Grass-Roots Basketball: 9-Year-Olds, Shoe Fortunes

The youth basketball team Inland Stars, with 11-year-old star Demetrius Walker (number 23).

Coach Joe Keller (top row, left) and his team, the Inland Stars, celebrate victory in a tournament in Arizona. The 11-year-olds were led by Demetrius Walker (number 23, third from right in the back row). Rob Bock hide caption

itoggle caption Rob Bock

At age 9, Demetrius Walker was dunking basketballs into a 10-foot hoop. By the time he reached 11, Demetrius was signing autographs. And as an eighth-grader, he made the cover of Sports Illustrated.

Big shoe companies were clamoring to have Demetrius wear their gear, and much of the hype was generated by the man who discovered and then later abandoned Walker: Joe Keller.

Pulitzer Prize-winning sportswriter George Dohrmann spent eight years hanging around Keller, Walker and the cutthroat world of youth basketball. That's the focus of his new book, Play Their Hearts Out.

Play Their Hearts Out by George Dohrmann
Play Their Hearts Out: A Coach, His Star Recruit, and the Youth Basketball Machine
By George Dohrmann
Hardcover, 424 pages
Ballantine Books
List price: $25
Read An Excerpt

The Roots Of Grass-Roots Basketball

"Basketball is this sort of unregulated world," Dohrmann says, "where anybody can wake up tomorrow and start a club basketball team, recruit players and start playing."

The best of these teams, he says, get sponsorship from shoe companies and travel from coast to coast playing games.

Like coaches across the country, Keller scoured playgrounds, rec centers and middle schools looking at athletic kids he thought might grow up to be great players.

Keller was competitive and ambitious when he began scouting but had little coaching experience. "He couldn't even demonstrate a proper defensive stance," Dohrmann says.

As a result of his inexperience, Keller relied on sure-fire physical signs to help him spot the most talented players." Maybe they were tall or fast," Dohrmann explains, "but he was sort of looking for that one or two things that held the promise of greatness."

Keller is portrayed in Dohrmann's book as a yeller who demonstrates few real teaching skills. He wins over parents by clothing and feeding some of the kids, becoming almost like a father figure to them.

"For Demetrius and a few others, he was truly the only father that they ever knew," Dohrmann says. "He understood how parents, kids, dreamt of college scholarships and the NBA. And he put that out there: He said, 'If you trust me, I can get your kid there.' "

Author of Play Their Hearts Out: A Coach, His Star Recruit, and the Youth Basketball Machine

George Dohrmann, one of the few sports writers to win a Pulitzer Prize, began following Joe Keller's youth basketball team in 2000. Adam Moore/Ballantine Books hide caption

itoggle caption Adam Moore/Ballantine Books

Discovering Demetrius

The book describes how Keller built a team around Demetrius — a "latchkey kid who had to grow up very fast," according to Dohrmann.

"They just spent so much time with each other — they were never apart," the author explains. "Demetrius spent more time with Joe than he did with his mother, who was working two jobs. So as they go forward, they kind of grow together."

Dohrmann describes the relationship between Keller and Demetrius as "something that he had never seen before." It could not be defined as either coach/player or father/son, but was far more complicated and complex.

In the eight years that he spent with them, Dohrmann watched Demetrius go from child to young man. He also witnessed firsthand Demetrius' fallout with Keller.

In high school, Demetrius leveled off at 6-foot-2 and didn't have the growth spurt that Keller had originally predicted. Frustrated, he had trouble turning his game into that of a guard.

At the time, Keller was focused on his newly-formed all-star camps for sixth, seventh and eighth graders. (He told Dohrmann that those camps had earned him as much as $4 million a year.) The author argues that the coach was more concerned with the financial revenue and sponsorship coming from these camps than with helping Demetrius grow as a player.

"He made this choice: He said, 'I'm going to step away from the team and from Demetrius and just focus on my camps and making money.' "

Cash From The Shoe Companies

Shoe companies are no strangers to sponsorships — we've all grown accustomed to seeing their brands worn by high school and college players. But the emphasis on sponsorship of 9- and 10-year-old kids by major brands such as Reebok, Nike and Adidas is a recent phenomenon.

In the case of Keller and Demetrius, "what Adidas did was they identified Joe's team — Demetrius and a couple of other star players — before they reached high school," says Dohrmann. "They sponsored Joe Keller and made Joe Keller one of their signature coaches. And this was a monumental shift."

Today, Demetrius is in his sophomore year of college. He played last season at Arizona State, but transferred this summer to the University of New Mexico. And compared to a few of the other players profiled in Play Their Hearts Out, he is faring well.

Joe Keller is still running all-star camps but is now more focused on his son Jordan's baseball career than on basketball. Although regardless of the sport, Keller is still known for his rabid competitive streak.

"It's amazing," Dohrmann says. "I could probably sit down right now and start another book on Joe Keller and youth baseball because it's almost like that journey is at the starting point."

Excerpt: 'Play Their Hearts Out'

Play Their Hearts Out: A Coach, His Star Recruit, and the Youth Basketball Machine, by George Dohrma
Play Their Hearts Out: A Coach, His Star Recruit, and the Youth Basketball Machine
By George Dohrmann
Hardcover, 424 pages
Ballantine Books
List price: $25
LANGUAGE ADVISORY: This excerpt contains language that some readers may find offensive.

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 25 and in his first year of coaching, stood next to Keller. They discussed the players on the court, beginning with the 11-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 10-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 6-foot-1, his uncle 6-foot-8), 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.

From Play Their Hearts Out by George Dohrmann Copyright 2010 by George Dohrmann. Excerpted by permission of Ballantine Group, a division of Random House Inc. All rights reserved.

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