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

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Eight years of unfettered access, a keen sense of a story’s deepest truths, and a genuine compassion for his subject allow Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist George Dohrmann to take readers inside the machine that produces America’s basketball stars.
Hoop dreams aren’t just for players. The fever that grips college basketball prospects hoping to strike big-time NBA gold afflicts coaches, parents, and sneaker executives as well. Every one of them has a stake in keeping America’s wildly dysfunctional, incredibly lucrative youth basketball machine up and running—no matter the consequences.

In Play Their Hearts Out , George Dohrmann offers an up-close and unforgettable look inside the maw of that machine. He shares what he learned from his years spent embedded with a group of talented young recruits from Southern California as they traveled the country playing in elite Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) events. It’s a cutthroat world where boys as young as eight or nine are subjected to a dizzying torrent of scrutiny and exploitation. Coaches vie to have them on their teams. Sneaker companies ply them with free shoes and gear. “All-star camps” are glorified cattle auctions, providing make-or-break opportunities to secure the promise of an elusive college scholarship.
At the book’s heart are the personal stories of two compelling Joe Keller, an ambitious AAU coach with a master plan to find and promote “the next LeBron”—thereby paving his own path to power and riches; and Demetrius Walker, a fatherless latchkey kid who falls under Keller’s sway and struggles to live up to the unrealistic expectations his supposed benefactor has set for him. As their fortunes take shape and the pressure mounts—Demetrius finds himself profiled in Sports Illustrated at age fourteen, while Keller cultivates his business empire—Dohrmann weaves in the stories of numerous other parents, coaches, and players. Some of them see their prospects evaporate as a result of poor decisions and worse luck. Others learn how to thrive in a corrupt system by playing the right angles.

Written with incomparable detail and insight, Play Their Hearts Out is a thoroughly unique narrative that reveals the inner workings of an American game, exposing the gritty reality that lies beneath so many dreams of fame and glory.

432 pages, Hardcover

First published October 5, 2009

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About the author

George Dohrmann

5 books21 followers
George Dohrmann is a senior managing editor at The Athletic and was formerly an investigative reporter at Sports Illustrated. His first book, Play Their Hearts Out, was named one of the best books of literary journalism of the twenty-first century by GQ and called one of the finest sports books of all time by Harper’s and The New York Times. He won a Pulitzer Prize at the St. Paul Pioneer Press for a series of stories that uncovered academic fraud within a college basketball program. He lives with his family in Ashland, Oregon, where he coaches soccer and is president of the Ashland Soccer Club.

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5 stars
2,284 (51%)
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622 (14%)
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Displaying 1 - 30 of 233 reviews
Profile Image for Donnie Edgemon.
63 reviews2 followers
July 25, 2011
All sports fans on my news feed should read this book. Every single one of you. "Play Their Hearts Out" is an eye-opening account of what the players we see on college basketball courts go through before we see them. It's not the rim nailed to a barn, or the neighborhood pick-up game in a cul-de-sac or even twenty-five games a winter with a high school team that paves the path to a college scholarship. All-consuming grassroots basketball with all of its shady operators makes up about 90% or more of the preparation for high-level hoops. The author, George Dohrmann, followed a grassroots team in California from 4th grade until the kids finished high school. College basketball fans will recognize a few names in the book since the kids are now in their second years of college. Dohrmann focuses the narrative on the team's star player and the team's coach. Plenty of high-level grassroots coaches are noble characters, coaching for the benefit of the kids or the love of the game, and Dohrmann credits those that his time around the system found. The protagonist coach of of "Play Their Hearts Out", though, is the type of operator that has given grassroots (or AAU or "summer") basketball a bad name. The star player's tragic arc is predictable, and his eventual maturation and potential redemption is, too. This book is the text version of the amazing documentary "Hoop Dreams", set in the modern quagmire of shoe companies and graft surrounding the so-called "amateur" basketball of the 2000s. Unless you have personally experienced high-level grassroots hoops yourself, you must read this book to understand amateur basketball in the USA in this century. The only reason that I have rated this book with four stars instead of five is that Dohrmann himself made himself part of the exploitation system by insinuating himself into the lives of these kids and their families with the impossibility of separating journalism from friendship. He observed and reported some disturbing moments and developments during his time around the kids that would have forced any responsible adult to intervene, but a read between the lines shows that Dohrmann chose the role of journalist at times around the players that he admits in the acknowledgments to referring to as "my kids". Much like the coaches that Dohrmann rightfully accuses of using and disposing of the kids, Dohrmann used his eight-year friendship with them and their families to write a best-seller. As a mirror to buying tickets and watching television that supports the troubling system, though, I bought his book and find myself recommending it to others. I suppose there's a reason that this unseemliness exists and is difficult to solve.
16 reviews
February 18, 2011
One reviewer billed this book as the Friday Night Lights of AAU basketball, and the book lived up to this lofty standard. The author spent eight years following an AAU team, with much of the focus on the "coach" and the star player, who was once the No. 1 ranked player as an 8th grader.

