Over the last decade, nearly every American NBA player learned the game on the AAU circuit, playing on travel teams that criss-cross the country over the spring and summer by the time they are in junior high. If a kid is serious about basketball, escaping the travel circuit is nearly impossible.
While this development is widely blamed for all manners of ills, George Dohrmann's Play Their Hearts Out is one of the first attempts by the mainstream media to understand AAU ball from the inside out. A Pulitzer Prize winning reporter for Sports Illustrated, Dohrmann first became familiar with the subject while writing a story on Tyson Chandler in 2001, as the seven-footer prepared to make the jump from high school to the NBA.
The coach who first discovered Chandler, Joe Keller, tells Dohrmann that he has assembled an incredible group of 10-year olds; several who will one day surpass Chandler. In return for the prestige of being associated with SI, Keller agrees to open the doors of his program to Dohrmann.
Play Their Hearts Out, released last year, documents the up-and-down eight-year journey of both Keller and his players, a process at times heartbreaking, infuriating and uplifting. Dohrmann has novelist's eye for detail and suspense, and in many ways the book is a 21st-century update of Hoop Dreams, a story of the intersection between teenage athletes, the poverty around them and the American Dream.
When we first meet Keller, he is an entrepreneur long on dreams but short on basketball acumen. He lost Chandler to the machinations of more experienced AAU coaches, in the process losing out on millions of dollars from agents and shoe companies. The market for high-school players is monopolized by the older coaches affiliated with Nike and Adidas, so Keller aims younger, targeting promising middle school players in order to build relationships that will pay off as they mature.
His best player, Demetrius Walker, is a latchkey child of a single mother with two full-time jobs. As a result, Walker becomes a de-facto member of Keller's family, eventually spending more time with his coach than his own mother.
Keller has a young family of his own to support, and to attract the attention of the shoe companies he needs his team -- "the Inland Stars" -- to win a 13-and-under AAU national championship. As a result, their games become matters of life and death, with Keller frantically yelling and screaming during every play, desperately trying to win by impressive enough margins to impress anyone watching.
The players end up winning, celebrating as if they had won an NCAA title. Their success gets Keller his coveted shoe deal and Walker on the cover of Sports Illustrated, touted as "the next LeBron" at the age of 14. What happens to both, and the father-son relationship they had, is a complicated illustration of the perils of success and a damning indictment of the culture of AAU basketball.
For while Keller has climbed the mountain, moving his family into a McMansion and becoming the president of Adidas' "Junior Phenom" camps, his players are still going through puberty, years before colleges will even recruit them.
Walker, the unselfish and always smiling kid, becomes a self-absorbed and guarded teenager, believing his own hype and distancing himself from his teammates. He stops growing, slowly slipping from the mythical No. 1 ranking in his age group, so afraid of disappointing Keller that he shrinks from competition: hiding in the bathroom during Keller's All-Star camp, afraid to test his game against his developing peers, who view him as a target.
His teammates hardly fare better, thrust into a cutthroat process where high schools across Southern California essentially bid for their services. By the time they are sophomores, Keller has become the "middle school Sonny Vaccaro" and the Inland Stars no longer exist. The friendships between the kids, after years of cutthroat practices where Keller pit them against each other, disintegrate as best friends become strangers.
Names familiar to college basketball fans appear throughout -- from a 10-year old Peyton Siva to a 12-year old Darius Morris and a 14-year old Dexter Strickland. While none are as advanced as Walker is at his age, all slowly pass their childhood rival to the point where a 16-year old Walker is seen as a has-been, mostly forgotten and viewed as a cautionary tale.
Most of the Inland Stars are now playing in college, but the book's central question remains: asides from making Keller rich, what was the point in treating 12-year-olds like professionals? They resemble not so much athletes but child stars, given too much too young while their ultimate potential is still shrouded by puberty. Walker, now a combo guard at New Mexico and still only 20 years old, has had a career arc of someone twice his age -- from phenom to fallen star to high-school state champion and big-time recruit (he originally signed with Arizona State) and now mid-major transfer looking to resurrect his career once again.
And in recent years, players like Walker have subtly changed the NBA Draft: athletes burdened by the weight of grotesque expectations who become second-round steals in the pros: from Trevor Ariza to Monta Ellis, Lou Williams and Chase Budinger.
Few other professional sports are as careless with young talent as the NBA. FC Barcelona, the best soccer team in the world, gets players in to their academy by the ages of 12 and 13, carefully nurturing their development and shielding them from unscrupulous middle-men.
After reading Play Their Hearts Out, it's impossible to watch Xavi, Iniesta and Messi, Barca's trio of home-grown stars, and not wonder what would have happened if the Inland Star's best players -- Walker, Aaron Moore, a 6'7 forward whose lack of a stable home-life short-circuited his career, and Roberto Nelson, a 6'3 Oregon State guard -- had been similarly nurtured instead of left to the devices of Keller, who claimed that "the perfect team is a team of all single moms."
As a reader, the personal tragedies all three experience -- only Nelson knows his father, who is currently incarcerated -- are hard to forget. As a fan, the unrealized potential of their careers throws the entire reasoning behind the current youth basketball system into question.