The Frank A. Gonzales Community Center sits on the corner of Colton Avenue and E Street in a mostly Latino neighborhood in Colton, among houses with unkempt yards and low-sloped roofs and next to a baseball field with an all-dirt infield. Like many public buildings in the Inland Empire, it is less inviting the closer you get. The bottom third of the building is painted a reddish brown, the rest a dirty pink, and the whole rectangular structure appears in need of a good hosing. During a development spree in the 1990s, many similar structures were built—elementary schools, community centers, government buildings—and aesthetics were forsaken for speedy construction. All around the Inland Empire, these buildings rose along with cookie-cutter housing developments, each more soulless than its predecessor.
Standing outside the gymnasium, which takes up the left half of the center, you’re most aware of how the thick concrete walls and steel doors mute the life inside. Sneakers sliding, a leather ball pounding on the wood floor, coaches urging players to get back on defense, parents shouting at their kids to take the open shot—you hear none of it. The milieu of Southern California abounds: cars speeding by on Colton Avenue, the zip of an air gun from one of two auto-repair shops across the street, a constant hum from Interstate 10. The sounds of its residents, meanwhile, remain locked within that windowless cement box.
Inside the gym, on the far side of the court, Joe Keller stood with his arms folded in front of a black golf shirt. He had positioned himself at midcourt, behind the scorer’s table, which struck me as an odd place to stand. Fans seated behind him were forced to either end of the aluminum bleachers to gain a clear view of the court. Keller seemed oblivious to his obstruction, and it may have been intentional; it was like him to believe no one’s view of the court was more important than his.
He watched intently a game between a team from Santa Monica and another from Orange County. The kids on the floor were no older than eleven, some as young as eight, and it was difficult to see basketball greatness amid the chaos on the court. In the time it took me to walk from the door to the far side of the court, one small blond boy had a pass go through his hands as if they were coated in butter and the center for the Orange County team had bounced a pass off a teammate’s leg so strongly that the ball rolled into his team’s bench. Looking at Keller, I wondered if he possessed a clairvoyance that enabled him to see the game and its participants differently, to find greatness in the folly of children.
Another AAU coach, only twenty-five and in his first year of coaching, stood next to Keller. They discussed the players on the court, beginning with the eleven-year-old point guard for the Santa Monica team, the only girl in the tournament. She deftly dribbled through defenders, slipping the ball through her legs and around her back with ease, and her outfit was equally refined. The red rubber band holding back her ponytail matched the red trim on her jersey and on the black Vince Carter–model Nikes she wore.
“That’s Monica DeAngelis,” Keller told the younger coach. “Her dad is smart playing her against boys. She’ll be in the WNBA someday.”
The last line was a definitive statement; most of what came out of Keller’s mouth was not up for discussion, not that the young coach would have disagreed. He was clearly deferential and at one point folded his arms in front of his chest and widened his stance, striking the same pose as Keller. Talk turned to the point guard for the team from Orange County, an Asian kid with whom the coach was clearly impressed.
“He’s killing people,” the coach said. “You like him?”
“I don’t do Asians,” Keller responded quickly, as if he’d anticipated the question.
“What do you mean?”
“Asians don’t get tall enough. That kid is fast, sure, but how tall is he going to be? Not tall enough.”
The young coach wasn’t sure Keller was serious. “That kid is blowing by everybody, Joe. You wouldn’t want him on your team?”
“Nope. I don’t do Asians.”
Keller liked the way that sounded and that he was enlightening a younger colleague. The guard again broke free for a layup, and Keller looked at the coach and while shaking his head said, “Still . . . no Asians.”
One could sense the young coach taking notes in his head. He next brought up the portly center on the Orange County team, the tallest player on the court. This prompted a dismissive glance from Keller that suggested he had never heard a dumber question in his thirty years.
“That kid’s a truck. He can barely move. Look at his legs. They’re stumps. He’ll be lucky if he ends up six foot two. If that kid was on my team, I’d tell his parents they needed to think about switching him to football.”
As if on cue, the chubby kid missed a layup while alone under the basket and then knocked the ball out of bounds while trying to rebound his own miss.
“That kid might be retarded,” Keller said, laughing, and he segued into a story. Six months earlier, in a tournament near San Diego, Keller’s team had faced an opponent that included a center who was mentally disabled. “I mean, he was wearing a helmet. I’m serious. A fucking helmet. A couple times, my guys blocked his shot into the stands.” Keller laughed vigorously for several moments, clapping his hands in front of him as if impersonating an alligator’s bite. “What kind of coach sends a retarded kid out there? Why do that to a kid?”
There were only seconds left in the game, and Keller fell silent as Monica’s team tried for the winning score. Coming off a high screen, she got free on the right wing for a clear, albeit distant, look at the basket. Her body scrunched downward like a jack-in-the-box; the elbow on her right arm dipped so low it seemed to touch her knee. She then sprang up and slightly forward in one sudden motion—more of a heave than a release—and it seemed unlikely a decent shot would emerge from such an ungraceful motion. Yet the result was a high-arcing shot with silky backspin. Monica hopped a little on her left foot as the ball floated toward the rim, and for a moment it looked good. But the ball grazed the front of the rim and rattled within the hoop before bouncing out.