While I was aware of the arguments that the AAU system was a major cause of the degradation of team basketball, to see the system in action was downright repulsive. The "coach", after identifying Demetrius Walker as a star prospect, saw Walker as a launchpad to start his own multi-million dollar youth camp, and as a way to build relationships with shoe companies. (I put coach in quotation marks, because it's evident that the vast majority of the top AAU coaches know next-to-nothing about basketball, and spend no time actually developing players, in this case, which left Walker with no understanding of how to actually play the game).

Perhaps the slimiest aspect of the coach/player relationship was the coach's purposeful decision to position himself as Walker's father figure, only to desert Walker when needed the most - a situation repeated with several players throughout, with sad consequences.

The other revelation was the degree that the shoe companies dominate youth basketball, all the way up to college. I'm not sure why a high school player, or even a middle school player here, should be permitted to receive dozens of free shoes and clothing from a shoe company, or how coaches and high schools can pay the rent for the star athletes. This is an area where immediate reform, likely from the NCAA, is needed.

The book touches on the shoe companies' desire to reach these kids as early as 10 years old, and how the AAU coaches use this relationship as a stepping stone for personal riches - to the detriment of the kids.

Bottom-line, the world of big-time AAU basketball, and by implication, college basketball, is a system of organized sleaze, exploitation of kids and their families, and a system designed to make the coaches millions of dollars.

Profile Image for Barnabas Piper.
Author 11 books941 followers
November 2, 2018
It’s not a badly written book, exactly. It’s more like an exceptionally written long form (*really* long form) investigative journalism piece. It would have been better at 12,000 words than a full book.

And it’s a depressing story of opportunist coaches exploiting kids. And that sucks, though the author tells it well.
Profile Image for Derek Prior.
12 reviews
December 28, 2010
I really enjoyed this book and became attached to many of the people that Dohrmann follows. At its core, it's a story about Demetrius Walker and the ways in which the grassroots basketball system chews him up and spits him out. At various points I found myself wanting to stop the story to give Demetrius advice. It seems even the author had a hard time remaining strictly a biographer and it's hard to blame him.

The planets that orbit Demetrius are interesting in their own right. Coach Keller, Aaron, Roberto, Rome, Terran, Jordan, etc. Aside from Demetrius and Keller, I think the most interesting character is Justin. His experience with Keller and the grassroots machine serves as a stark contrast to D's, in large part due to their respective parenting situations. Justin and his mother serve to show that the grassroots machine can be beaten.

