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Play Their Hearts Out: A Coach, His Star Recruit, and the Youth Basketball Machine (Anglais) Relié – 5 octobre 2010

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Chapter One

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 have unearthed something special, but how could anyone say for sure?

Keller sidled up to me as Demetrius and the rest of the Inland Stars continued their warm-ups. Away from the young coach he’d been schooling, Keller’s demeanor changed. “Look, I don’t know how we are going to play today,” he began. He said the boys had been lethargic in practice the day before and a few were nursing minor injuries. He alerted me to a player he’d recently added to the team, a smallish guard named LaBradford Franklin. “The kid’s got balls, but he is a year younger than my guys.”

His remarks felt sincere—as if he was providing important information—but also calculated. He badly wanted me to see Demetrius and his players as he did, to validate his beliefs, but he was also ready with a bagful of excuses just in case I didn’t. With the game about to start, Keller left me with one final caveat: “I know what you are going to say after the game, and so I’m saying now: Please don’t say I’m crazy like Bobby Knight. I know that is what you’re gonna think, but don’t say it.”

Just before the start, the Inland Stars gathered in a circle around Keller in front of their bench. As he spoke, he scowled and punched downward, as if he were hammering a nail with his clenched fist. “Take their hearts out!” he shouted. “Take their fucking hearts out!” His words reverberated around the gym, and no one—not his wife, Violet, who sat near the door, or the little kids playing under the bleachers— could have missed his directive. Apparently, Keller didn’t see the rules painted high on the west and east walls of the gym, one of which read:

Many different age levels use the gym and Community Center. Please consider your language — No Profanity.

Most of the Inland Stars had their heads down as Keller spoke, but Demetrius looked down the court, sizing up the Arizona Stars. They had two guards who looked athletic but otherwise didn’t match up. This was most obvious when Demetrius stood facing their center for the opening tip. They were the same height, but the Arizona center had chunky legs accentuated by white socks pulled up to his knees. When the referee stepped between them and tossed the ball skyward, the center didn’t (or couldn’t) jump and just tried to swat at the ball. Demetrius exploded off the floor, getting to the ball more than a foot above the Arizona player’s hand. He tapped the ball to a teammate, who cruised in for an uncontested score.

Keller’s team set up in a half-court trapping defense, and as the Arizona Stars inbounded the ball, he jumped up and down, screaming something incomprehensible even from where I sat fifteen feet behind him. Whatever he said, it was clearly a command for the top two players in the press to trap the ball handler. His players reacted instantly to his barks, moving toward the opposing guard with such speed that they overwhelmed him. He panicked and aimed a pass across the court to a teammate, but Demetrius stepped in front of it and walked in for a layup. The next two possessions ended with similar results, and I began to wonder if Arizona would ever get the ball across half-court.

Despite his team’s immediate dominance, Keller screamed nonstop, reacting negatively to almost everything. If one of his players missed a shot, even if it was a good attempt, Keller berated him. If an Arizona player made a miracle 3-pointer, Keller went ballistic. He reacted so strongly to perceived mistakes that he lunged forward as if he were going to run onto the court, grab one of his players by the jersey, and rip him out of the game.

Revue de presse

"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

“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."
--Yahoo! Sports

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Commentaires client les plus utiles sur Amazon.com (beta)

Amazon.com: HASH(0x8c027ca4) étoiles sur 5 130 commentaires
47 internautes sur 49 ont trouvé ce commentaire utile 
HASH(0x8b752768) étoiles sur 5 A rich, detailed and unforgettable look at modern basketball. 16 septembre 2010
Par Patrick McCormack - Publié sur Amazon.com
Format: Relié Commentaire d‘un membre du Club des Testeurs ( De quoi s'agit-il? )
I started this book with an expectation that it would be a long magazine article, turned into a book. Instead, I found a richly detailed story about basketball, expectations, and real people in the world of sports.

The story is about more than a star recruit and a coach... this book is about the system of development, where athletes are given small perqs, and coaches collaborate in a system that rewards up and coming, young, very young players. Each step is logical, from shoe contracts to help with homework, from summer camps to being named a starter at a young age.

This book shows what is missing, which is the perspective. Being a good junior player is like being given a lottery ticket. Yet we communicate to these young people that they have nearly won the lottery, that they are special, that they have a chance at the brass ring. Each person -- the parent, the coach, the player, the school administrators -- give their tiny message of unwarranted optimism, of perspective-less encouragement, on a path that is quite unlikely to lead to riches and millions.

