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Play Their Hearts Out

“It begins with an irrefutable fact agreed upon by everyone: that the majority of American players who go on to play in college and the NBA pass through the grassroots system.” (81)

The career of any pro-bound athlete starts at a young age. Players who have any hope for reaching the college and pro level find teams to play on, and showcase their ability. As our society tends to create a market out of anything possible, it also makes a market out of players in the AAU grassroots system. Athletic companies sponsor coaches, who can lead players to certain teams and endorsements. Whether or not this system is helping improve players or making profit and controlling their fate, there is no alternative option but to take the grassroots system.

In the book, Play Their Hearts Out, by George Dohrmann, the grassroots system of basketball is explained through an AAU team in southern California called the Inland Stars. The book is told from the point of view of the author and information uncovered by others present. Joe Keller, the coach of the Inland Stars, has the goal of creating the best team of young basketball players the country has ever seen. He also strives to earn endorsements making it able for him to live his life entirely off of coaching. This swayed my perception of coach Keller early on. I thought of his motives to be mostly financially based, and not passion based. However, throughout the first half of the book, I found Keller’s attitude toward individual players better than others.

Keller took a break from coaching, and later came back to discover that he couldn’t continue where he left off. Keller faced a problem that many other coaches face, “In oligopolistic market, a new operator must find a way to circumvent the barriers to entry.”(47) Keller’s way of creating his team was finding players early on, and gain their loyalty. This would allow him to keep his players, and force any companies that want access to his players to go through him. This strategy was a smart and fair way for Keller to create his team. Keller gets the financial gain if his players get sponsored, and his system relies on trust. Relying on trust forces him to do what is in the best interest of his players in order for him to keep them.

In order for Keller’s team to have success, he had to create the best lineup possible for his team. Keller would scout players, travel at great lengths to find them, and even drop ones who he found were not good enough. He did anything to get good players interested in joining his team. He would associate his team with nike logos and apparel in order to gain interest of players and their parents. He would sway their decision by creating promises about the future of each player's basketball career. Keller even added a mediocre player to his roster because of the benefit of the wealth of the player's father. All spots on his lineup had purpose, and he would not stop altering it until he felt it could not be better filled.

The players and their families come from multiple backgrounds, and Dohrmann gives detailed insight to their lives. A majority of the kids playing on Keller’s team are from poor backgrounds, and the success of their basketball career holds the quality of their future. Some players have single moms who work long hours, and their life is centered around their son. The mother of Demetrius Walker, Kisha Houston, was born into a family with relations to two rival gangs, the Crips and the Bloods. Life growing up for her was a journey to escape the violence all around her. When it comes to creating a good life for her son, there is nothing she could take more seriously. Along with Kisha, many other parents ensure their sons ability to make it to college in the hands of coach Keller.

The Inland Stars had great success, and became used to it. Being one of the strongest AAU teams in the nation and composed of some of the best players of their age group, success came easily the Inland stars. The Inland Stars are similar to a few teams I would see when I played AAU basketball as a kid. Out of numerous teams at a tournament, there would be one team that would seem on a different level than the others. There are clear differences between elite teams like the Inland Stars, and average AAU teams similar to the ones I played on. The elite AAU teams were treated like upper level players, while we were treated as kids. Joe Keller had no mercy during practice and in games. Amir Kermani, coach of the Orange County Shooting Stars remarked about Keller, “Joe sets out not just to bear you but to break your will. If he gets up by fifty, he's still trapping and pressing and wants to beat you by a hundred. He wants a team to leave the game thinking, If we have to play the Inland Stars again, we’ve got no chance…”.(43) This shows that how serious Keller is about the performance of his team. Teams like this may stand out as superior, but the coaching style lacks humility. This shows that Keller does not simply see this as a game, but as an all out competition to obliterate any team the Inland Stars play.

Keller made sure he did not coddle his players, yet built relationships with them. Other successful AAU coaches such as Pat Barrett, would do anything to make their players happy while they were playing for them. The coaches would give them apparel, money, and sometimes even a car. These players became used to doing whatever they wanted and getting whatever they wanted. Dohrmann includes his idea of what is wrong with many AAU coaches, “The greatest crime committed by Barrett and coaches like him is that they bleach the drive out of some of America's most gifted players by failing to teach them that the foundation for success is a catalog of failures.”(83) When college comes, players are no longer under the arms of their AAU coaches. The players are now only getting tuition money, and they have to act more carefully than they used to. The guarantee of making it to the next level becomes increasingly difficult. When players are faced with real challenges, they no longer have the coach there to coddle them. And since the players haven’t had to deal with responsibility, they are blindsided by these points in their life.