When I finished this book, I immediately turned to the Internet for updates on all the players involved. It will be interesting to see what becomes of them over the next few years.
Profile Image for Lucy Montgomery.
285 reviews2 followers
August 14, 2011
This is a very interesting book, especially for someone who has a child/children who play sports at a high level. The book illustrates the morally questionable (and highly profitable) "grassroots" basketball system that funnels kids from grade-school age travel through college recruiting. As with all sports, it is not necessarily the early stand-outs that ultimately reach the highest levels nor are those with the most talent coached/guided to reach their greatest potential. And as with life, the kids with active/involved parents fare the best overall (though not necessarily on the basketball court). I think the most horrifying revelation of the book is simply the enormous amount of money spent by sneaker companies and pocketed by coaches/tournament organizers on youth basketball. While some money is used to benefit the players, most of that is divvied out strategically to benefit the coach/organizer (with little regard for the best interest of the player), and the remainder ends up in the coach/organizers' pockets.
Profile Image for Sharon Huether.
1,502 reviews11 followers
July 5, 2013
I won this book through Goodreads.I had no idea what young basketball players go through to make it to the top. In a way Demetrius was handicaped because he appeared much older. He really wanted to sign with Indiana, but had 1 more year of high school. Coach Joe did a lot for Demetrius, but let him go when Demetrius needed him, especially with no father figure at home. It did have a happy ending, Demetrius was doing what he wanted to do and he won the championship.
Profile Image for Aaron P..
108 reviews2 followers
August 16, 2010
I am a die-hard sports fan. Evidence of this fact is not hard to find ; For instance I spent the majority of yesterday afternoon watching preseason NFL games - All in anticipation of the Broncos opener. (and the debut of Touchdown Jesus Tim Tebow) Basketball, and the NBA's Denver Nuggets rank second in the hierarchy of my rooting heart. At least where the so-called 'major' sports are concerned. Despite all that I rarely read sports related books. My reasoning for this is simple. I can usually place said sports books into three basic categories. First is the success story. I don't want to give the impression that I am some bitter armchair a-hole who doesn't like to see people achieve their dreams. However, I would much rather watch those sort of triumphs live. The Saints' recent Superbowl win is a good example of this. Particularly because head coach Sean Payton and starting quarterback Drew Brees have both released books on the heels of the big win. (neither of which I have any intention of reading) Sorry champs, I know how the story ends. The second category is the hard luck heartbreaker. The story of the star who didn't make it. Sure there are lessons to be learned from such books but as I've already said I do not derive pleasure from an athlete's failure. Third, and most likely to draw my disdain is the tell-all media whoring money grab. The kind of book released by guys like Jose Conseco, full of finger-pointing, and rife with tones of self-righteousness. Of course I don't condone cheating, yet there is something especially off-putting about books like that. Even more so when you consider the fact that most authors of these books wouldn't be saying anything if they weren't broke and desperate for cash.

Now that you know why sports related literature is a rarity for me you may wonder what makes George Dohrmann's Play Their Hearts Out an exception to the rule. Well I'd be remiss if I didn't admit that I was somewhat obligated. I won an advance copy of this book through a goodreads giveaway. Still there is a reason that this book enticed me to enter where others of it's ilk get no attention whatsoever. The hook was that I wanted a better understanding of the so-called grassroots game. This is the term most closely associated with the AAU system. The AAU organizes leagues and tournaments for grade school kids as young as seven, and as old as eighteen. (second grade, through highschool). The AAU dabbles in almost all sports, but basketball is by far king in it's the youth sports machine. Baseball has Little League. Football has Pop Warner. Youth basketball has no such establishment, outside the AAU, or at least not one so strong. Basketball also differs in another big way. The NBA's entrance procedure is different. Players are not barred from joining the Association straight out of high school, and more often than not, straight off an AAU roster. Superstars can be, and are routinely drafted early. The NFL still requires it's players to, if not attend college, at least wait three years after high-school graduation before becoming eligible. The MLB, though not shy about drafting youngsters, has an extensive minor-league system where prospects develop before being sent up to the majors. One need look no further than the NBA's two biggest stars to see the contrast. Kobe Bryant and Lebron James never went to college. They are both products, and prodigies of the AAU. Other notables include Dwight Howard, Kevin Garnett, and Tracy McGrady.

Basketball is unlike other team sports, in part because of it's limited team size. Having only ten players in total on the floor at any given time means individuals have greater chance to shine, as individuals. Yet the brighter spotlight is not all a natural occurrence. Sponsorship greases the wheels of the AAU system in an unmatched capacity. Specifically sponsorship of shoe companies, such as Nike, Adidas, and Reebok. In the AAU it is common practice for coaches of elite teams to sign on as "consultants" with shoe companies, which nets them salaries and product (in insane amounts) in exchange for agreements to wear gear, and in many cases run sponsored tournaments and camps. The money allows teams to travel nationwide and increase their top players profiles which helps explain some of how mega-hype spreads. The coaches themselves are some of the loudest drum beaters for potential phenoms, and as you will see subsequently, one of the most unsavory elements of grassroots basketball.

