Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Q-and-A with George Dohrmann, the author of Play Their Hearts Out

George Dohrmann is the author of the book Play Their Hearts Out. The book centers around Demetrius Walker, a precocious hoops talent at the age of 10, and Joe Keller, an up-and-coming AAU basketball coach that latches onto Demetrius and a number of other players. Dohrmann followed this team -- originally the Inland Stars, eventually changing their name to Team Cal -- for eight years, building relationships with a number of players, coaches, and their families. PTHO is an unadulterated, first-hand look at the corruption and exploitation that occurs in grassroots basketball around the country.

The book is an incredible read that, in this writer's opinion, will one day be considered youth basketball's version of Friday Night Lights. (Seriously, if you have not bought the book yet, go here and buy it now. The two weeks before the season starts is more than enough time to put this thing down.) On Saturday, I was able to chat with Dohrmann over the phone, and he couldn't have been more honest and open. The entire transcript of our conversation is after the jump, where Dohrmann discusses, among many other topics, the effect the 2005 Sports Illustrated article had on Demetrius, how difficult it was to stand idly by while Keller manipulated these kids, the potential elimination of the July recruiting period and its effect on AAU basketball, and his idea for fixing grassroots hoops.

The interview is long, but it is well worth the time. So is the book. (Shameless plug No. 2!)

You spent the better part of a decade following Joe Keller, Demetrius Walker, and the rest of Team Cal in order to write this book. What sparked your interest in grassroots basketball and this team in particular?

When I worked at the LA Times right out of college, we did a series of stories on all the guys playing grass roots basketball talking about how that world sort of operated. And I remember one of the leads to the story I wrote ended up being the opening scene in the book Sole Influence. We wrote some stories on that and I was just really intrigued by that world, how its sort of corrupt and what not. I went to Minnesota and didn’t pay much attention to grassroots basketball.

Then when I was with Sports Illustrated, I pitched a story about how I’ve been hearing some things from Southern California and how all these people were clamoring to get around him. So I pitched a story about that and Alex Wolff and I did a story on all the people lining up to try and get a piece of Tyson as he was about to go pro. It was during that time that I met Joe Keller, and I just was like, you know, I want to do something about grassroots basketball, I want to do something different that hasn’t been done before. The only way to get in that world is to have an entry, to have someone that is going to let you in. Joe was at the beginning of his journey, he was just getting back into it and just starting with this team and he provided that entry. I was looking for a big project when I met Joe, and I knew that grassroots basketball was this sort of lawless world. It just sort of all came together.

How much access did Keller give you? Was there anything you weren’t privy too?

There were things that he didn’t tell you, like things that he promised parents, but pretty quickly Joe was an open book in some ways. He liked to talk. He was pretty transparent with his actions. I was also close with the parents and the kids, so I could talk to parents and find out what was going on and take it back to Joe. It wasn’t that hard in the early going because there wasn’t really that much going on. I would just go down and watch the boys play and go into the locker room and listen to Joe talk and then go out to dinner that night with Joe and talk about the team. Just sort of casual stuff, its not like I was cracking Fort Knox early on. It was just hanging out, hanging out with Joe and hanging out with the kids and their parents.

How much time did get to spend with them?

It varied per year. Whenever I would go down to Southern California for work I would sort of extend my trip and make sure I saw them. If there were big tournaments, too. Joe would try to get me to go to every tournament every time, and I couldn’t, just because of work and financially. But whenever he said there was a big tournament I would go or try to go. I went to tournaments in LA and saw them play a couple times. The first away tournament I went was Portland and I went to that tournament a couple years in a row. Its hard to say how many times I visited, but I know I spent on average about eight grand a year in travel money. I wasn’t flying first class, so it was Southwest flights down to LA and I would rent a car and hotels and stuff. I spent quite a bit of time and money following them around. I wasn’t living in Southern California, it would have been more ideal had I been down there. But I did the best I could given that I was working full-time and living 300 and something miles away.

Do you still keep in touch with everyone?

