Bob and Weave

Musings of an impostor. Welcome to the masquerade.

A-A-U Spells Trouble

Posted by flyingbk on 11/08/2010

Joe Keller and Demetrius Walker (Credit: George Dohrmann / Ballantine)

Tonight marks the first games of the 2010-11 basketball season. College hoops has become my 2nd favorite sport with baseball #1 and all other sports a distant 3rd, 4th, etc. So it’s fitting that today, I review a landmark book by Sports Illustrated writer George Dohrmann titled Play Their Hearts Out: A Coach, His Star Recruit, and The Youth Basketball Machine. This is the first book I’ve finished since I moved to Virginia; I took it out from my local library and finished all 432 pages within 4 days. If you love college sports, and want an insider’s look at the seedy world of AAU basketball, this book is an absolute page-turner.

We all remember Mars Blackmon’s (aka Spike Lee) famous proclamation that “It’s gotta be the shoes.” Here’s a reminder in case you don’t recall:

Well, unfortunately, AAU (which stands for Amateur Athletic Union) basketball is all about the shoes. It should be mainly about the young hoopsters who dream one day of procuring a college scholarship and playing in the NBA. It should be about teaching them properly, whether the subject be the fundamentals of basketball, the importance of studying (and staying) in school, and growing in maturity and character. Unfortunately, those three topics are widely ignored even as these teenagers travel around the country and play in many a sports camp or national tournament. There does appear to be some good people working for the AAU; the ones who actually guide kids correctly and help them land safely to play in the NCAA. But the system is broken and ravaged by those who simply want to make some dough, with the help of the shoe companies. It’s gotta be the shoes, and it’s gotta be the Benjamins.

In this book, Dohrmann follows the journey of Joe Keller, a youth coach who badly wants to make it, i.e. become a big name and make a lot of money in the youth basketball scene. In order for him to achieve this goal, he needs to target the right up-and-comers, and he meets his match in Demetrius Walker, who is promptly hailed as the next LeBron James and the best 7th grader in the nation (click here for the SI story from 2005). Keller practically adopts Walker, spending lots of time with him on and off the court. In 2004, he surrounds Walker with top young talent and they win the AAU national championship in Baltimore.

But the agenda for Keller becomes clear when it is time for Walker to enter high school. The best fit for Walker is Etiwanda High School in SoCal; It’s a proven program with good players and the coach has an established record as someone who sends his kids to top universities. Also, Walker would stay geographically close to his mom and friends, a much-needed safety net. Keller, however, has no interest in Etiwanda. Instead, his ideal school for Walker has to be a place where Demetrius can get the most immediate playing time and be featured as its top star. And of course, it has to be a place where Keller can make more money via an Adidas shoe deal. For those who don’t know, shoe companies pay oodles of money and give truckloads of free gear to AAU (and high school) coaches so that they can get in early with the best young players. Therefore, Walker ends up going to Fontana High, despite its major disciplinary problems and its well-earned reputation as a “dropout factory.” It doesn’t matter at all to Keller that Walker will not improve as a player (and he needs to, because all his life he played in the post but now at only 6’3″, he has to learn guard skills).

Dohrmann reports on the inside happenings in regards to Keller and Walker, as well as other kids who played for Keller’s AAU team. There are a few success stories, but overall, it is a sad book as one comes to realize that Keller functions as a kind of basketball pimp who’s simply looking to get rich off these kids. In fact, once Keller reaches the big-time due to his cash cow idea of starting national junior high basketball camps, he practically throws Walker away. During one heart-breaking sequence, Walker emails Keller and asks him to be more involved in his life again. But Keller, with his remodeled kitchen, new wood floors, and bean-shaped pool and waterfall in the backyard (Keller: “When it is all done, my house is going to look like something you would see on MTV’s Cribs.”), no longer has any need for Walker and ends the relationship.

Walker says to Dohrmann, “I mean, I start thinking to myself, like, is it ‘cuz of me that Coach Joe is now living like he is? It eats me up sometimes, because I don’t really know the whole truth, but if it wasn’t for me, if I had joined another team, would Coach Joe be rich like he is now? Would his name be as big as it is?” We all know the answer, but it really isn’t until a couple years later that Walker (as a high school senior) realizes that “They are just out for themselves. He doesn’t care about me. He cares what he can make off me.”

In Dohrmann’s final interview with him, Keller complains about Walker, stating, “I’m not going to hold his hand anymore. People holding his hand was what f—– him up in the first place.” The irony appears to be totally lost on him. Also, while at Keller’s crib, Dohrmann notices the glass-bowl trophy won at the 2004 Nationals. It’s now an unimportant item at the Keller residence since Keller is only interested in purchasing professional sports memorabilia. So Dohrmann suggests that Keller give it to him, so that he can pass it on the kids who won that trophy. Keller’s response? “Hell no! Are you crazy? I’m not giving it to them. That is mine. I earned that.”

Walker is currently sitting out the 2010-11 college hoops season since he decided to transfer to the University of New Mexico (he was at Arizona State).  He almost certainly will not be a player in the NBA, let alone a star in the NCAA. It’s a sad story of what-could’ve-been if he had been surrounded by the right people who actually cared for him, would not spoil him, and desired to make him the best possible player.

Play Their Hearts Out hammers home the importance of parents and good influences that our youth need, whether they be basketball players or not. But in the youth basketball machine, those influences are few and far between. Does Dohrmann think that his book will make a difference? In this article, he is more measured and realistic: “[The AAU and NCAA] know everything that goes on in this book. I’m just putting in characters and pain and suffering with a name, and that may be new. But what I do hope is that the book gets into a few parents’ hands.”

I hope so too.

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One Response to “A-A-U Spells Trouble”

  1. […] already reviewed this book, but I just want to state what a pleasure it is to read a book that covers one of my favorite […]

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