I don't want to give away too much of the plot here, seeing as this advance review. (release date says 10.5.10) What I will say is that the story deals primarily with one star, Demitrius Walker, and the coach who ' discovered' him Joe Keller. At the age of nine or ten Walker was told by Keller that he was destined for the NBA, and of course riches beyond imagining. Demititrius had size and quickness that other boys his age couldn't hope to match These types of promises are doubtless common, no matter how ludicrous they might seem. Yet what Keller didn't mention to his golden boy recruit was both money and revenge were coach Joe's primary motives. Years earlier Keller had been duped by local coach and power broker Pat Barrett when he handed over eventual #2 overall draft choice Tyson Chandler. Barrett had promised a partnership which never materialized. Barrett's SCA Stars were already sponsored by Nike, and so Keller thought he would extend either a joint-team proposal or a similar contract to the one he enjoyed. Dohrmann, who was writing a story for Sports Illustrated in 2000 hoped to get some dirt from Keller. When their initial meeting revealed little, Dorhrmann assumed he'd have to look elsewhere. Still a relationship was forged, and Keller would eventually talk at more length about his relationship with Pat. Nothing goundbreaking was published at that point but after a follow-up interview in 2001 Keller advised Dohrmann to keep in touch. He explained his intention of starting a new squad to beat Barrett at his own game. What is even more telling is Keller's decision to allow extended access to his teams story once Walker was found. Keller explained that as long as any comprehensive piece done about his team, (or a book like this one) waited until the conclusion to be published, he, meaning Keller, would be rich, and would no longer care what Dohrmann said.

The story is a long one that spans over eight years. From the inception of Keller's team the Inland Stars to the high school graduation of it's players. The team is eventually re-branded as Team Cal, following a sponsorship with Adidas. The roster changed frequently but Demitrius was always the focal point as far as coach Joe was concerned. Many Inland Stars / Team Cal alums went on to sign with Division I programs. This is the most positive part of the story to be sure. It also proves Keller's eye for future talent. What is also apparent however is Keller's reputation as a dishonest, and generally bad guy. For example he is no longer on good or even speaking terms with his former players. Walker's rise to a #1 ranked prospect (in the 8th grade) led to his being dubbed by one of Dohrmann's SI colleagues ' The Next LeBron ' in 2005. His life anointment shines a light on the darker side of expectations and the hunt for NBA dollars.

Again I reiterate that I do not typically read sports books. Play Their Hearts Out is more than that. This is the type of story that movie makers might salivate over. If anything holds this back from being a blockbuster it will either be it's grittiness (which may scare away family oriented film makers) and it's length ( which could keep it from being a future Spike Lee Joint) It's no real surprise that this was well written. After all Dohrmann is one only four sportswriters to ever be awarded a Pulitzer - Albeit an earlier series of stories he wrote for the St. Paul Pioneer Press detailing academic fraud. The book may not change the way you view basketball, but it will show you up close, what has changed basketball.
*Review w/ song can be read and or heard on my blog
Profile Image for Kristine.
672 reviews115 followers
September 19, 2010
I'm really excited for this one. I won it thru First Reads ...

This book took me a little while to get into, but I was SO hooked. It was literally like watching a train wreck and I would keep my husband up at all hours of the night telling him all the outrageous things I had read that day.

This story is Demetrius Walker's story: about how as a 10-year-old he was recruited by a jerk of a coach (Joe Keller) in the AAU system of SoCal. Joe Keller used this boy so disgustingly to make himself a millionaire . . . acted the father figure, hyped and marketed him to the point he was ranked #1 player in the country -- as a 6th grader. That led Sports Illustrated to do a story on him titled The Next LeBron?. One tiny little drawback? Keller knew jack about basketball and didn't teach D the fundamentals or how to work hard. He had promised the boy he WOULD be in the NBA.

How do you think a 6th grader would handle the pressure? Or how as a freshman, when everyone else had now caught up to him in size -- he fizzles out as his "mentor" drops him on his a**. I'm sorry to even fake swear here but my indignation and anger at how one could so callously use another human being like this without regard for the child's best interest makes me want to vomit. This is a child!!

And Joe Keller is one of hundreds, if not thousands, of pariahs in the grassroots/AAU system that suck the future out of these kids to line their pockets.

To read to the end of the book to find out how this all played out . . . I can only say one thing: D wasn't perfect, but for him to be where he is at now is credit to his character. Crazy crazy Crazy!! I almost feel like I did at the end of reading The Glass Castle. I think I was that outraged. Not as extreme in treatment but in the blatant disregard for the welfare of a child.