Almost everybody. I don’t talk to Joe. Joe hasn’t talked to me since the Sports Illustrated excerpt. I don’t imagine he’ll call me again. Almost all of the players I keep in contact with. The main guys – Roberto [Nelson, now at Oregon State], Justin [Hawkins, now at UNLV], Demetrius – I would say I talk to them almost weekly. God bless facebook, because I can just hit them up on Facebook all the time. We can send messages back and forth. I still keep in touch with them and a lot of the parents I keep in touch with. I imagine I’ll keep in touch with them forever, I hope.

Keller threatened to sue you over the way he was portrayed in this book after the Sports Illustrated excerpt. Did anything ever come of that?

No, nothing has come of it yet. It wasn’t like I got a letter from his lawyer or anything. It was something where he threatened me in the heat of the moment. I don’t know if he is serious or not, we’ll see.

Joe Keller used Demetrius Walker to make himself one of the most powerful men in grassroots basketball.

What kind of kid was Demetrius when you first met him and what changed in him during the time you were covering him?

When I met him he was ten. So, you know, he was a ten year old. He loved video games, he laughed all the time. He was a kid. He was always a little, sort of older acting than your older kid because of his upbringing. He was a latchkey kid, having to get himself up, going off to school and coming home to himself. He kind of grew up faster than most kids in his younger years. But he was still very much a kid. A kid who liked to laugh and tease and be teased and play video games. In a way, I wish I could have written more of that in the book, but I just didn’t have the space to talk about him being a kid and those moments I got to see.

But, you know, he was a great kid. He was really well liked by his teammates and he worked hard. He just sort of evolved over time into a different kid. And part of that is just growing up. But he also became the No. 1 player in the country, and the Sports Illustrated stuff, and you could see him changing as the pressure on him began to build. He got an ego kind of early on and sort of rubbed some teammates the wrong way. He stopped working as hard as he once had, and that affected his game and his relationship with his teammates. He definitely changed, and not just the natural change that occurs with a kid who gets older. I think the outside influences changed him.

How much of that change was brought on by the Sports Illustrated article in 2005 that called him “The Next LeBron”?

I think that was kind of the push over the cliff. But it was occurring before that. That was a big turning point, but little by little he was changing. Him getting that No. 1 ranking. I think I write in the book, he just never cared about that stuff. And then I remember at one point Joe started telling him he wasn’t going to be ranked No. 1 anymore, to try and use it as a motivational tool for Demetrius. Suddenly, he cared about the ranking when he hadn’t for so long. There were also little things that Joe started to do. He started to pit players against Demetrius, like Roberto Nelson and Aaron Moore. They were kids, in practice, he would start trying to challenge Demetrius and call him out and stuff. This was something new, and it had an effect for sure. But the Sports Illustrated article, because if just brought so much pressure from the outside. He could sort of deal with Joe and the pressure internally and the sort of mind games Joe was playing and things like that with his teammates. But when everyone in a gym was hoping he would fail, he was just not old enough and psychologically equipped to handle that.

Demetrius Walker, playing with Team Cal.

It seemed like with that article, people kind of missed the point. I remember reading it and thinking the writer was trying to show what was wrong with grassroots basketball and wrong with evaluating kids of this age. It seemed like everyone took it as Sports Illustrated certifying this 14 year old kid as the next LeBron James. Do you think that article was fair?

I write about that in the book. The writer, Karl Taro Greenfield, he wasn’t a sportswriter. He was a guy who came in from the outside and saw this problem with hyping these kids and wrote about it. It was an article that was a criticism of that system, of that problem. Me, having written articles about that sort of thing, I understood that you can’t do that. You can’t put this kid that front and center on Sports Illustrated and then be subtle about the problem. Because the grassroots world, and really the sports media in general, doesn’t respond well to subtle criticism and doesn’t catch the nuance to something like that. They only really understand praise and a rip job. It was neither of those two, it was down the middle. And being so down the middle, it kind of got morphed into ‘Oh, Demetrius is the next LeBron’.

So, Sports Illustrated called Demetrius the Next LeBron, actually, it was ‘The Next LeBron?’, with a question mark. People may say that is splitting hairs, but it was the point of the article. Why are we trying to call this kid the next big thing, and is that right? I think Joe missed the point of it, but I think there was a sort of a lack of understanding of how that story would be digested.

