“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.