p.s. This is not a fast read. It's a little detail laden - only when it comes to basketball games (especially at the end). But being a girl that LURVES basketball I ate it up, yo. I would recommend this to my friends who don't like basketball, they can just scan the play-by-play if they like . . . but the story needs to be told.
Profile Image for Shirley.
272 reviews210 followers
July 20, 2011
I've watched countless hours of basketball in my life (March Madness is my favorite time of year!) but didn't know much about grassroots youth basketball and just how dominant (most Division I college/NBA players have come out of that system) and corrupt (and unregulated) it is. This is an extremely illuminating look at grassroots youth basketball (mainly in Southern California). The author focuses on a coach, Joe Keller, and his protege, Demetrius Walker, who comes to see Keller as a father figure. Keller hypes and thrusts Demetrius into the national spotlight (a Sports Illustrated profile describes Demetrius as "14 going on LeBron"). This book follows Demetrius and other players on one of Keller's teams for eight years and the rise of Keller's star as he develops his youth basketball empire (and callously discards whoever no longer serves a purpose for him). Some of his kids don't have the right guidance (starting with the coach himself) and fall through the cracks (while still hoping to play Division I basketball one day), while others come out OK because they had a parent watching out for them. Unfortunately, some of the parents are as despicable as the coach - like the single mom who decided where her son should go to high school on the basis of which coach subsidized her rent (by ~$1000 a month), even though that coach had faced allegations of molestation AND her son had been molested by one of her husbands (and refused to remove her kid from that atmosphere even after her son told her the coach had actually made advances toward him).

I was amazed at the pressure facing these kids at such a young age. The shoe companies (Nike, Reebok/Adidas) are complicit in the grassroots process by sponsoring teams and showering (9-year-old) players with shoes and gear (hoping to gain their loyalties so that they'll go on to, say, a Nike-sponsored high school or summer team or college) and even paying some coaches' salaries (like that of Keller). Interestingly, there are rules for college coaches recruiting high school players, but not for college coaches vis-a-vis players who are not yet in high school, so we hear accounts of coaches (from high-visibility programs such as USC/UCLA/Kentucky/Florida) scouting middle schoolers and younger at summer camps sponsored by the big shoe companies.

Highly recommend for any sports fan!
7 reviews
February 1, 2014
As a parent of two elite basketball players in Southern California, I found this book to be a pretty accurate depiction of the perilous and highly competitive field of AAU basketball. I'd always been an athlete in high school and college, but it was not until my son bloomed into a 6'6 1/2 giant did I see the inner workings that take a player from the mundanity of Varsity sports to emotionally charged excitement of Elite Varsity sports. Every day is a challenge, and Play Their Hearts out logs each of those days in painful detail.

Demetrius Walker is not the typical AAU kid: almost all of the kids have one solid, omnipresent parent to help them navigate. Still, his story is a cautionary tale for everyone entering elite sports in general, and boys' basketball in particular because Dohrmann's account is truly one of accuracy. The characterization of the coaches, with many being vampires waiting to suck whatever glory they can get out of families, is absolutely true. There are many earnest trainers and coaches, but it's like walking through a defunct field of land mines: how can you tell what's dangerous until you step on it and it blows up?

The way to know is to read Play Their Hearts Out. It's a cheat sheet for the signs to look for as kids navigate the dangers of AAU basketball. Listening to someone who doesn't have your child's BEST interest in mind really could cause your son or daughter to be lost, never to recover from one misstep. That's not hyperbole. With one senior son and one sophomore son, I am witnessing stunningly talented boys falling off week by week because of advice made from avarice, and not concern. I've learned from experience, but Dohrmann's tone feels like a good friend telling you a story to warn you from making what could be the biggest mistake of your child's life.

Profile Image for Tom Gase.
902 reviews5 followers
March 28, 2012
If I read a better book in 2012, I'll be very shocked and pleasantly surprised, as this book is about as good as it gets.
The author, George Dohrmann, follows an AAU basketball team and its players,coaches and parents for eight years. This book has been called by some people the "Friday Night Lights of youth basketball." I couldn't disagree more. I actually liked some characters in Friday Night Lights. No, the Hamlet of youth basketball is probably better.
Although without giving away the ending, you find yourself not liking most of the characters, ESPECIALLY the main head coach Joe Keller, and a lot of the parents. The story focuses on Keller and how he helps out these kids, but his main focus seems to be just trying to find a winning lottery ticket and the next Lebron James that he can use to make money off. The line that ends the first section of the book made me actually throw my book down to the ground in digust. I knew youth basketball was bad, I didn't know just HOW BAD it was. Read this book with fine reporting and find out for yourself. A good story, you seem to be rooting for a lot of the players and hoping that through it all, they can find a way to make it. A must for any sports fan of any kind and it should be required reading for journalists.
Profile Image for Kristen.
227 reviews2 followers
November 7, 2010
This book made me so glad that I am a girl. I grew up playing AAU basketball in tournaments all over the nation, and I attended some recruiting camps after receiving letters from colleges in middle school like these kids in the book, but neither my more talented friends, nor I ever faced the crazy pressures that these boys did. Shoe companies were not lining up to take advantage of girl basketball players, and for that, I am so thankful. The free gear and the money that was thrown at the coaches ruined any altruistic motives they might have had in helping the kids. This story is heartbreaking, and I spent the whole time with my mouth agape, not believing that the grassroots basketball machine is actually legal. And the parents . . . some of those parents need to be grabbed by the shoulders and shaken until they wake up and see what is going on around them.