One of the feelings I got from reading the book is that initially, Keller really did care for these kids’ well-being. He kind of liked being someone they could lean on and hanging out with them. It seemed like once he realized how much money was available it kind of changed him a little bit and changed his outlook. Do you think that is correct?

Yeah, and I’m glad you picked up on that because I think a lot of people have just said Joe Keller was a bad guy from the beginning. I think he certainly had his faults, but early on Joe did good things for Demetrius and some of the other boys. He started to get more desperate, I think is the way to say it, and that changed him. When they lost at nationals the first time, when they lost to Hoosier Hoops, he started cutting players. I think I write in the book, that was his sort of move towards the dark side. Here he starting cutting kids who were good players who had been with him for a long time. He chose a kid, Tommy, over Andrew Bock, who was a better player, because Tommy’s dad had money. These were decisions that Joe was making that signaled a shift in his approach. It was his move towards the dark side, his move from a coach who cared about the kids to a coach who was more like Pat Barrett.

I think that was the first shift with Joe, as he was getting more desperate to have a winner. More desperate to have the team and Demetrius get noticed by important people. Later on, as the money starts to get big for him, you’re absolutely right, he moved even further in that direction and become somebody who I’m sure readers don’t like.

You’ve said in other interviews that you didn’t really voice your opinion. You would offer it if you were asked, but you just kind of played the back round and observed. Was it difficult to watch Keller’s devolvement and watch him take advantage of these kids and kind of toss everyone to the side?

Yea, it was. I don’t put myself in the book very often, but there was this moment in the car after Keller cut Andrew Bock, in the chapter where I say he turns to the dark side, where I suddenly asked him ‘What about Demetrius? You cut Andrew, a kid that you loved six months ago so easily. What if Demetrius doesn’t grow or he hurts his knee?’ And Joe says ‘Well, then Demetrius would have been a bad investment.’ I remember, at the moment he said that I’m driving the car, and it was one of those moments where you want to go ‘What the hell is wrong with you?’ Or you want to grab Demetrius and get him out of the car and tell him never to go back and play for Coach Joe again.

There were several moments like that. I thought the decision to do the Sports Illustrated article was stupid. Joe asked me, Demetrius’ mom asked me, and I had to explain that I just had to sort of step aside. This is Sports Illustrated and they were making a choice and I couldn’t look like I was undercutting a story by another writer. I just needed to stay out of it. I think they understood that I knew the pressure was going to be put on him. They understood how I felt. It was hard, you had to just kind of let things play out. If you spend eight years around people, you can’t be without opinion 100% of the time. I’m sure a look on my face or a noise I made gave my opinions away a lot. I just didn’t lobby or push or try to influence things.

If Demetrius never ended up playing for Keller, how different would he be right now as a player or as a person. Would he have just simply ended up with a Pat Barrett anyway, just another one of these college hoops power brokers?

I wrote in the book that it would have been most likely that he would have ended up with the great guys that run the Inland Empire Basketball Club, Keith Howard and Julius Patterson, who I set up in the book as being sort of foils to the Joe Kellers and the Pat Barretts and the Pumps of the world. These are good guys and good basketball coaches. It seems most likely he would have ended up with them. Those guys are based in Fontana, Demetrius was in Fontana. I think that would have been a very different experience for Demetrius. First of all, athletically, I think it was quite possible he would have ended up playing football. Joe forbid him playing any other sport, but Demetrius would have been just a fantastic football player. I think he knows that too, and he talks about it. I think he would have played multiple sports and maybe found a different love than basketball or a sport he was better at than basketball.

But if we’re just talking about from a basketball perspective, I think he would have been a more well-rounded player. He would have been a kid who didn’t struggle making the adjustment to guard for a couple years. He would have had coaches who would have seen that earlier, who would have been focused on his development and would have helped him make that transition. Would he have been a better prospect or more of an elite player? You know, people kind of write about him like he was a bust, but coming out of high school he was a top 100 or 150 player that got a scholarship to Arizona State and had an offer from USC that he turned down. This is not a bad player at all. I think he would have been a more confident player, most likely, and probably more fundamentally sound. And emotionally, obviously, he wouldn’t have been as fragile as he was those last few years of high school.

