why. The book is a raw catalog of Keller's countless missteps as a leader of youth. Some favorites:

  • When Keller's team beat a feared rival in the semi-finals, they were due to face the same team again in the finals. Scared of losing, Keller instructed his team not to compete, and sat all of his best players in a loss he declared meaningless. (Years later, Walker would similarly run from challenges, hiding in the bathroom through some of his most important tryouts.)

  • One of Keller's players' mom assigns herself the role of team academic adviser -- and does an amazing job putting in long hours getting the team to focus on things like homework and life outside of basketball. (In Memphis, for example, she pushed Keller to let her take the team to see the civil rights landmarks.) As she gained influence over the players -- who benefited from her input -- Keller marginalized her entirely.

  • Keller vehemently defends playing his best players wire to wire in a 116-13 crushing that left the humiliated opponents near tears. The players were 11 at the time. Keller's rationale: Winning by 100 is the kind of thing that gets teams noticed, and that's how players and coaches succeed in AAU basketball.

The book becomes almost impossibly sad as Keller achieves his goals: On the back of Walker, he makes a name for himself as a grassroots basketball power broker (running the Junior Phenom camp), and enough money to build, he brags, a nicer swimming pool than Sonny Vaccaro's. Only, there's a problem: Walker doesn't progress as hoped. He doesn't grow tall enough to keep playing in the paint, and there is no structure to coach him into a wing player. Keller has touted him, for years, as the top player nationwide in his class. As he slips down those rankings, there is humiliation to be born by somebody.

So Keller dumps him. Cold. Keller has his money and his house. Walker, still in high school, is no longer "the next LeBron James" and is therefore of little use. Walker believed in Keller as more than a coach, but also, by Keller's design, as a father figure. Walker writes e-mails and texts hoping to at least remain friends, but Keller stops replying. (Walker drifts around hoops a bit, and is now sitting out a year, in accordance with NCAA rules, after transferring to the University of New Mexico.)

"That just broke my heart," remembers Dohrmann. "I went down to see Demetrius, and we're in the car, driving. I know he's not OK. I ask him how he's doing, and he won't talk about it. The journalist in me needs him to talk about it. I pushed him. I said come on D, I really need to know how you're feeling. I need to hear it. And he said: 'Man, I'm not gonna lie, it does hurt. I mean, I looked at stuff like ... like he was my pops, you know. I didn't have a pops and he was like my pops and, you know, okay, I'll just say it: I loved him like he was my pops.'

"I remember him saying that, and how he felt, and how I felt, hearing that. He was, what, 14 or 15 at that moment, but he was still a boy. That just broke my heart. Really. It broke my heart. I'd known him for five years or so at that point. To hear him say that ... I'll never forget it.

"D was struggling as a player at the same time Joe was figuring out that he could run the Junior Phenom camp and make all this money. But if Demetrius still could have made Joe money on the back end, Joe still would have been his pops.

"Even in that moment, the kid didn't see it. Even in that moment he didn't understand, fully, why Joe was leaving him. It took him a while to figure out Joe was just a bad guy. Joe was a guy who was just going to use him."

"Play Their Hearts Out" matters because of this story. Keller does more or less precisely what the existing system encourages him to do. And it's blatantly horrible, and the victim is a child.

And this is the normal model of basketball development.

Through sheer naivete, people like Walker entrust important things to people like Keller, who lead them down all the wrong roads. Read this book and it's so plain to see that this broken system needs to be changed, even if it means stepping on some toes in the process.

That political movement that I was writing about ... it doesn't have a plan yet. Nobody can agree on a fix. But at least how it has its foundational document, in this book.