The Seamy Side Of Youth Basketball

March Madness is the biggest month in college basketball. But the madness can start long before students get to college. Some coaches with little or no experience recruit kids as young as eight, dangling big dreams in front of families. Host Michel Martin speaks with George Dohrmann about his book Play Their Hearts Out.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. It's the biggest month in college basketball, March Madness, but according to our next guest, the madness actually begins much earlier than college for some young athletes and coaches.

We're talking about grass roots basketball, where coaches who may or may not have any skill or training recruit players as young as eight or nine years old, with little accountability for how they coach, what they promise and what they actually deliver.

It's a world Pulitzer Prize winning sports reporter George Dohrmann described in his acclaimed book, "Play Their Hearts Out." We spoke with George Dohrmann when his book was first published two years ago, but he has updated the book and we thought this was a good time to have him back to tell us more.

George Dohrmann joins us now. He's a senior writer and investigative reporter for Sports Illustrated. He won the Pulitzer Prize in the year 2000 for uncovering academic fraud in a college basketball program.

Welcome back. Thanks so much for joining us, once again.

GEORGE DOHRMANN: Thanks, Michel.

MARTIN: So, for people who aren't familiar with the book, let's just take people back for a couple of minutes. You spent eight years following a team from California called the Inland Stars, later known as Team Cal. It was put together by a man named Joe Keller, who had no previous coaching experience, but he eventually managed to develop a team that competed in many elite events of the AAU, or the Amateur Athletic Union.

And the star of the team was a young man named Demetrius Walker. Tell us a little bit about how they met, what their relationship was and like that.

DOHRMANN: Joe started out when he was a car alarm installer who just sort of, one day, woke up and said, I want to start a youth basketball program and try to make money off that. So he went scouting for kids and he found Demetrius one day in a rec center and realized he was a very talented athlete and ingratiated himself with Demetrius and his mother and became, quickly, a father figure.

And he did that for a number of boys as he built this very elite team in Southern California and then sent it, sort of, around the country, competing and hyping the boys and trying to gain attention and money off their performances.

MARTIN: How exactly do they make money?

DOHRMANN: It's sort of complex. They make money - you know, initially, what you get is, if you get enough talented kids together, one of the shoe companies - Nike or Adidas or Reebok - they will step in and sponsor your team. Like six figure salaries, tens of thousands dollars' worth of gear for these teams annually. So that alone is very lucrative.

Then, as the kids get older, depending on how good they are, you get colleges who will, you know, slip money to the program in some ways. And, of course, sports agents then line up to get in with the kids. And the best way to get in with the kids, of course, is with these AAU coaches.

MARTIN: Demetrius Walker did get some major attention. Sports Illustrated raised the idea that he could be the next LeBron. How did he feel about all this? Did he resent the fact that there was so much pressure on, that he was...

DOHRMANN: I think he - you know, he didn't know anything different. It's really fascinating because he was just a very young boy - you know, nine years old - when Joe first spotted him. And he was sort of handed a dream, in some ways. Joe Keller said to him, hey, trust me. Do exactly as I say and I'll get you to the NBA. You can take care of your mom. You'll be wealthy. You'll be successful.

And this is, of course, the carrot that they dangle in front of these kids. Joe Keller was a car alarm installer making these promises, but parents and kids don't know that.

MARTIN: I was going to ask about where the parents were in all this.

DOHRMANN: There's no secret that these coaches are targeting, often, inner city kids or kids who come from single family homes. I mean, Joe Keller told me, the best kind of moms are single moms, you know, because he can control them. He can influence them and...

MARTIN: And he used those words? Control.

DOHRMANN: There was no question. He wanted to control the boys' lives and he ultimately did. He decided what schools they went to. He decided if they were going to be held back a year. He decided what tournaments they did and didn't go to, because their parents bought into the dream, too, bought into what he was selling.

And this is really common in the high level AAU basketball, that parents essentially say, OK, I don't know what's going on here, but I'm going to trust this guy because I really like what he's saying.

MARTIN: We're talking with Pulitzer Prize winning journalist, George Dohrmann. He's out with a new edition of his widely acclaimed book, "Play Their Hearts Out." It's a long investigation into one particular grass roots basketball team where kids were recruited as early as eight or nine years old.

But you - you know, we are talking at a time when there have been some just terrible scandals involving college coaches and allegations of sexual abuse of players. And, you know, your book was kind of prescient in this regard, because you pointed out that there was one team in particular where the coach was known to make unwanted sexual advances upon boys and nobody did anything about it. And when one boy confronted his mother, saying, I don't want to play with this guy anymore, what happened?

DOHRMANN: It breaks my heart thinking about it now. There was one boy, Aaron Moore (ph), who had a mother who - you know, she had people paying her rent. She had people paying her electric bills. So she was taking money from this coach who was a high school coach in Southern California who had been charged and acquitted at one time of sexually assaulting a young boy and ultimately ended up, later on, getting convicted of that crime. And her son told them, he's making advances. He's trying to touch me. He's propositioning me. He's offering me things in exchange for physical contact. And his mother basically sent him back to this man because she wanted the money.

MARTIN: Well, bring us up to date now. What has happened since your book came out? I know that Joe Keller initially was very angry and said he was going to sue you and things of that sort. What happened?