Demetrius Walker spent last season at Arizona State.

Demetrius is now at the New Mexico after transferring out of Arizona State. He will be sitting out a year and he is going to be in a system that will be a little bit better for him. I’m not sure how well he fit with that Princeton style, and there were a lot of good back court players on that team. Do you think he still has a chance to make it to the NBA?

I think that’s a great question. Getting back to Arizona State, he made that decision to go there at the last second. He was like I can’t go to USC. Tim Floyd’s an ass hole and I don’t want to go there and he just needed to get out of LA. At the last minute, he was looking at what scholarship was there for him and it was Arizona State. So he quickly took that offer without doing any research on what they ran. And at this point, he doesn’t have an AAU coach so its not like he can call his AAU coach and say ‘hey where should I go’, because his AAU coach was Pat Barrett. And Barrett only wanted him to go to USC. So now, he kind of did his homework and he ended up at New Mexico and it’s a much better place for him to be.

The other day he asked me this, he said ‘George, you don’t think I’m going to make the NBA.’ And I said, ‘D, its not that I don’t think you have the ability. I don’t know where you are mentally. I don’t know how hard you’re working. I’m in California now and you’re in Albequerque. I don’t see you every day or once a week or once every other week like I used to. And so I don’t know how hard you’re working, I don’t know how you’re jump shot look, I don’t know how you’re working on your ball handling. So I can’t say whether I think you’re good enough on the court or in the right place mentally to make the NBA. I think athletically he is an elite athlete, in terms of his leaping ability and his speed. It’s the basketball part that, if he doesn’t make it, is going to let him down. It’s the jump shot and the ball handling, especially, because he’s going to have to end up being a point or a combo guard. I don’t know if he can make the NBA. I know that he, athletically, has the gifts to match up with NBA players. But I don’t know, basketball wise, where’s he at and where he will be, and that is really the big question.

Its almost scary how little these guys worked on developing as an individual player. Was there really little of an emphasis put on developing their skills?

Oh yeah, what I write in the book is completely accurate. None of the boys that came on to the team got better as basketball players when they were on the team. They competed against higher competition, so you could say that helped them, but it wasn’t like Joe pulled a kid aside and was like let me help you with your left hand. That stuff just didn’t happen. I was with the team for eight years. I never saw Joe Keller diagram anything, ever, on a white board or a chalk board. I never saw him show his team any video of any kind. I never saw him use a whistle. Joe Keller, he was something so unique. Occasionally he paid people to work with Demetrius, like he paid Schea Cotton to work with him. But, really, the first time Demetrius got the fundamentals in a concentrated way was his sophomore year of high school when Ryan Smith was the coach of Fontana High. That was the first time that he had a coach who broke his game down and said let’s get you better at these individual skills.

In general, my belief is that, in an ideal world, AAU basketball is a good thing. You get some competitive competition in the spring and the summer against top talent, some of the lesser players get a chance to be seen by these college coaches. But I think it is a broken system. The biggest issues right now are probably the shoe companies and the coaches looking for profit, but how much of a role do you think having the emphasis on the hype of a player as opposed to how good he actually is has?

Those things go hand-in-hand. Kids get hyped because of their involvement with the shoe companies. Part of the hype of Demetrius is that he was an Adidas kid. He was a kid who was on a sponsored team before high school. That was part of the hype. As I wrote in the book, he would go to the superstar camp in Atlanta, and they had him on a list of athletes with Michael Beasley. So they were hyping him; that’s hyping him. The shoe companies are complicit in the hype, its not just like the only guy hyping people is Clark Francis. The shoe companies are promoting these kids as well. They’re photographing them, they are telling people who to photograph, they are pushing kids to certain media outlets.

