Thursday, March 21, 2013

Paper Backtime: Youth Basketball As Frankenstein's Monster

As today is day one of the "real" NCAA Tournament, we take a look back at the road that many of the players took to get to this point.

AAU basketball is a business, a factory, a dating service for kids and their handlers. It takes a lot of the joy out of the game and forces pre-teens to grow up way too early. This is all documented by Sports Illustrated's George Dohrmann in Play Their Hearts Out, where he embeds himself with a youth basketball coach and a number of kids over a several-year period. It is one of the most eye-opening books you will ever read.

Mostly it focuses on Riverside (CA) youth basketball coach Joe Keller, and his star player Demetrius Walker. In this world, it isn't about playing the game the right way or having balance in life, it's about garnering attention, subjective rankings, and building an empire.

The story begins with Keller, the coach who discovered future NBA star Tyson Chandler, but turned him over to a higher-profile squad and watched others profit off Chandler's success. Keller was determined that history wouldn't repeat itself with Demetrius Walker, a grade-school phenom.

Keller taught his players to press full-time and run up the score. An 8th grader who could dunk was far more valuable than a complete player. Because these things would draw the best kids to his team, and would fuel the machine that would generate uniform and shoe contracts, and put him in a position to negotiate directly with high school and college coaches.

As a result Walker transferred in and out of districts and high schools, before enrolling at Arizona State and winding up (seemingly) happily at New Mexico.

Walker's story, his family life, his notoriety and fade into ignominy, are worthy of a book. As are the story arcs of his teammates, especially those without a core family structure that youth coaches like Keller are able to manipulate with money and swag.

Keller goes from small-time wannabe to a nationally recognized power-broker to a youth basketball camp mogul. His experiences climbing the ladder and whomever he stepped on along the way delivered him to his goal stated at the beginning of the book - to be rich.

Walker has high points and low points along the way. Everything seemed to turn out okay as Walker was a good role player for nationally-ranked New Mexico, but was suspended indefinitely by coach Steve Alford two weeks before the tournament. So the struggle continues for Walker, whose tale is a cautionary one.

But it's not Walker that's broken, it's an unforgiving pipeline that answers to no real governing body. What these youth programs get away with would land NCAA teams on probation or worse.

Dohrmann doesn't offer solutions, but his gritty and stomach-turning look at the system at least sheds light on the exploitation of middle school kids, in extraordinary detail. It should be required reading for any aspiring scholastic athlete or coach.

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