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January 4, 2011

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The seamy underbelly of big-time youth basketball

FOR eight years, Sports Illustrated investigative reporter George Dohrmann immersed himself in the lives of AAU coach Joe Keller and his team of 10- and 11-year-olds. He had exclusive access and promised he wouldn't publish what he saw or heard until the boys were in college, if they made it.

The result is "Play Their Hearts Out," an often heartbreaking, always riveting exploration of the seamy underbelly of big-time youth basketball - and one of the finest books about sports I've ever read.

By now, it's a commonplace for sportswriters to describe AAU basketball as a cesspool of corruption. Unfortunately, very few ever bother to detail the forms that corruption takes, either because they don't actually know, they're too lazy to find out or, when it comes to particular players and coaches, they'd rather preserve the myth of purity. Dohrmann, thankfully, is unlike so many of his colleagues.

By immersing himself for eight years in the lives of one coach and his team, he witnessed what goes on at the grass roots level. And while there's probably no single instance of corruption in the book that will land a college team on probation or cost a coach his job, the sheer accumulation of transgressions makes for a devastating portrait of a culture in which teenage boys are treated as, essentially, chattel.

And not just by their coaches. The most villainous characters are sometimes the boys' parents. "Whoever pays the rent is who you are going to play for," one mother says to her son when he's trying to decide between playing for Keller and playing for another coach. When the boy later tells his mother that the rent-paying coach, who has previously been accused of sexually assaulting one of his players, is now inappropriately touching him, she makes him stay on the team because no other coach will give her US$1,000 a month.

Dohrmann relates this horrible episode and others with a minimum of editorializing. He's a reporter, not a polemicist, and he's comfortable letting the facts speak for themselves. And the facts at his disposal allow him to create a rich narrative.

In Keller, Dohrmann found the perfect protagonist. At the beginning of the book, he's installing car alarms and coaching a team of preadolescent boys - all the while dreaming, impossibly it seems, of becoming a millionaire. Although he's no Father Flanagan, he's no Fagin, either, and his affection and concern for his charges are evident.

But Dohrmann shows that over time, as those boys get Keller closer to his goal - as he parlays their on-court success into a consulting contract with a shoe company and, eventually, a franchise of basketball camps - he begins viewing them as instruments rather than people, and in the process they become disposable.

None more so than Demetrius Walker - a player who thought of Keller as a father and who, after failing to fulfill his basketball potential, is simply abandoned by the coach and left to strive for his increasingly unobtainable hoop dreams on his own.

Of course, Keller all but predicted as much when he first agreed to let Dohrmann into his world. "When the boys graduate from high school, I'll be rich and done with coaching," he told the author, adding that he wouldn't give a damn what Dohrmann wrote.

That doesn't mean the rest of us shouldn't.


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