The writing is very good, the research is deep and layered, the stories told from many perspectives. At times, reading this book, you want to take the young players aside and give them a more accurate world view -- this book helps you understand that this is what is lacking, entirely, among the well-meaning coaches, high schools, players, camps, shoe companies, and the basketball-industrial complex.

Every coach and every player should read this book to understand the world of basketball within which they live.
25 internautes sur 27 ont trouvé ce commentaire utile 
HASH(0x8b3b836c) étoiles sur 5 Very good. The shocking story of youth "pro" basketball. 25 septembre 2010
Par hasselaar - Publié sur Amazon.com
Format: Relié Commentaire d‘un membre du Club des Testeurs ( De quoi s'agit-il? )
Having read "Friday Night lights", seen the movie and watched the series, I was sceptical about this book being able to contend with such quality. I am now a believer, this is a fine book, well-researched, well-written and a stunning display of how adults in the US are able to manipulate young kids into becoming their "meal tickets". I had no idea that kids as young as 10 or 11 could end-up on mini-pro teams, that there were men (coaches) who would prey upon these young basketball players in order to earn money and prestige for themselves. I was stunned to read that the major sports supplies businesses would pay and promote these ethics in their own bid to increase corporate profits. That so many parents allowed their young children to be manipulated in such a way was an astounding revelation. This book illuminates behaviours and actions that are scandalously wrong and need to be halted.

The "coach" featured in this book, a certain Joe Keller, is "on the make" and searching for any way to promote himself. He signs these young boys to a "team", uses them in every way possible, showing zero concern for their physical or mental health, building his own reputation through the efforts of the young boys in his care. He has no scruples, he lies to the boys, manipulates them against each other, "buys" boys from other teams, and generally comes across as one of the more unappealing characters ever to see the light of day.

It is appalling to read that young boys, as young as 10 or 11 are being "scouted" for pro-like teams and worked day and night, to the detriment of their education. The parents appear to be as bad as Mr. Keller, willingly turning their young children over to this brute, on the mere chance that this child might someday reach the NBA and enrich the parents. This is an awful situation, I recommend this book to all, especially those who might consider allowing their children to be swept-up by all of this vainglory.Read this book, the story is good, the writing is excellent and it presents a subject that seems to have been kept well-hidden from the general public.
23 internautes sur 28 ont trouvé ce commentaire utile 
HASH(0x8be68594) étoiles sur 5 Insightful, a book with a purpose 11 octobre 2010
Par Sanchez - Publié sur Amazon.com
Format: Relié
What if I were to tell you that if you come with me and read this review, you'll make it someday. I'll do whatever it takes for you to read this review, because that's how confident I am that you are special. Honestly, I've never met anyone like you. You're incredible. We're going to be a team, you and I. You're so awesome. What? Your mom can't afford rent? Done. Helping you means that much to me. I'll always be there for you. OK, yes, we're like family. Every step of the way, you can rely on me. I can get you where you need to go. I have connections. Trust me.


What's great about this book is that it's not just for the basketball minded. In fact, it's an interesting study in human behavior, people using people to get ahead - only, in part, the people being used are 10 year olds. From chapter to chapter you have to remind yourself that these are just kids. Seriously. The pictures before every chapter helped remind you of that important detail. The narrative does a great job depicting the decisions and scenarios that surround these children at every turn. They're children. Before you know it, you involve yourself in those decisions. But believe me, you very rarely win. Shoe companies are using the coaches, coaches are using the kids, and the kids (rather their parents) are using the coaches. In the end, who wins? Bittersweet wins. College scholarships are on the horizon for some of these kids, that's the sweet part, and there are some real heroes in this story. The bitter comes with the success of the main (adult) antagonist/protagonist that with every chapter aims to "coach" his way into millions. Disliking he and the system he rode in on is the easy part. The hard part comes with, perhaps, finding yourself rooting against his teams at these kids expenses. Yes, he is THAT unlikable. It's not until (spoiler alert) he rather rudely drops them from his life, along with all of his promises, that these kids begin to run into some serious trouble dealing with that change in speed. It's then where you start to really feel terrible for them, regretting having felt angst when they succeeded under his tutelage (if you want to call it that). All the elements in a great story are here, live and in person. There are cautionary tales. There is some coming of age. And, unfortunately for a chapter or two, there is seduction. This book comes highly recommended, whether you are in it for the basketball or not. You'll get incredible access to the underworld of grassroots basketball, provided with the keys to the minivans that once drove the likes of Kobe Bryant, Lebron James and other highly touted phenoms of our generation. More importantly, you're also driving those that fell short, that's the rub. So punch your ticket, take the ride, it will cost you less than a pair of basketball shoes...you'll know what I mean.

