Grass-Roots Basketball: 9-Year-Olds, Shoe Fortunes At age 9, Demetrius Walker was dunking basketballs into a 10-foot hoop. As an eighth grader, he made the cover of Sports Illustrated. Sportswriter George Dohrmann examines the cutthroat, big-money world of youth basketball in his new book, Play Their Hearts Out.
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Grass-Roots Basketball: 9-Year-Olds, Shoe Fortunes

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

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

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GUY RAZ, host:

At age 9, Demetrius Walker was dunking basketballs into 10-foot-high rims. By the time he reached 11, Demetrius was signing autographs. Six years before he was old enough for college, he got his first recruiting letter from the University of Miami. 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 Demetrius Walker. His name is Joe Keller.

Sportswriter George Dohrmann spent eight years hanging around Keller, Walker and the cutthroat world of youth basketball. He tells the story in his new book. It's called "Play Their Hearts Out," and George Dohrmann joins me from San Francisco. Welcome.

Mr. GEORGE DOHRMANN (Author, "Play Their Hearts Out"): Thank you for having me.

RAZ: Most of us are somewhat familiar with the kind of high stakes involved in recruiting college basketball players, but your story starts way earlier than that. I mean, these are kids as young as 8, 9 years old playing what you describe as grassroots basketball. First of all, can you explain what this is?

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

And the best of these teams get sponsored. They're sponsored by the shoe companies, by other people, and they travel the country playing games.

So there's no leagues necessarily or, you know, regions that they play under. They're sort of national teams looking for the best players, showcasing the best players.

RAZ: You tell the story through Joe Keller, who was this sort of regular guy. He was in his mid-20's in the inland empire in Southern California. He basically scours playgrounds in his neighborhood in the area to find talented prospects to set up a team, and he basically begins to do this. And anybody can do this.

Mr. DOHRMANN: Yeah. When Joe got into coaching, I mean, he couldn't even demonstrate a proper defensive stance. He just was a competitive guy, one day figured out he could start a team. He did that, and then he went out and went to middle schools, elementary schools, playgrounds, rec centers, and he looked for those athletic kids that he felt would project to be great players.

Maybe they were tall or fast, but he was sort of looking for that one or two things that, you know, held the promise of greatness.

RAZ: Joe Keller is portrayed in this book as, I guess, I'd sort of say, a pretty extreme person. He's not a particularly skilled teacher. He seems to take advantage of these young kids to make big money or in his attempt to make big money. Yet, the kids and their parents basically trust him. How did he win them over?

Mr. DOHRMANN: Early on, Joe, I think, was sort of half-good guy, half-greedy. He did do some wonderful things for the boys. You know, he fed them, he clothed them. For Demetrius and a few others, he was truly the only father that they ever knew.

So there were some redeeming qualities about Joe. But he also held this carrot out there for kids. He understood how parents, how kids dreamt of college scholarships and of the NBA. And he put that out there. He said, if you trust me, I can get your kid there.

RAZ: Joe Keller eventually discovers a player named Demetrius Walker. From the time this kid is 10 years old, he's basically being touted as the best player in the country at his age. Joe basically stakes his sort of future on this kid, thinks that this kid is his golden ticket. And they develop this very odd relationship, sort of part father-son, part agent-star. How did that happen?

Mr. DOHRMANN: I think Demetrius was a, you know, kind of an old soul. He was a kid, a latchkey kid who had to grow up very fast, and Joe, at the same time, was certainly immature.

They sort of came to each other, you know, Joe coming down and Demetrius going up. And their roles would kind of flop back and forth at times. You know, they were father and son, there's no question about that, but they were friends, older brother, younger brother.

They just spent so much time with each other. I mean, they were never apart. So as they go forward, they kind of grow together, and really, you know, their relationship is something that I've never seen before because it wasn't coach-player, it wasn't just father and son. It was so many things.

RAZ: You basically watched him grow up, I mean, from a child to a young man. He eventually fell out with Joe Keller. How did this kid go from being Joe Keller's golden ticket to this kid that he basically froze out?

