A jarring look at youth basketball (Part 1)

By Paul Gardner

Youth development is now a hugely important part of the soccer structure in this country. The number of boys and girls enrolled by the USYS, US Club Soccer and AYSO keeps growing, while academies sprout like so many mushrooms.

If you’ve ever wondered how other sports handle this essential area, here’s a chance for you to find out how basketball does it. Sports Illustrated writer George Dohrmann had an idea. He would follow a group of young basketball players through their grassroots development years -- i.e. until they finished high school.

He found an ambitious coach in Southern California, Joe Keller, who agreed to allow him unlimited access to his team -- provided that nothing was published until all the kids were in college. By that time, said Keller, “I’ll be rich and done with coaching. I won’t give a s*** what you write.”

You can read about Dohrmann’s eight years as an “embedded” reporter with Keller’s players (the group, inevitably, had many arriving and departing boys) in his splendid book “Play Their Hearts Out” (Ballantine Books, $26.00).

A warning: for youth coaches, this is bound to be a tough read. Dohrmann presents a disturbing picture of a world where it is, far too often, dishonesty, deception, and greed that dominate behavior. And, of course, exploitation of the youngsters. A sports wild-west where anything goes. The field is dominated by teams registered with the AAU, which runs national championships. It is now the AAU coaches, not the high school coaches, who are the key figures in training young players. A situation familiar enough to youth soccer denizens. But in basketball, there seems to be little regulation. Dohrmann talks of coaches being able to “get away with almost anything in their pursuit of talented kids.”

At the center of things, for two thirds of the book is the annoyingly likeable Joe Keller. He irritates because he never denies that he’s in youth basketball for the money. That ought to make him a disreputable figure, but Dohrmann captures a dynamic man who -- certainly in the early years covered -- did a lot of good things for his boys.

Of course the boys call him Coach Keller, but one of the strange things for soccer coaches to digest is that Keller has no coaching background or experience. Certainly no license. But then, none of the coaches Dohrmann describes, and there are plenty of them, is licensed. Only once, in over 400 pages, is there a mention of coaching clinics.

Keller’s coaching comes over as mainly yelling. And swearing. The title of this book, “Play their hearts out” is a bowdlerized version of what Keller yelled at his team of 9-year-olds before a game -- “Take their f***ing hearts out!” Keller’s screaming, even when his teams are winning is described as “non-stop”, the behavior of a “royal jackass.” At one point he is handed a note from an opposing parent telling him that he “belongs in the National Zoo.”

A new player on his team refused to follow Keller’s instructions, telling the other players “That guy doesn’t know s***.” “I know, I know,” replied a teammate, “We all know.”

Yet Keller coached a team that, in 2004, won the U-13 national championship. Keller’s recruiting eye was evidently a good one -- but one wonders how difficult it is to spot a young basketball phenom. Size is what matters, clearly above all else. When another coach drew his attention to a promising young Asian player, Keller cut him short with “I don’t do Asians. Asians don’t get tall enough ... how tall is he going to be? Not tall enough.”

At a tournament, Keller spotted a tall youngster doing impressive things -- but doubted the boy could possibly be under the 10-year age limit of the tournament. He remarked, loudly, to a colleague “No way that kid is 9.” But the boy’s mother, seated nearby, shouted at Keller “Yes, he is. He’s 9.” By the end of the game, Keller was sweet-talking the mother, and soon the boy -- Demetrius Walker -- had joined Keller’s team.

Keller had found his meal ticket. That Demetrius was supremely talented was never in doubt, but Keller was soon promoting him as the best 10-year-old in the country. Dohrmann’s book is largely the story of the relationship between Keller and Demetrius, one that began so well, with Keller -- genuinely affectionate -- declaring that “D is like my son,” but ended some seven years later with D feeling betrayed and exploited by Keller. By that time Keller was making real money running basketball camps, and Demetrius was asking “is it ‘cuz of me that coach Joe is now living like he is? If I had joined another team, would coach Joe be rich like he is now?”

What had made Keller rich was a deal with Adidas. The “shoe companies” -- originally there were three, Adidas, Nike and Reebok, before Adidas bought out Reebok -- are a huge part of Dohrmann’s story. Keller’s dream was to become a “big time” coach in youth basketball, and he needed a shoe contract to reach that status. Once there, the money and the equipment would flow.

Dohrmann cites another grassroots coach, Pat Barrett, as receiving $100,000 a year from Nike, plus $50,000 worth of gear, to ensure that his best players wore Nike. When Keller entered the field, the interest of the shoe companies went no further than high school players. But Keller convinced Adidas to finance him as he concentrated on a younger group and locked up the best middle-school players for their brand.

Adidas liked the idea and offered a five-year deal, starting at $60,000 a year for Keller, with a warning that if he was caught doing anything illegal, the contract would be nixed. He was told, “Do what you want with the money, but just don’t ask for more.” Adidas wanted immediate publicity: “We don’t care if Demetrius makes it to the NBA ... We just care that we can market him now.” Demetrius was 13 years old.

Part 2 coming up

5 comments about "A jarring look at youth basketball (Part 1)".
  1. Rick Figueiredo, September 12, 2011 at 6:14 p.m.

    Wow. Somehow I missed the point of this whole article.

  2. Eric R., September 12, 2011 at 6:53 p.m.

    The main point of the article, is that there are alot of people involved in soccer who don't give a hill of beans for the players. I think the example in the article highlights a coach who's a total scumbag. There are lots of people who do this for a living who are not like that, but I hear what Paul's saying. Bottom line I for me, is that we have tons of people coaching the game without any oversight from USSF and that is a real problem.

  3. Tony Fiorino, September 13, 2011 at 9:20 a.m.


    There are coaches and organizations like this for every kids sport under the sun. No one is immune. George Dohrmann was a guest on my radio program and this book was supposed to be a feel-good about young basketball players. It turned out, however, to become one of the most important reads for a sports parent or coach. I did two shows with George on ESPN Radio. One for this book and the other about the Ohio State scandal he broke. Here are the shows. Lemme know if you have some good soccer topics for me to cover. Post them on my facebook page "Hey Coach Tony on ESPN Radio"

    Great blog!!!


    Coach Tony

  4. Walt Pericciuoli, September 13, 2011 at 11:35 a.m.

    Ric and Eric, you are right on. For those currently involved in youth soccer,you should easily be able to recognize the similarities in our sport.However, the USSF not only is well aware of, but encourages it.

  5. cony konstin, September 15, 2011 at 1:14 a.m.

    For a long time in regards to soccer in America you must pay to play and if you are good then you must pay extra. This has been the American Way in US youth soccer scene but hopefully the MLS will change this direction.

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