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Fouling out

Ward Pettibone | Thursday, October 14, 2010

What do LeBron James, Kobe Bryant and Kevin Garnett have in common? All three played on Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) teams before rising to stardom. But the path to NBA greatness is far from smooth, with greed, corruption and crushed hopes along the way. “Play Their Hearts Out: A Coach, His Star Recruit, and the Youth Basketball Machine,” a new book by George Dohrmann, sets out to expose the dark underbelly of the AAU system.

Dohrmann, a Pulitzer Prize winner and alumnus of Notre Dame, will be at the Hammes Bookstore Saturday from 9:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. for a book signing. A member of the class of 1995, Dohrmann is an investigative journalist for Sports Illustrated. Beginning in 2000, he spent eight years chronicling the Inland Stars, a team of talented young players led by coach Joe Keller

Dohrmann met Keller while working on an article about corruption in professional basketball. Though the article failed to provoke change, Dohrmann was determined to dig deeper into the closed-off world of grassroots basketball, where children as young as 8 or 9 years old are scrutinized and exploited for their potential. He came to Keller with a proposal: allow him unfettered access, and he wouldn’t publish anything until the boys were in college. Keller agreed.

The result is “Play Their Hearts Out,” and Dohrmann sugarcoats nothing. Keller is depicted as a mercurial, self-serving leech and the shoe companies that sponsor the teams are dishonest at best. The boys are abused emotionally, physically and even sexually. Defeats bring tirades of profanities from coaches and parents and great plays are ignored if they did not prevent a loss. Yet the youngsters press on, determined to do better and play harder in pursuit of an elusive scholarship or draft pick.

The grassroots world becomes an obsession for those involved. Families relocate to be closer to practice locations. Players spend more time with coaches than with their parents. Keller even missed the birth of his own daughter to be at a tournament

But beyond the madness of all the games and practices, beyond the story of grassroots basketball, is a story about people. Dohrmann focuses on Demetrius Walker, a promising athlete who is the center of Keller’s Inland Stars. In fact, Keller comes to treat Walker as a son, brother and colleague, depending on his mood. The other players look up to Walker as a guiding force in the team — the glue holding them together.

The Inland Stars win and lose and players come and go. This is real life and disappointment is inevitable. There is something surreal in finding these young people in very grown-up situations, but they deal with life’s challenges maturely, and there is a noticeable change in the way the boys carry themselves after eight years. 

Ultimately, not everyone lands a scholarship. Some drop the sport entirely before the book’s close. In the end, the hoop dreams of a few are realized, while the majority walk away empty-handed.

To take on such a grand project, even after winning a Pulitzer Prize, was significant for Dohrmann.

“Talking to the boys and their parents, going down and seeing them all the time, it’s something that I’ve lived with for eight years,” he said.

The quality of his writing shows it. The story is gripping, the pacing is fluid, and the characters are vivid. Even at over 400 pages, Dohrmann is able to maintain our interest. He carefully avoids sensationalism, doing his best to preserve a journalistic objectivity. At times the particulars of the game and the system get in the way of the characters, but otherwise the book strikes a winning balance between the two.

Dohrmann began his “vocational training” as a journalist at The Observer during his time at Notre Dame.

“I just wrote and wrote and wrote … it really helped me find my voice as a writer,” he said.

He cites natural curiosity and meticulousness as the main skills he learned, in addition to a talent that helped him win Keller’s confidence.

“It’s about being able to connect with people,” Dohrmann said.

Two years out of college, Dohrmann was an intern at the Los Angeles Times.

Dohrmann said his editors “would just kind of laugh” if he proposed a feature he wanted to write, so he began breaking news, in his words, “bringing them something they weren’t getting” from the more experienced writers.

He eventually broke some stories about UCLA, and from California he went to St. Paul, Minn., where he wrote a piece about academic misconduct at the University of Minnesota basketball program. A year later, that article won him the Pulitzer Prize in beat reporting, and Sports Illustrated took notice.

That story remains his favorite of all the articles he has written, but he also ranks his coverage of the Michael Vick dogfighting scandal and a recent exposé about the NFL agent business as “some of the best work I’ve done.”

Unsurprisingly, Dohrmann is unpopular with many of the people he reports on, but the Pulitzer noted his “determined reporting” in the face of this reaction. He recently received a call from Keller, who had gotten a copy of the book from Dohrmann.

“Obviously [Keller is] not very happy with the way I portrayed him,” he said, but added that some of the parents “thought that I did a great job.”

Whether or not the book causes changes in the AAU system remains to be seen, but Dohrmann has been cautious with his predictions since his first exposé backfired (instead of discouraging the grassroots coaches, that article increased their business).

 “When I set out to write a story I try not to think about what impact it will have,” he said.

If a change does come of his work, he said, “that’s just a bonus.”

With the book finally published after ten years of work, Dohrmann said he had “an itch … for another longer project.” As his first is already receiving significant attention, this seems likely.

Highly recommended for basketball fans and anyone looking for a well-researched, in-depth true story, “Play Their Hearts Out” will leave readers thinking, both about the grassroots system and professional sports in general. As Demetrius Walker said, “a lot of people are going to be watching now because of this.”