ESPN columnist Jim Caple kicked off his book blog this week. Coincidentally, I just finished the first book he highlights, George Dohrmann’s Play Their Hearts Out, a terrific, numbing look inside the world of “grassroots” basketball, the name now used for what used to be called the AAU circuit.
Dohrmann focuses on one coach, Joe Keller, and his prodigy, Demetrius Walker, following their relationship from their meeting when Walker was just ten until the end of Walker’s high school career. Along the way, Walker becomes a phenom – anointed by some as the next LeBron – a complete bust – falling from the #1 ranked prospect in his class down to the mid-200s – and finally salvages his career enrolling at Arizona State.1 Keller, in turn, leverages Walker’s talents to build a nationally ranked team, gain support from adidas, and eventually build a large business around exploiting the talents and dreams of young players.
I first heard about Walker in 2003, while on a business trip in California. I had the local news on while I worked through my e-mail. There was a feature about “the best 12-year-old basketball player in the country,” Walker. There were some clips of him working out, dunking, along with effusive praise from various talent evaluators. Keller was probably in the piece, too. I made a mental note of Walker’s name in case he indeed became a highly regarded recruit down the road.
Two years later, Sports Illustrated did a story about grassroots basketball, with Walker as the focus. That’s when the “Next LeBron” label was first applied.
Dohrmann was there for all of this. The result of nearly a decade following a player and his coach and the people around them is stunning. There really aren’t too many surprises in it; if you follow college basketball closely you’ve heard a lot of this already. But rather than just hearing about the payments and shoe company attachment to middle school kids and so on, we get to see all sides of the equation. The insane pressures put on what are still little kids. The adult decisions they’re asked to make. The petty jealousies that arise. The coldheartedness of coaches who have no tolerance for kids who stop growing or are a step slow or just easy to cast aside when there’s a chance to bring in a better play.
Read this and you’ll feel guilty and dirty for getting excited about some 15-year-old with apparently limitless potential that has been sitting behind the bench at your alma mater’s home games.
Caple just writes a little about the book. Most of this post is dedicated to an interview with Dohrmann, who he used to work with. But he also lays out some rules for sports books, most of which I agree with. For example, why does every coach that has a little success need to write a business book with their “Triangle of Triumph” or whatever? One coach is especially annoying in this area.
In 1998, Rick Pitino gave us “Success Is a Choice: Ten Steps to Overachieving in Business and Life.” Three years later he had more advice in “Lead to Succeed: 10 Traits of Great Leadership in Business and Life.” He later wrote a third book. None, unfortunately, involved proper table manners when a restaurant closes for the night.
- After a year at ASU, Walker transferred to New Mexico where he will be eligible to play next fall. ↩