This book contains some detailed descriptions of game-play that would probably not be interesting to non-basketball fans. However, the majority of the book is not about the sport but about the kids, parents and coaches.
Profile Image for Ang.
1,746 reviews40 followers
November 12, 2010
Though it took me a long while to get into this book, when I finally did I was hooked. I think Dohrmann started out just a little slow--the first third of the book felt glacially-paced to me. But as the boys age, the story really picks up, and it's really a very informative and interesting read. For anyone who likes sports, and especially basketball, I feel as if this is a must-read. I have seen the LeBron James documentary (the one that starts with him playing in AAU basketball), but that film gave NO voice to the other side of AAU basketball, and I was glad to learn about it.[return][return]I wish the stories had happier endings, in some instances. But it's real life, and I wish that because I felt that I came to know some of the boys in the book. Which just goes to show how well this book is written, I suppose. Anyway, I highly recommend this book; keep slogging through the early slow-going, and it's definitely a rewarding read. I'm really glad I came away with a free copy. Highly enjoyable.
77 reviews
December 10, 2010
I bought this book as a Christmas gift for my dad and as I started wrapping it, I thumbed through it, read the cover and decided I'd read it to see what I thought. Wow, what a great book! Eight years of investigative reporting and George Dorhmann has written a Pulitzer prize-winning non-fiction account of a group of incredibly talented boy basketball players.

This book details the inner world of AAU basketball for players beginning at the age of 10. The author is credible and believable and seems to report the individual stories of these kids with measure and candor. Primarily, the book focuses on Demetrius Walker and his journey through the sad, scary world of boys' elite basketball. While it was hard to read some of these kids' stories and see the variety of adults who only cared about profiting from these kids' talents, in some cases it was a testament to the toughness of these kids that they came through.

I loved this book!!
Profile Image for Edel Henry.
142 reviews
March 28, 2016
This book was an addictive but enraging read. Incredibly well written, it really makes you care for the young players at its heart - which makes it all the more difficult as they are exploited and discarded by the corrupt American youth basketball system.

While the book is framed around the difficult journey of Demetrius Walker there are so many cautionary tales within it that it is very easy to finish the book feeling quite empty - particularly when the coaches and camp runners who created the hype that would prove these players' downfall remain unaffected and, in the case of Joe Keller, wealthier than ever.

Definitely recommended. Basketball is a backdrop to the human story of vulnerable kids being built up and torn down by a broken system.
3 reviews
October 4, 2010
Play Their Hearts Out, is a very in-depth look at the world of youth basketball. As a former high school assistant basketball coach this book really angered me. The total disregard for athletes and their futures is sickening. The youth basketball machine is exposed for the terrible modern day institution of slavery that it is. Read this book if you are a fan of basketball and want to better understand the sometimes seedy world of youth basketball. Dohrmann put his life into the research and writing of this book, great effort!
Profile Image for Muneer Uddin.
128 reviews10 followers
May 21, 2016
Dohrmann uses his considerable reportage skills to uncover the cesspool that is AAU basketball. We see the greed and exploitation that young boys are subjected to in the coaches' quests to "make it". I hope that this book leads to some changes in the amateur youth basketball system, to better protect players and ensure that they are given all the opportunities in life that their talent will allow them,
Profile Image for Jack Duboff.
4 reviews
December 4, 2012
The book, Play Their Hearts Out: A coach, His Star Recruit, and the Youth Basketball Machine by George Dohrmann is a really good book because it really opened my eyes and gave me a great insight about what happens behind the scenes with coaches in AAU basketball. It really surprised me that coaches would exploit their own player's talents for their own good, and then just move on and treat them like yesterday's news. If you want to find out what really happens in this world, then read this.
Profile Image for Chip.
828 reviews44 followers
May 17, 2011
Fascinating and insightful. Up there with Friday Night Lights. The author spent years following the boys that are the subjects of his book, and it shows.