As the Orange County team celebrated, Monica put her hand to her forehead and rubbed down her damp brown hair. She bent at the waist and placed her hands on her knees, staying there even as the next two teams to play circled the court, beginning their warm-ups. One of those teams, the Arizona Stars, wore white uniforms, and its players were a mishmash of gangly and squat, black and white, athletic and awkward. In short, they were a team of children, not unlike the two squads that had finished playing moments before. The other team, the Inland Stars, was something else. Every boy was African American, and they were bigger and taller. From just watching them circle the court twice, it was clear none possessed the clumsiness one associates with rapidly growing boys. They wore black warm-ups over black uniforms and black shoes, an intimidating ensemble that contributed to my first impression: There was no way they were in the same age group as the other team.
As Keller’s team divided into two lines for a layup drill, one of the tallest players broke ranks and walked over to where Monica stood. She was still bent over, despondent over her miss, and at first she didn’t notice him. He placed his hand on her back and she looked up. He said something only she could hear and pointed toward the basket, as if to show her how close her shot had come to going in. Monica straightened up and put her hands on her hips, listening as the tall boy, who wore number 23, went on. He was smiling the whole time, a wide smile that flattened his thick top lip, and he continually shifted his weight back and forth. Finally the boy said something and Monica shook her head, as if shaking off the defeat, and then she smiled too. The boy stuck out his right hand and Monica slapped it. Mission accomplished, he pivoted on his left foot and literally jumped away from her, bouncing back into line with his teammates.
Keller had pointed this boy out earlier. His name was Demetrius Walker, and Keller spared no hyperbole in describing his abilities. He was “the best ten-year-old in the country,” so good “he could start for most high school teams right now,” and “an NBA first-rounder for sure.” This was the boy Keller believed would be better than Tyson Chandler, the child who would bring him success and riches.
At first glance Demetrius appeared to be unique. He had a large head and well-defined cheekbones, which could be evidence that he was taller and more athletic than other boys only because he matured earlier. But his arms, shoulders, chest, and legs were those of a prepubescent boy, smooth and lacking definition. Unlike his teammates, he didn’t let his shorts sag to his knees. He pulled them up to his true waist, and that gave the impression that his legs bypassed his hips and connected directly to his chest. His arms were unusually long, and one could imagine opposing coaches describing him as a kid who was “all arms and legs.” In other words, he looked like a kid with a lot of growing left to do. There were other indicators I learned about later, such as his shoe size (14) and the height of his relatives (his mom was six foot one, his uncle six foot eight), but at first I was not sure how to judge his potential. Few endeavors are less exact than trying to forecast athletic greatness in still-developing children. Keller might...
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"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."
--The New York Times Book Review
"The sheer accumulation of transgressions makes for a deep and devastating portrait of an Amateur Athletic Union basketball team."
--The New York Times
"A tremendous account...the book has kept me up at night reading."
--The Cleveland Plain Dealer
"A unique and in-depth look at youth basketball, the players, the characters and how it all fits together, ala "Friday Night Lights." Nice insight into a very unique and complex subculture."
“Sit down and read the Friday Night Lights
of youth basketball. Except the landscape is even darker here, greed and blind ambition stirred together in a toxic stew, the perversions of the modern American athletic dream even more perverted. This is nothing less than Dickens brought up-to-date, the characters in Oliver Twist
dressed in Adidas warm-up suits. Amazing stuff. You’ll never watch basketball the same way again.”—Leigh Montville, author of The Big Bam
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“Like a versatile baller, George Dohrmann swings seamlessly from position to position: investigative journalist, social critic, gifted storyteller. The result, Play Their Hearts Out, is a gem of a book that addresses the question central to contemporary basketball: How does such an unseemly culture spring from such an essentially beautiful game? You'll come away rooting harder than ever for the kids and harder than ever against the basketball profiteers.”—L. Jon Wertheim, author of Strokes of Genius
“What happens when the nation’s foremost investigative sports reporter spends eight years probing the fascinating underworld of grassroots basketball? You get a page-turning narrative that will absorb and repulse you at the same time. I thought I knew a lot about grassroots hoops, but the scope and depth of the reportage in this book just blew me away. Play Their Hearts Out is a must-read for anyone who has ever watched, played, coached, or otherwise worked in—and cared about—the sport of basketball.”—Seth Davis, author of When March Went Mad
"Think Friday Night Lights, but for amateur basketball."
"A tour de force of reporting."
--The Washington Post
"Eight years of reporting in sharp, syrup-free prose…indispensable for anyone curious about the flawed process of forging America’s premier basketball players."
--The Wall Street Journal
"Read this book and it’s so plain to see that this broken system needs to be changed, even if it means steping on some toes in the process."
"Massively impressive reportage…a sort of Friday Night Lights-Blind Side mash-up."
"Chronicles the dark side of grassroots basketball—one that many of us on the edges may think we understand but have never seen at this disturbing level of detail."
--The Chronicle of Higher Education
"An unflinching look at the seedy world of AAU basketball."