Now that you read my review:

It's a shame we can't continue our relationship. I guess we have to go our separate ways. I wish we could solve all our issues but I guess we will have to go our separate ways.
3 internautes sur 3 ont trouvé ce commentaire utile 
HASH(0x8be68870) étoiles sur 5 Thank the shoe companies for the sleeze in youth basketball 15 novembre 2010
Par Bama Biker - Publié sur Amazon.com
Format: Relié Achat vérifié
Just the tip of the iceberg. George Dohrmann, an award winnng Sports Illustrated senior writer, does a great job of exposing the underbelly of youth basketball. You have to feel for the kids who become pawns for the power brokers tied to shoe company grassroots promotion money and major alumni benefactors "donations" to the tax exempt "foundations" of these same AAU coaches and organizations. Pretty naive to believe that all these elite athletes are going to play at the college level for only scholarships covering tuition, room and board, and a small stipend after coming up through organizations where they received gifts, clothing, cars,phones, and spending money, and maybe their mom's rent paid for by their AAU coaches and/or their AAU coaches agent buddies. Sad commentary on how the whole "high level" youth basketball industry - and that is what it is - an industry - has evolved on the backs of kids with dreams of making it in the NBA.
17 internautes sur 23 ont trouvé ce commentaire utile 
HASH(0x8be68498) étoiles sur 5 it's complicated 30 juin 2011
Par Scott Saccenti - Publié sur Amazon.com
Format: Relié Commentaire d‘un membre du Club des Testeurs ( De quoi s'agit-il? )
I come to this book with a lot of perspective. And some would say a lot of bias.

I have been coaching Division 1 AAU boy's basketball for three years now; I was involved as a parent for two years before that.

Most everything I have encountered in AAU basketball has been positive. Now that must sound crazy to anyone who has read this book, but who has not been close to the scene itself.

One cannot escape the writer's strong bias against AAU throughout these pages. If you accept his position, then you are going to regard AAU basketball coaches as predators. Adult men out to exploit kids, looking for profit. Simple as that. The writer might pay some lip service to exceptions to this formula, but it is just that, lip service.

The reality is exactly the opposite. There are coaches like Joe Keller, obviously. The writer found one. But that is the exception. That is one or two men in a hundred. I personally don't know anybody quite like Keller, and I know pretty much every coach from my age group in the Mid-Atlantic area.

There are some men in this for profit, and there are a few who eke out a small living. Those are the rare few though. As for guys who are making a swell living, making real money, getting rich, like Keller? Bet you can count the number of those, in the entire country, using just your fingers.

By far, BY FAR, the average AAU coach for younger teams, let's say 13U and under, are either dads who are coaching their sons, or men who once coached their sons all the way through, and have returned out of love of coaching to do it all over again with younger players. That second group, by the way, is far and away the preponderant one. Most all the guys I know on the better teams are men who have a long history of coaching, some twenty plus years, and started way back coaching their own kids.

Most everyone I know, and I mean upwards of 95%, don't make a dime doing this. Indeed, we are often deep into our own pockets coaching these teams. That is sure true of me.

And so it is frustrating to read this tale, and think that parents are going to come across this book and be soured on AAU because of a few bad apples.

I think it should be better emphasized: the coaches and teams that the writer describes in this book represent a tiny minority, the very very top handful of teams and situations in the country. My team finished top 30 in the country last season. I can tell you that there is a HUGE difference between #30 and #10. If you have a son who is good enough to make #10, then yes. You ought to read this book and you ought to tread very carefully. You ought to ask every question, and question every answer.

But that is a tiny minority. For regular folks, AAU basketball is a tremendously rewarding experience, full of hard work, competition, life's lessons, all the stuff that makes sport great. I would hate to see anyone turned off to it by this book.

ps. Two small things directly regarding the book itself. First, way too long. This is a magazine article expanded into a book, and it didn't need to be expanded SO MUCH! Second, the writer throughout uses the term "grassroots" instead of "AAU." I'd never heard this term before. Everybody says "AAU." Either "grassroots" is a term they use on the West Coast (where this book is almost exclusively centered), or the author really didn't get "close to the ground" after all. Yes. Pun intended.
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