Play Their Hearts Out: A Coach, His Star Recruit, and the Youth Basketball Machine, by George Dohrmann
There was a time when the second best avenue to writerly acclaim (the best being investigative journalism) was sports writing, and Dohrmann seems cut from that cloth. He’s a Sports Illustrated writer-Pulitzer winner – and, as this book demonstrates, a bit of an investigative writer himself
But a bit about the book.
Dohrmann began following what he calls grassroots basketball, i.e., the entrepreneurial AAU system of pre-high school hoops. His main focus is a struggling coach, Joe Keller, and his basketball find, a young California kid named Demetrius Walker.
Talk about patience: Dohrmann follows these two and a secondary cast of characters through some eight years, focusing on the kids’ seventh and eighth grades. Keller, by Dohrmann’s accounting, has a gift for recognizing hoops talent in pubescent boys, but his primary talent is the entrepreneurial one; he ends up rich from basketball camps and all its ancillary products and activities, leaving his boys to struggle toward high school and college.
Dohrmann’s main point here is that boys from less than desirable home lives are ending up as the means to the entrepreneurial end in hopes of rescue through the NBA. As a result, they aren’t coached well, aren’t developed as pre-adults, and the sins of the coaches and other wheeler-dealers haunt these kids throughout their sports lives.
While Dohrmann’s writing voice is rock solid, it doesn’t approach Grantland Rice’s elegance. However, he clearly knows how to take volumes of data about these coaches, the boys and their families, and write it without it seeming an amorphous mass of data. Where possible he lets his characters talk through dialogue; as a result, you’re drawn deeply into their lives, their sports journey, their trials and successes. When he resorts to backstory, he does so in a way that embellishes his here-and-now, and he doesn’t linger there long enough to lose the reader.
In such an eight-year odyssey, and with the amount of detail at Dohrmann’s disposal, it would be tempting to let one's self drift away from this story’s arc, but Dohrmann's a disciplined enough writer to make such an ambitious project work. If his writing here has a downside, it’s a minor one: he lingers too long over somewhat trivial matters near the end. But for tomorrow’s hoops stars, today’s fans, and this aging hoopster, it’s an enthralling must-read.
My rating: 18 of 20 stars