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Monday, October 11, 2010

Must Read: "Play Their Hearts Out: A Coach, His Star Recruit and the Youth Basketball Machine" by George Dohrmann

George Dohrmann writes for Sports Illustrated, and the magazine recently published an excerpt from it. Buy the book -- it's one of the most important sports books of recent memory, as it focuses on the sordid underbelly of college basketball. Put differently, you might love college basketball the way people like sausage, but you don't want to see either of them made.

For almost 8 years, Dohrmann followed a bunch of basketball players (say, from fifth grade to the time they left high school). He had great access, and he reported that he told his subjects he wouldn't publish a book until they were going to college. He honored that promise, and the book that resulted paints a rich description of the desperation of some of the kids and their families, the profound hope that they have that their kids can get scholarships, the vulnerability of the kids, the (sometimes) drug-lord kingpin type aspects of elite travel team coaches, the corrupting influence of the shoe companies and the engagement of college coaches. If you're skeptical about the overall integrity of the college game and don't like being called cynical, this book might redeem you in such a way that you'll think yourself to be spot-on accurate.

I don't want to re-tell the story here, but in Joe Keller, you have a hard-luck story who wanted to be a basketball coach and wealthy at the same time. The story behind his road to achieving status in the youth basketball coaching world and bettering himself financially is better than fiction. In Demetrius Walker, you have a transcendant talent from a single-parent family who so much wanted to get to the next level that he wasn't always honest with himself about what he needed to get better, partially because those who "handled" him kept on telling him -- from a very young age -- how wonderful he was. In the group of elite travel coaches of high school-age kids, you have some unsavory middlemen painted as worthy of mob films (picture Don Fanucci in Godfather II), making sure they get to "wet their beaks" if kids go to schools that they steered them to. There are high schools and travel teams that are affiliated with shoe companies, so much so that the travel coaches (who have much more control over the kids and their parents than the high school coaches) discourage "their" kid from going to a high school that otherwise might be suitable for them because it's affiliated with a rival shoe company (think "Crips" and "Bloods", but over who wears whose designer shoes). And there are even college programs who have their boosters send "donations" to travel programs to help support their (ever so spurious) mission once a kid from a travel program enrolls in that school.

You'll read of wealthy fathers trying to buy influence, of kid and parents traveling superhuman distances to play for the "right" travel team that gets the "right" exposure, kids feted with too much "stuff" (shoes, shirts, sweats) at too young an age, with some kids making it to elite college programs, some making it to "non-major" college programs and some falling by the wayside. To some degree, the fact that the kids make it at all results from a) their determination (many ultimately figure out that many who try to help them are nothing more than manipulators looking for a cut), b) the determination of their parents, c) the good intentions of some coaches and d) dumb luck. All that said, in the end, talent does win out, and the kids who go to the elite programs do have great talent on the basketball floor.

But the road to an elite program -- or a high-major Division I program -- isn't all that straight a line for all the talent some of these kids have. It's not straight in that many kids end up on many different travel teams and at different high schools because of reasons that are hard to fathom for the average parent or kid who just wants a normal experience in his community, and it isn't all that straight because of money thrown the way of the kids and their families, sometimes in the form of goods, other times in the form of cash stipends. And the travel coaches aren't volunteers -- they are businessmen with territories and alliances with other coaches and shoe companies, all trying to enhance their prestige and, on many occasions, their purses.

George Dohrmann covers all of this in great detail. If you read this book, you will never look at college basketball the same way again. If you have a romantic view of NCAA basketball when compared to the pros, you'll lose it. If you have a romantic view of any college basketball coach, you might get skeptical that he's any different from the others the same way you might have wondered whether Lance Armstrong used performance-enhancing drugs even though he denied it but seemingly most other elite cyclists did. And you'll feel for the kids and their families, many of whom are underprivileged, many of whom are ill-informed, and many of whom are so blindly looking for basketball as a ticket out that they don't always figure out that the system isn't made to benefit the kids until it's too late. Fortunately, grassroots basketball, as it's called, begins at such a young age (say 10 now) that parents and kids can figure out truly toxic situations before a kid makes a big mistake and signs with the wrong AAU program or goes to the wrong high school.

And you'll come away asking yourself, why do we need all of this? Can't there be a better way?

And you'll never watch college basketball the same way again.

Because you'll always be wondering about the integrity of the process that got a kid to a certain school.

This is a must read.

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