DOHRMANN: Well, he never sued me and he never spoke to me again. He's still running his basketball camps in Southern California, making a lot of money. He's branched out into baseball now, and started up elite teams there.

Joe has sort of cornered a market on convincing hopeful parents, wishful parents, that he is sort of the dream maker.

MARTIN: What is the basis of these parents' continued trust in him?

DOHRMANN: It's just, sort of, naïve dreaming, is what I would say it is. I mean, the evidence is there. The boys that Joe Keller knew the most and cultivated the most have not been that successful in college basketball. They have struggled with the fundamentals, struggled to adapt to being a part of a team.

So all the evidence would say, please, keep your kid away from this man and his endeavors, but - you know, you just can't underestimate parents' dreams. And, when Joe Keller is there, telling them they need to be at this camp and he's putting on the sales job, it's amazing how much they're willing to overlook.

MARTIN: What happened to Demetrius Walker, who was the focus of his early attention, sort of, early in his career? And, as - you know, we said earlier, had been playing since he was six years old. What happened?

DOHRMANN: He rose up. As you mentioned, he became, you know, the number one player in his class in the country, and then began this amazing fall when it became that he didn't get any taller and his fundamentals were so poor. You know, in the book, the bottom for him is sort of hiding in the bathroom at an all star camp because he's afraid to compete.

But he did rebound. He got away from Southern California, moved to Arizona, got some good coaches in his life as he got away from Joe Keller. And he ended up getting a scholarship to Arizona State. After one season, he transferred to New Mexico and he's played well for them this year and he'll be in the NCAA tournament. New Mexico is almost a lock to make the NCAA tournament. He's one of many boys from the books who, you know, you'll see during March Madness.

MARTIN: You, more recently, have been writing about the UCLA program, which was legendary - the UCLA basketball program. But, in recent years, has really struggled. Some would say has fallen apart.

Do you see some connection between the reporting that you're doing about UCLA's program and the stuff that you've reported on at this earlier stage, at Amateur Athletic Union ball? Is there a connection there?

DOHRMANN: Absolutely. You know, at the core of what happened at UCLA, or back-to-back recruiting classes of freshmen who were really young, immature kids and who had that sense of entitlement that we saw from some of the boys in my book - that entitlement that was created by coaches like Joe Keller telling them that they were NBA players, telling that, you know, they were special and just to do their own thing.

And so, when they got into UCLA, what you had was a coach who - in Ben Howland - who really wasn't equipped to deal with them. He had always had sort of selfless, responsible players. Suddenly, he had these high profile kids, the kind of kids like Demetrius, and he didn't know how to deal with them. And they just sort of ran roughshod over the program and UCLA became sort of - fighting. There was drinking and drug use. It was absolute dysfunction.

And I think you can't help but say what the kids are learning and what they're becoming before they get to UCLA plays a role in that.

MARTIN: But do you see more broadly - are there implications for the sport, overall, that you think people should pay attention to based on what's happening at these very young ages?

DOHRMANN: You know, there's a real lack of emphasis on education. You read the book and you realize how little people care at that level about a college education. They're going - college is just the tool to get to the NBA. And so what you have is kids who don't really value college. They don't value the team experience of college. They're not sort of connected to that, like you learn to be when you're younger, so their college experience becomes this really disjointed thing.

Transfers are up across college because of this. Guys leave programs quickly for another at the first sign of adversity. You're really losing team building that these - where teams come together as freshmen in college and then move their way up. It's a really transient game right now.

MARTIN: Other people make the point that hockey players very often go directly from high school into the pros. Baseball players very often don't go to college. And there are people who would argue, what's so special about basketball? Why shouldn't kids - if they can, you know - after all, the purpose of education for a lot of people is to earn a living. And if you can earn a living at an earlier age, especially in athletics, where your career is term limited, anyway - your body, at some point, starts to break down. You know, why shouldn't they do that?

I guess the question is, why should people care?

DOHRMANN: The game of basketball is deteriorating. The players that are coming out of this grass roots system are so lacking in fundamentals, so lacking in morals, so lacking in the lessons that we think of that sports teaches, that they fail.

MARTIN: So what's the game going to do about that?

DOHRMANN: Great question. They have to go down to the lower levels and remove these individuals away from their most talented kids. So what I think needs to happen is the NCAA and the NBA need to get together and talk about creating a youth basketball structure for the most elite kids so that they have control over who's running those teams, who's running those tournaments and, most importantly, who's in the ears of these children.

MARTIN: But what about a good sports experience just for kids who want to be kids, who just want to play and have something to do? Who's going to be in charge of that?

DOHRMANN: To some degree, I think, you know, if you took the most elite kids and you put them into some sort of structured system, the profiteers aren't going to go down where just the kids who want to have a good experience are. So what you'll have there is the good experience. You'll have the high school coaches and the dads coaching who just want to, you know, provide something positive for their kids.

It's the very elite kids, the top, say, you know, three, four percent that are sort of ruining it for everybody else.

MARTIN: George Dohrmann is the author of the book "Play Their Hearts Out." A new edition has just been published. He's also a senior writer and investigative reporter for Sports Illustrated and we caught up with him at member station KQED in San Francisco.

George Dohrmann, thank you for speaking with us.

DOHRMANN: Thank you.

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