In part two of Play Their Hearts Out, Keller’s team is starting to transform. The Inland Stars, holding 7 of the top 37 players in the nation of their age group, were now being noticed. Endorsements from from sport companies such as Adidas and Reebok agreed to make deals with Keller. The team soon changed from “Inland Stars” to “Team Cal”. The team was starting to change its style of play as they grew older. The team continues success, and strives to get back to nationals and win.

For the first years of Keller’s team, one player has made up a large part of the team, Demetrius Walker. Walker was what Keller based his team around, but then matters started to change. Keller has to start displaying an image of his team that is less dependent on one player and acts more of a team as a whole. Keller is told, “‘It’s a bad analogy, but I’m trying to wean Joe off of the heroin that is Demetrius,’ Soderberg said. ‘He’s got to remember there are other great kids on this team who can also get it done.’”(161) Demetrius did not initially respond well to other players taking some of his light, but it was necessary for the team. Similar to any sport, basketball requires a team effort. It is important for the team to progress as team as well as individual players.

The grassroots system of basketball holds high pressure lives for young players. The system of improving these kids at a young age may be necessary for success, but it may also be a danger to many. It involves a system where coaches market their players and can sway their future. The future of their basketball career may hold the value of many of the players lives. Promises from coaches of making it to the next level may only be words, but this may be the only route there is for young players with big dreams to take.

 

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  • “Kids are usually too busy looking toward the future to notice the last few seconds of their childhood. In less than two months, they would be high school freshmen. The pressures and responsibilities would multiple quickly. Core courses, qualifying SAT scores, official visits, unofficial visits, verbal commitments, letters of intent---it would all happen fast” (299).

    Our childhood is a short part of our lives that we can never get it back. As a high school student searching through colleges and trying to pave my future, I find myself only looking forward and never looking back. Certainly planning ahead will lead to a more positive outcome, but we all need to be aware of the position we are all in. We are living the last moments of our childhood. We are able to be involved in sports, social groups, and school activities while not having to worry about the grown up world. Instead of noticing this we mainly focus on the negatives, creating a widespread pressure among teens. Many of us might not realize the value of our childhood until it is only a memory.

    The second half of Play Their Hearts Out, George Dohrmann describes how matters for Joe Keller and Team Cal seemed to be going just as planned. The amount of sponsorship money has vastly increase, Keller is financially stable, and his team is continuing to dominate. Demetrius, Team Cal’s star player, is beginning to get the recognition Keller had hoped for by being ranked as the number one player in his age group by Sports Illustrated. It is clear that Demetrius is the main key to Team Cal’s offense, which takes some of the light away from other players on the team. This not only leaves responsibility for Demetrius, but leaves certain teammates wanting to rise above Demetrius.

    Demetrius deals with a large amount of pressure throughout the second half of the book. His basketball talent gave him media attention from Sports Illustrated, allowing his name to be known. Having this recognition comes as an honor to Demetrius, but also comes with a lot of responsibility. Other coaches and players target Demetrius as the player to beat. Exceptional performance is being expected of Demetrius, and anything other than perfect is seen as disappointment. This is true when my expectations don’t go as I planned for. A common example is when I take a test. If I receive a mediocre score without much studying, I am not disappointed. If I give study hard for a test and the result is the same, my disappointment is much greater. My expectations rise with the effort I give forth to what I am trying to achieve.

    Expectations can improve the outcome of the situation through a self-fulfilling prophecy, and can also have a negative effect if the expectations are low. Demetrius wants to be the best basketball player in the nation. He practices everyday and challenges himself to play against older players that are even better than he is. His expectations became a reality through hard work and dedication. However, when Demetrius does poorly at a national tournament, his confidence and expectations are negative. His performance drops and is not doing exceptional for the first time. This is a common theme with me and my school work. If I expect myself to do good in a class and work hard, the grades usually show. If I admit that the class is too hard to reach achieve an A, my grades are likely to reflect the confidence I had in the class. The fate of our outcomes can be drastically affected by what we expect out of certain situations. If you want the best outcome, set the expectations high and shoot for them.