FYI, the author's blog provides occasional updates on how the boys are doing in college - e.g. [SPOILER] http://www.georgedohrmann.com/blog/id...?
Profile Image for Southey Blanton.
86 reviews3 followers
March 17, 2017
For any parent who is interested in putting their children in amateur sports leagues this is worth a read to see where many of the stakeholders are coming from and what motivates them. And in most cases it is never the children and their development as young adults or athletes.
Profile Image for Henry Ho.
27 reviews
October 15, 2017
Pretty good. Felt like the game descriptions were unnecessarily in depth and didn't add much.
445 reviews5 followers
April 29, 2018
I can't recall any other nonfiction book in which the author despises the main person he's writing about. Or not unless the person is a killer. Yet here, author George Dohrmann clearly hates Joe Keller, the youth basketball coach who is Dohrmann's window into the corrupt world of youth basketball.

The book opens up with Keller yelling at Dohrmann about how Dohrmann doesn't know anything, doesn't deserve any of Keller's time, and basically stomping around like a teenager. This is before Keller actually has any power, but after he made the biggest blunder of his early career in losing access to the best middle school basketballer in Southern California, Tyson Chandler. Keller treats everyone with disdain that comes from his own insecurities and competitiveness and anger, and the author gives you page after page of it. It's absolutely stunning that Keller succeeds in his sleazy maneuverings to find the next Chandler-like star and ride him to the top.

But he does. We follow the infuriating success of Keller in the sleazy world of big-time recruiting of basketball players ages 9-15. Yes, starting at age 9. Grown men are lining up to bribe talented 9-year-olds and their parents to shift from one AAU team to another, in an endless game of one-upmanship. The bribes begin with t-shirts and shoes, then include expenses covered for weekend tournaments and for individualized coaching, adn then extend to paying rent or miscellaneous expenses for the impoverished ones. And then the real wheeling-and-dealing starts when these kids are ready to enter high school. Seriously.

To say it's corrupting is like saying Donald Trump likes to Tweet. The entire system is built on corruption, and it's fueled by the relentless marketing of basketball shoes, gear and players. The book's main events occurred more than 6 years ago, and at the time it was a system that seemed broken beyond repair. Yet it's endured and (probably) become even worse.

The child star of the book is Demetrius Walker, a precocious player who Keller hypes to be the No. 1 ranked 7th grader in the country. As if anyone could actually make that determination, not to mention whether that determination says anything about Walker's future as a basketball player or (more importantly) as a person. It's a warped system, and Walker begins to display all the things you'd fear about him: selfishness on the court, lack of effort in training, and fear that he will be shown up by another player and lose his ranking. The hype reaches the point that, quite literally, Sports Illustrated does a feature on him before he's in high school and asks whether he might be the next LeBron James. (LeBron is 21 at the time of this article, barely 3 years into his pro career and without anything close to a championship, so it shows how the youth symptom warps even what is defined as greatness to be aimed for.)

Basically, Demetrius is bigger, stronger and faster than everyone his age, Keller's answer to this in the early years is to give Demetrius free reign to do what he wants on and off the court, and to yell at his teammates for every real and imagined mistake. And to make sure that Demetrius gets his chances to dunk a basketball, which is surely an eye-opener for any 12-year-old. But it's not going to last, as Demetrius is destined to be about 6'3", which is pretty moderate size even for college basketball. So when Demetrius really struggles at the high school age, Keller just drops him and moves on to other ventures with other, younger phenoms.

Numerous teammates of Demetrius make more than cameo appearances in the book, and the author tells their stories well. Their stories are compelling, as they work with Demetrius on the court, become friend or foe off the court, and learn to tune out the volatile, ignorant Keller. Bottom line is that those kids whose parents pay attention to what's going on and pull them out of Keller's shadow relatively quickly wind up in good shape because they all are phenomenal basketball players. The ones whose parents stay dependent on Keller for money -- and therefore for exposure to colleges -- fail.

