Dox's Reviews > Play Their Hearts Out: A Coach, His Star Recruit, and the Youth Basketball Machine

Play Their Hearts Out by George Dohrmann
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's review
Aug 28, 10

bookshelves: read-in-2010
Read in August, 2010

This book was received as part of an Early Reviewers Program.

This narrative is like watching a train wreck.

It is a fascinating journey with a group of kids through their youth, starting at about age nine, all the way through middle school and to high school, and that all important time where they strive to achieve a scholarship. Its core focus is on the young talent Demetrius Walker, and his relationship with his Coach, Joe Keller.

The narrative covers all the elements: the hope, the hard work, the competitiveness, the disillusionment, the selfish acts of selfish men, the few truly good coaches in a rotten system, the different types of parenting (and the indifferent parenting), the rise to glory, the crashes and burns, the hype, the corruption, and the struggle.

It combines many elements into the telling of this journey, and the author does an excellent job of juggling the many perspectives, backstories, and side information that are necessary to deliver the reader into the "why" and "how" of the system, and to understand the machinations behind the actions. Different components are highlighted and brought forth when important to the narrative, and although there may be a few points where the reader without requisite back knowledge may have to gloss through, given the enormous scope of the topic, that is to be expected and understood. A reader somewhat already familiar with the world of basketball should find this narrative compelling and revealing. (Although I wonder if those truly immersed in this world already might find themselves more responsively indignant than ready to accept that change would be beneficial. It is, after all, a system that rewards the cutthroat sharks.)

However, for the novice basketball enthusiast--or even someone just vaguely familiar with the sport--this is an eye-opener of a book. It delves into some of the seediest aspects of how young players are developed and how the cards are stacked against them from the start. Fortunately for the uninitiated reader, the author deftly describes the action on the court just as well as the social constructs off the hardwood. The games and the player's abilities and moves are tightly and well described, and these are often the most exciting areas of the book, bringing the reader right onto the bench with the coach and players.

From the outset it is acknowledged that the author was along for the ride with this group of individuals, and every so often within the story the author will surface with a question or interaction that is part of the story. It is commonly remarked that just by observation that there is influence upon the actions one is observing, and the reader must by necessity wonder about topics that reside below the surface of a book like this. With as much access to the individuals as he had, what influences did the author have? What bias may be written into the book that the reader should take with a grain of salt? Given the complexity of the life stories, the bias of one individual observing doesn't appear to be any more significant than would be expected. Indeed, with the foreshadowing written in and the 20/20 hindsight of a reader, there were times when I wished someone would step in to at least give some encouraging words or sage life advice to these vulnerable, talented children.

If anything, my one criticism of the book would be that because of the many individuals involved, that the reader can sometimes be overwhelmed by the numerous names. People come and go, and then come back into the story again, and it takes a reader who is paying attention to the names to keep things straight. Because of the huge number of people, and the stage needing to be set, the beginning of the narrative takes a while to gel. It isn't an instant, comfortable envelopment into this basketball world, and the reader needs to give the book a few chapters for that to happen.

If nothing else, this book is a clear call for reform. This system takes children and puts them through a grinder. Between the corrupt coaches, the corrupt and powerful shoe companies, and the corrupt scholarship methodology, this is a system rotten at its core.

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