A jarring look at youth basketball (Part 2)

(This is the concluding part of Paul Gardner's review of "Play their Hearts Out" by George Dohrmann, published by Ballantine Books, $26.00. Read Part 1 HERE.)

By Paul Gardner

In early 2004, soon after Joe Keller had signed his contract with Adidas, UPS trucks arrived at Keller’s house to deliver 134 boxes of Adidas shoes and gear for his team. And the team’s name changed from the obscure Inland Stars, to the more assertive Team Cal. Keller admitted that Demetrius had played a key role in securing the contract: “D is the reason we got the shoe deal.”

Demetrius remained Keller's most important player. But when another key player decided to leave the team, Keller showed no regrets, remarking “With that [the shoe company money] I can buy a hundred kids as good.”

The extraordinary importance of shoes in youth basketball makes compelling reading. Almost every time they are mentioned -- which is frequently -- it seems we are dealing with a new model: ProModel 2G or A3 Superstar Ultra or T-MAC-3 or Jumpman or Uptempos or the Tracy McGrady or the Kevin Garnett models. At time the book is in danger of sounding like a fashion report: we learn of a coach “... wearing a black velour suit and spotless white Adidas running shoes and carrying a black leather man purse” with an “oversized gold watch” to round things off.

Shoe fashions figure in a poignant moment late in the book, when Demetrius, already abandoned by Keller, is at his lowest. Maybe things had started to go wrong when Demetrius got his name on the cover a Sports Illustrated in January 2005 -- the most glowing result of Keller’s relentless hyping of the boy. The pressure on Demetrius mounted and he began to feel he was being exploited by Adidas. In 2006 came the Adidas Superstar Camp in Georgia, and Demetrius admitted “I really don’t want to go, but I know Adidas wants me there so I guess I just gotta suck it up and play.”

But when a morning of individual drills arrived -- with an army of college coaches watching -- Demetrius was nowhere to be found. The coach who had replaced Keller searched high and low for Demetrius, finally checking the bathroom. Empty -- no, one stall was occupied. The coach bent down to look under the partition, and immediately recognized Demetrius’ signature blue shoes. Demetrius was hiding.

By the end of the book, Demetrius has recovered -- without help from Keller -- from this low, and has got himself a college scholarship -- which can be judged major success as, according to Dohrmann, only about 3 percent of high school players snag a scholarship.

Following the rise of Keller, and the rise, fall and rise of Demetrius makes for uncomfortable reading. We see Keller almost taking over the lives of Demetrius and other players, arranging where they should live, helping their parents out by paying the rent on their homes, deciding which high school the boys should attend.

As to high schools, the shoe companies are influential there too, as the coaches will likely be receiving retainers. Which leads to the suitability of a high school being judged not on its academic, or even its sporting record, nor on its proximity to the player’s home, but on its coach’s affiliation, whether it is a “Nike school” or an “Adidas school”.

Keller professed an overriding interest in Demetrius’s education. In the Sports Illustrated article, Keller was quoted as saying “As long as he graduates from high school I don’t care if he becomes a ballerina.” Later he told Dohrmann “Of course, that is all bull****. If Demetrius quits basketball, I’d kill him and myself.” Keller usually convinced parents that joining his team was a sure path to the NBA. But what, he was asked, if Demetrius didn’t make it? He replied, “Then Demetrius would have been a bad investment.”

Deception was a constant in Keller’s life. It got to most of the players. “Mom, why does coach Joe have to lie?” asked one of the players. Demetrius eventually saw through Keller’s evasions, and those of other, later, coaches and remarked bitterly: “I never had a coach who didn’t want something from me.”

Dohrmann’s tales of the chicanery, rule-bending, outright lies, even threats, that surround the college-recruiting experiences of the young players are remarkable. One is left wondering why these kids would ever trust any coach. But Dohrmann has praise for a few coaches -- he names them, and so will I -- Gary Franklin Sr. “one of the most virtuous men on the AAU circuit,” and Keith Howard and Julius Paterson, “two good men operating in a den of thieves.”

When Demetrius, for his final high school year, moves to join his mother in Arizona, Dohrmann talks of the beneficial effects of moving away from “the profiteers.”

Whether or not Demetrius will make the NBA, that we don’t know. We last see him on a basketball court, having just led his Phoenix high school (his third in three years) to the state title. He did -- with some help from Dohrmann -- land a scholarship at Arizona State, but moved on to New Mexico after his freshman year.

On Keller’s role in the Demetrius story, another AAU coach is quoted: “I know what Joe did to that kid. He paraded him around and treated him like a star and never taught him the game and how to work.”

As for Keller, he moved from being a fringe coach to becoming “one of the most important figures in basketball,” a millionaire with a 4,000-square foot home in Moreno Valley, and an international chain of franchised Jr Phenom camps.

Soccer has a long way to go, for sure. The $1 million offered by Nike to Freddy Adu (an exaggerated version of the true figure, I’m told) barely registers when measured against the $90 million contract signed with LeBron James while he was still in high school.

Whether soccer can, or should, replicate the murky basketball route, is questionable. One factor that would seem to stand in the way of soccer taking that path is fashion. Specifically shoes. The huge amounts of money in youth basketball come from Adidas and Nike, the “shoe companies”.

But soccer shoes are cleats, not fashion statements that can be worn anywhere. With soccer, it will have to be something else to attract the big money sponsors. Shin pads? Headbands? Shirts? None of them seems likely to attract the big money. Maybe the soccer youth scene should be thankful for that.

4 comments about "A jarring look at youth basketball (Part 2)".
  1. Andres Yturralde, September 13, 2011 at 11:33 p.m.

    Good stuff, Paul. Goes to show this ride starts at the bottom and heads all the way to the top. Reminding me of France 1998, when Nike forced Ronaldo to start in the final, even though the poor kid was too sick to play.

  2. Daniel Pelleck, September 14, 2011 at 9:18 a.m.

    I read the book about 6 months ago, and having been at the outskirts of the AAU scene in the past, none of it was surprising but a very interesting read. My reaction as it applies to soccer is wouldn't it be great if soccer actually reaches a level of commercial popularity in this country where we have to worry about this stuff.

  3. Tony Fiorino, September 14, 2011 at 1:21 p.m.

    The book is called "PLAY Their Hearts Out" isn't it?

  4. Daniel Pelleck, September 14, 2011 at 2:29 p.m.

    Yes- "Play" not "Eat" hearts. No reference to Mike Tyson eating your children.

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