For eight years Sports Illustrated writer George Dohrmann followed a team of talented basketball players and their ruthless coach. The premise wouldn’t be remarkable if not for one detail: The players are 10 years old when the book begins. Before they even enter middle school, the boys are touted as future NBA superstars and recruited to high-profile youth basketball teams. They become pawns in a cutthroat game of insurmountable expectation played by parents, coaches, scouts, and big-name shoe companies. In the seedy world of grassroots basketball, it doesn’t matter that they’re just kids.
To tell the story, Dohrmann focuses on coach Joe Keller, and his young protégé Demetrius Walker in Play Their Hearts Out (Ballantine Books, 432 pp.). When Keller discovers Demetrius, a latchkey kid with enough “extraordinary athleticism” to be the next Lebron James, the coach devotes his life to promoting him. Keller showers the boy with gifts, builds a team around his talent, and even misses his daughter’s birth for a tournament. Why? It’s all part of his master plan: cultivate Demetrius’ talent, score a sneaker deal, and reap the benefits of power and riches.
Readers with little knowledge of basketball need not worry about incomprehensible sports talk. With thorough reporting Dohrmann narrates the corrupt grassroots system from all sides in clean, compelling detail.