I think its sort of all intertwined. You can’t say ‘Oh, the coaches are the problem’ when some of the biggest coaches are funded by the shoes companies. Part of the reason they are powerful and have influence is because of that shoe company’s sponsorship. Its all a problem, so I think if we’re talking about the ways to fix it, its to have the shoe companies stop funding poor basketball coaches and poor people who are morally unsound. The shoe companies don’t do that sort of checking. They didn’t check into Joe Keller when they gave him the shoe deal. They just wanted to have access to Demetrius. So it doesn’t matter who you are, they’ll give you the shoe deal if you control the right kind of kid. So I think that is the first step, getting the shoe companies out of youth basketball. I don’t know how you do that, I don’t know if that is possible, but that’s the first step. Because that would then take some power away from some people who shouldn’t have it because of their back ground and their lack of basketball knowledge.

One of the steps that the NCAA is trying to take is that they are talking about eliminating the July recruiting period to try and get the power out of the AAU coaches and the shoe companies hands. Do you think this gets rid of the grassroots scene and its problems?

No. No, it doesn’t. I actually think it’s a silly proposal in some ways. You take away July, and it doesn’t change the shoe companies involvement. It doesn’t change the coaches involvement. In some ways, it gives the scouting service types, and even the AAU coaches, even more power because the college coaches are going to be more reliant on them to gauge how players performed in the summer. They are still going to play in the summer. There are plenty of dead periods where there are lots of tournaments.

So there will still be tournaments in the summer time. There just won’t be coaches in the stands. What that means is the coaches will be relying more on the AAU coaches, the scouting service guys, to tell them who did well and who didn’t do well. It may return some power to the high school game in the sense that coaches will scout more high school games now, but its not going to mean that a kid’s relationship is with his high school coach. A kid’s relationship is with his AAU coach, so that’s who the college coaches are going to go to. The problem isn’t that the kids are getting watched by college coaches, that is not the problem.

Oregon State's Roberto Nelson played a prominent role in Dohrmann's book as well.

Lets say I’m a parent and my ten year old son is athletic and tall and destroying players in his age group. What advice would you give me about navigating youth basketball?

I would say up until they get to be like 14, just let them play basketball. Even if they are dominating kids their age, maybe you have them play up. That’s the thing. If you have a 10 year old kid, do you need to travel the country playing the best ten year olds? How about if you just play the 12 year olds that live near your house. That would, in some ways, duplicate the same challenges you would get playing the best ten year olds if you would just play up a level. You could do it in an environment that’s controlled, you could do it on your own time. I would say play your kid up, keep it local, stay away from the scouting services – don’t let people scout your kid or rank your kid. Don’t talk to those people.

Then I would say teach him the fundamentals. Because ultimately he’s going to have to pass a test later, and its going to be all about how good of a basketball player he is. Its going to have nothing to do with where Clark Francis ranked him or where somebody else ranked him. Its got nothing to do with whether Nike knows who he is or Adidas knows who he is or what AAU coach he is playing for. So I would say focus on the fundamentals, just play basketball, and if you are seeking challenges, have him play against older kids. Don’t think you have to travel the country to play the best ten year olds and win a ten and under national championship like Joe was so hell bent on doing.

Ultimately, when you decide to trust your kid to an AAU coach – because its not like you won’t, if your kid is that good, if he is a division one caliber player, then you do want to get him out on the circuit and you do want to get him seen and things like that. Just remember that you control it, you have the talent. You have the kid who everyone wants to play with or that everyone wants to see. You don’t have to be beholden to one AAU coach and his rigorous schedule of games and only games. You can move around. One of the people I loved in my book was Carmen Hawkins [Justin’s mother] because she kept pulling her kid off of teams and moving him to other teams. That’s a smart thing to do. She controlled the situation because she controlled her son that was talented. Roberto Nelson was another kid in the book who said I’m not going to play for one team, I’m going to play for whoever I want to play for. I think that’s the best attitude. If a kid is good enough, he will be seen. It doesn’t matter who he is playing for, he will be seen. It doesn’t matter if he is playing with six future NBA players or none, he will be seen. Overall, you need to just maintain control of the situation. Don’t trust a coach too much. Don’t trust a shoe company. Don’t trust the scouting services. Trust that you know best how to mentor your own son. And don’t let people tell you what you need to do to get exposure. If this kid is good enough, he will get exposure.

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