Mr. DOHRMANN: Well, two things sort of happened simultaneously, which was: One, Demetrius started to struggle as a player. He didn't have a growth spurt after 14 like Joe anticipated. So he stayed right around 6'2". And he needed to become a perimeter player, a guard, and Joe wasn't preparing him.

And at the same time, Joe was making crazy money. He had come up with this idea to run all-star camps for sixth, seventh and eighth graders. And he would sell merchandise off these camps. He had - Adidas was sponsoring his camps. He was making crazy money. And at the same moment, his star was flopping.

So he made this choice. He said, I'm going to take care of my family. I'm going to step away from the team and from Demetrius and just focus on my camps and making money. And it was easier to do that when Demetrius was flopping because he now saw, well, I'm not going to make any money off this kid anyway. So c'est la vie, Demetrius, and I'm going to move on to the camps.

RAZ: My guest is George Dohrmann. He's the author of a new book called "Play Their Hearts Out." It comes out this week.

I think a lot of people listening to this interview would be surprised, I certainly was, when I was reading this book to find out that shoe companies, I mean, the big shoe companies Reebok, Nike, Adidas are watching these kids, these 9 and 10-year-old kids play and are trying to sort of get in there early on, and that these coaches like Joe Keller and others that you talk about are making a lot of money off this.

Mr. DOHRMANN: We've long known that the shoe companies have worked to get in with kids who are high school-age kids. They'd sponsored their coaches or given their coaches money to make sure that the best high school-age players, you know, wore Nike or Reebok or Adidas.

But what Adidas did was they identified Joe's team - Demetrius and a couple of other star players - before they reached high school. And they sponsored Joe Keller. They made Joe Keller one of their signature coaches. And this was a monumental shift. It was the shoe companies sort of crossing this hard deck that no one had crossed before, which was, we're going to market seventh and eighth graders.

You know, there's a scene in the book where one of Adidas' grassroots executives talks about, you know, we want to market on Demetrius. We want, you know, people to wear his shoes. And so this was stunning, and it just showed you how far they're willing to go.

RAZ: And I should point out that this still goes on. And so I'm wondering who polices all this. I mean, it's certainly not the NBA. The NCAA isn't really paying attention to it. So how is it allowed?

Mr. DOHRMANN: Just because of the reasons you said. There are no police. You know, there's no organization, no state organization, no national organization that runs youth basketball. It is a completely unregulated subculture.

So, you know, I can start a team tomorrow, I can start paying kids, I can get an Adidas deal, all of these things go on, and nobody at any point can step in and say, you know, stop this. And the only people who really have the control are the shoe companies because they control the purse strings.

RAZ: And Demetrius Walker is in college now. He's about to enter his sophomore year at New Mexico, right?

Mr. DOHRMANN: Yeah. He played last year at Arizona State and then transferred to New Mexico where they play a little more fast-paced. And he's doing okay compared to some of the other boys in the book who fell out and also just given what he went through.

He really recognizes how he was taken advantage of. He recognizes that he has some serious scars and some things to overcome. But by recognizing that, he now knows, you know, these are the things I need to do to maybe, you know, get back to where I was.

RAZ: What's Joe Keller doing now?

Mr. DOHRMANN: He's running his camps. He's making his money that way. But his competitive nature, which is amazing, is now focused almost entirely on his son, Jordan, who I think is around 9 or 10, his baseball career.

He's got him playing club baseball. He's got a team called Team Phenom, which is a name that sort of resembles some of the things that Joe did with the basketball team. So it's amazing. I could probably sit down right now and start another book about Joe Keller and youth baseball because it's almost like that journey is at the starting point.

RAZ: That's George Dohrmann. He's a Pulitzer Prize-winning writer for Sports Illustrated and the author of the new book, "Play Their Hearts Out." It comes out this Tuesday.

George Dohrmann, thank you so much.

Mr. DOHRMANN: My pleasure. Thank you.

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