    Besides focusing on Demetrius, Dohrman gives insight on another player name Aaron Moore. Dohrman makes it clear that Aaron has reoccurring conflicts with Demetrius, and has troubles fitting in with the team. He displays how Demetrius is closely overshadowing Aaron while they are both on Team Cal. It becomes a back and forth dispute between the two for who is better than the other. Coach Keller sees the matchup between the two guards and decides to exploit it. Dohrman describes of of Keller’s tactics, “If Aaron had a good practice, Keller would be sure to tell Demetrius how impressed he was. When Demetrius starred, Keller would shake his head at Aaron and ask if he liked being mediocre” (228). Keller was pushing his players to strive to be the best they could be. While trying to push his players, he was making their chemistry worse. He cared little about what others thought of each other, and only focused on how he could get his players to be driven to succeed. This tactic later turns to lose Aaron, destroying his plans of unifying his AAU team into a great high school team.

    Coach Keller is much different than coaches I have played for. I never played at the level these AAU players played at, and my coach was never as intense as Keller. Keller’s main intent was to make a living off of the grassroots system. Had he not been able to draft and acquire the players he did,Team Cal would have not have had as much success. Keller is dependent on the abilities of his players to be a successful coach. He may have connected with the players on his team, but only when it was in his best interest to do so. Dohrman remarks about the relationship between Demetrius and Keller, “He felt betrayed, used, suddenly aware that the man who often claimed to love him like a son had only exploited him to get rich” (332). Keller created a team, won tournaments with them, and slowly broke his ties to them after he did not need them. Keller had the title of coach, but his connotation is closer to the owner Team Cal. He had a large amount of control of his players’ lives. Not only did he get to use them to have his team win games, he also had a large say in the future of his players career. If he could benefit himself from sending a player to a certain high school or college, he would make sure that was the player’s choice. This is an aspect of the grassroots system of basketballs that has gone down the wrong path. The coaches are supposed to be focused on doing what is in the best interest of their players, not what fits their best interest.

    AAU coaches all across the country treat their players with benefits that create a similar images to young celebrities. The players get endorsements and free equipment to help them decide who to play for. Those players who do get mentioned through articles gain large amounts of fame relative to their age. However, this acknowledgement isn’t always a positive influence for those players in the grassroots system. Shea Cotton, a protegee of the grassroots system partly blames his failures on the media. Dohrman includes insight from Cotton, “‘Being in Sports Illustrated changed my life. I lived in a fishbowl from there on out,’ Cotton said. “Not only was I a marked man by the opposition, but as far as the public was concerned, I was always being scrutinized…’”(221). This shows the pressure that recognition can put on a developing athlete. The grassroots system shouldn’t be forcing young players out of their childhoods by exposing their lives and performance at a young age. Instead of being a kid, these players are being seen as the next star athletes. Their every move is watched closely, and the players are scrutinized if they don’t succeed.

    Although Keller persuades where his players go, the ties between him and his players are starting to be cut. The players who have special abilities are likely to continue on to play college basketball. Any damage done by the AAU coaches has to be fixed by the players themselves. The colleges are linked with the coaches from the grassroots system, but they cannot pay players like Keller and other AAU coaches did. Dohrman remarks about the connection, “The rise of grassroots basketball shattered this localism, first by providing coaches an opportunity to scout kids they wouldn't otherwise have seen” (378). This is describing the usage of the grassroots system at the next level of play. It creates a wider variety for the colleges to choose from. The AAU coaches that can find and create the best players will dominate in the industry. These coaches are similar when it comes to the level of coaching, but college coaches are restricted by NCAA guidelines. The only significant financial benefits available to the players are scholarships. Even though they can’t support them financially, the colleges can help boost their media attention. The ability of a player to rise as a star at a division I level will result in more recognition, and have a possibility to be noticed by scouts at the pro level.

    Coaches of the grassroots system are taking the childhood of players and converting it into an industry for their own gain. Through sports gear, media coverage, and bribes, coaches are able to gain the trust of the players and their parents. The lives of the young players are filled with hopes and expectations that are falsely promised by their coaches and managers. If the future of their basketball career does not go as planned, the players may likely lose any hope of a successful life. Before a parent gives the entirety of their kid’s childhood into the grassroots system, they need to realize the precious years they could be giving away.
  • How can we connect our country's celebrity worship to what the AAU basketball program has become?
  • How might colleges counteract the damage done by AAU coaches?
  • How might've the season been affected if Keller was not able to scout and recruit players?
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