America's greatness comes from a freedom to pursue wild ideas and to take new ideas to the limit. Sometimes, this has been very productive, such as Facebook or Uber or Starbucks. Other times, it starts out okay but gets warped far beyond anything productive, such as professionalized youth basketball. This book is a fantastic expose of what can go wrong when a good idea is taken to its extreme.
Profile Image for GOAL4D.
1 review
August 7, 2018
Eight years of unfettered access and a keen sense of a story’s deepest truths allow Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist George Dohrmann to take readers inside the machine that produces America’s basketball stars. Play Their Hearts Out reveals a cutthroat world where boys as young as eight or nine are subjected to a dizzying torrent of scrutiny and exploitation. At the book’s heart are the personal stories of two compelling figures: Joe Keller, an ambitious coach with a master Togel Singapura plan to find and promote “the next LeBron,” and Demetrius Walker, a fatherless latchkey kid who falls under Keller’s sway and struggles to live up to unrealistic expectations. Complete with a new “where-are-they-now” Epilogue by the author, this thoroughly compelling narrative exposes the gritty reality that lies beneath so many dreams of fame and glory.


Look for the exclusive conversation between George Dohrmann and bestselling author Seth Davis in the back of the book.
June 3, 2022
I read the whole book so that says something right there. It's interesting if you like this topic. The author does really in-depth research and shares a first-hand account of how this group of boys grows up in the cut-throat world of AAU basketball.

The author criticizes the coaches for how they treat and take advantage of the players, and that criticism is 100% valid. As the story unfolds, however, it's interesting how the author also uses these kids to his own advantage. He shares their secrets and shines a public light on their embarrassing moments. He does this to make the book more of a page-turner, more of a sordid tale, with more salacious content. The story would have been ok without embarrassing these boys.

In the epilogue, he tries to make amends. One player refuses to talk to him again. Others have different reactions. What will stick with me about this book though is that the author set out to expose these coaches as manipulators and self-interested hustlers, but ultimately exposes himself as just as much a pimp as any of them. He pimps these kids' stories to chase another Pulitzer.
Profile Image for Carol Haldy.
123 reviews4 followers
February 3, 2018
Child abuse - the author skillfully details systematic child abuse of these young players at the hands of the following (in no particular order): parents - with visions of NBA dollars dancing in their heads - made incredibly bad decisions for their sons. coaches - in particular Joe Keller ( I would NOT send a child to anything connected with this despicable character) and he was not alone; the Big Three Shoe companies - for being the driving force behind all of the former.

My son played basketball through high school in the AAU world. It always amazed me when we played in North Philadelphia, Wildwood, and Reading how teams from relatively poor areas would enter in amazing uniforms, matching warm ups and spanking new shoes. I now get it.

My heart literally breaks - I was in tears several times - reading about the central bball player - Demetrious. What was done TO HIM - nauseating.

The author is to be commended. This book is a must read for anyone interested in youth sports - as a cautionary tale.
201 reviews1 follower
July 5, 2017
This account of eight years in the lives of juvenile basketball prospects is a staggering balancing act: enough reporting to give a reader all necessary facts, enough clear writing to paint a full picture through the narrative, and enough background knowledge to give the whole story sufficient context. It's easy to tell which characters the author does and doesn't admire, but he offers factual evidence for all of his impressions and doesn't shy away from any of the unsavory details that surround the youth sports circuit. The crisp, clear writing and broad scope set this book apart from the ubiquitous "a season with the ____________" genre. The subject matter veers grim frequently, but the tone is sad rather than exploitative, as the author mourns for the innocence his subjects have lost and invites the reader to do the same.
Profile Image for North Landesman.
506 reviews8 followers
December 29, 2021
This might be one of the most tragic and best books I have read. The story about a grown man, Keller, identifying, using and befriending talented 4th graders, and then abandoning them after he no longer needed them after 8th grade. This man's repugnance is shocking, but he did eventually get all the families what they wanted, a D1 scholarship. Then again, they might have gotten one anyway. Reading the book makes me feel deeply sorry for Walker and angry at Keller.

Dohrmann's commitment to the story is shocking. He followed the same group of kids for ten years. I was sad that the book ended and wished he could have followed them for another ten. What are they all doing now?
Profile Image for Joshua.
93 reviews
January 20, 2022
One of the best and most pointed accounts of youth sports. Still, after almost 8 years, I find myself thinking about this book and it's characters. Given that some of the names in this book have now completed their NBA careers it may seem slightly out of date but I still believe it is well worth a read. Much of the pressures, vices and wild west nature of AAU basketball still exists and has got increasingly worse in the era of social media.
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