The seedy business of youth basketball—and the middle-aged moguls who run it
Play Their Hearts Out:
A Coach, His Star Recruit,
and the Youth Basketball Machine
By George Dohrmann
Ballantine, 432 pp, $26.00
Jaylin Fleming's cross-over dribble has scouts drooling. Videos of his training sessions have become YouTube (GOOG) sensations, and his bedroom is adorned with posters of himself. Despite the hype, Fleming has said, he stays humble by reading the Bible each day. He may also be praying for a growth spurt. At 5 feet 2 inches, he's an inch shorter than the smallest player ever to wear an NBA uniform. Here's the good news: He's only 10 years old, and puberty beckons.
In the meantime, Fleming is ranked as the nation's top sixth-grade basketball prospect by Middle School Elite, a website about junior high players that has an avid following among grown men. This isn't a joke: Trying to spot the next Kobe or LeBron before he's hit the ninth grade has become a multimillion-dollar business. At its center is Joe Keller, chief executive officer of Adidas Phenom, a high-profile basketball camp for middle- and high school boys hoping to play in the NBA.
In June 2001, Sports Illustrated reporter George Dohrmann discovered Keller, then a small-time youth coach, as he was desperately trying to carve out a niche for himself on the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) basketball scene, where ambitious young athletes play for privately financed traveling teams. The two men came to an agreement: Keller would grant Dohrmann total access to his then-fledgling program, the "Inland Stars," while Dohrmann would confer on Keller the legitimacy of having a Sports Illustrated reporter tailing him to tournaments across the country. Over the ensuing decade, Dohrmann documented Keller's unlikely ascent from parks department employee and part-time coach to millionaire youth basketball impresario. In often horrifying detail, Play Their Hearts Out shows how this self-promotional empire was built on the jumpshots of young boys.
The AAU circuit is big-time basketball's own dirty sausage factory. The teams are funded by sneaker companies that forge early relationships with impressionable young players, who benefit from the exposure to college coaches and pro scouts. In the end, though, the true beneficiaries are the adults who start the teams and insert themselves into the middle of this ugly, ruthless world of marketing youngsters. Southern California AAU coach Pat Barrett, for example, once received $250,000 for convincing a player—current Timberwolves star Kevin Love—to sign with a particular sports agent. How could Barrett exert such an influence? Easy: He'd known Love since the player was in the fifth grade.
According to Dohrmann, Keller's main contribution to this world was making it more exploitative, and extending its tentacles deeper into childhood. Where AAU programs have traditionally focused on junior high and high school players, Keller went even younger. In a sports culture obsessed with youth, this was a brilliant business plan, and it made him a rich man. Team Cal, his traveling team of fifth-grade "prodigies," was built on the 10-year-old shoulders of Demetrius Walker. Walker, as Keller told Dohrmann in 2000 with a conspicuous lack of irony, was "the best 10-year-old in the country. NBA first-round for sure." Readers hope that Keller is clairvoyant. At the time, Dohrmann writes, Walker's mother was barely keeping the family's lights on as his father served a jail sentence for three felony convictions. Yet, readers learn, middle-school basketball prognosticators don't have to be clairvoyant. In essence, they're just promoters, and this is where Keller separates himself from other coaching entrepreneurs. His ability to publicize preadolescents to shoe companies—while positioning himself as their exclusive handler—allowed him to earn the attention of Adidas, buy a McMansion with a backyard waterfall, and become a full-time youth basketball mogul.
How did Keller develop his strategy? He stole it from the playbooks of his forebears. In the mid-'80s, a Nike (NKE) executive named Sonny Vaccaro understood the profit in signing graduating college players to sneaker endorsements. Vaccaro took his business one step further, in 1984, by founding a youth all-star basketball camp that collected the nation's top talent in the presence of adoring coaches and sneaker executives. The camp led to the rise of others and the birth of a new industry with its own class of shady tycoons. Once the Internet came along, coaches and agents were able to watch developing players in real time and follow their stats throughout the year. Former Indiana University journalism student Clark Francis capitalized on the frenzy by turning his newsletter into The Hoop Scoop Online, which ranks players from grade school to high school. Vaccaro, who left a job with Reebok in 2007, has since renounced the world he created as "a broken system." It's been anything but that for him, though: James Gandolfini has signed on to play him in an HBO movie.
Like an equities trader, Keller knows when to sell a bad investment. Unfortunately for many of his former protégés, that's what he does. As Walker develops into solid but unspectacular player in high school—and begins dropping precipitously on the prospect rating boards—Keller no longer has time for him. When Walker calls Keller for advice, the coach confides that he's been spreading bad information about Walker to motivate him. After a dumbfounded Walker subsequently e-mails Keller for an explanation, Keller drops the player.
Walker: You bought a house and Violet [Keller's wife] a car and you got wood floors all through your house and a big pool and what do I have?
Keller: It's a shame we can't continue our relationship. I guess we have to go our separate ways.
Walker: I don't want that.
Keller: I wish we could solve all our issues but I guess we will have to go our separate ways.
Dohrmann remains focused on the kids abused by this scouting process, and he picks up their stories long after Keller has moved on from their lives. (A comparison to H.G. Bissinger's classic look at Texas high school football, Friday Night Lights, is fair; one suspects that Dohrmann, like Bissinger, will stay in many of their lives long after his book is in paperback.) It's clear where Dohrmann's sympathies lie, certainly to Keller, who has announced plans to sue the author and his publisher.
Dick Vitale won't be calling Demetrius Walker's name this March. After leaving Arizona State University for the University of New Mexico, he's been forced to sit out the season due to NCAA transfer rules. Despite Keller's prediction, it's a near certainty that Walker will never get drafted or play in the NBA. Few in the world of amateur basketball will remember his name, and even fewer will care. There are too many other things to worry about in the amateur hoops business. Every year ushers in a new 10-year-old phenomenon, whether its Demetrius Walker or Jaylin Fleming, that middle-aged men depend on for their McMansions and backyard waterfalls.