George Dohrmann's book on college basketball recruiting, reviewed by Sean Callahan

Wednesday, November 24, 2010; 3:50 PM

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

By George Dohrmann. Ballantine. 422 pp. $26

In the cutthroat world of grassroots hoops - hypercompetitive club basketball for grade school and high school kids - Joe Keller had a regrettable reputation. As Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter George Dohrmann writes in "Play Their Hearts Out," "he became a laughable legend: The man who discovered Tyson Chandler, a once-in-a-lifetime talent, and then let [fellow grassroots coach Pat] Barrett steal him from right under his nose."

Dohrmann chronicles Keller's attempt to redeem his reputation in the grassroots world - and to get rich while doing it. The book, a tour de force of reporting, filled with deft storytelling and vivid character studies, focuses on Keller's relationship with basketball phenom Demetrius Walker and the coach's efforts to build a team capable of winning a youth basketball national championship.

Keller discovered Walker one day in 2000 as the 9-year-old dominated a youth game. He became the boy's coach - and a father figure. "Demetrius saw more of Keller each day than of his mother or any of his classmates," Dohrmann writes.

"Demetrius is the best player his age in the country," Keller boasted. Eventually, swayed by Keller's lobbying, Clark Francis, the editor of a newsletter called "The Hoop Scoop," which rates grade school basketball players, called Walker "the best 6th grader in the nation." Walker initially lived up to the hype, leading Keller's team to the Amateur Athletic Union's 13-and-under national championship in 2004. It was the peak of their partnership.

While Keller is skilled at identifying young talent - 20 of about 25 kids who played on his grassroots teams earned college scholarships - in Dohrmann's telling he isn't exactly nurturing. "There had always been something worrisome about [Keller and Walker's] bond - a coach who'd been no father to his own son, Joey, leaping into that role for one of his players - and a happy ending was never preordained," Dohrmann writes.

Keller, in Dohrmann's view, did not coach for the kids; he was in it for himself. When Dohrmann asked the coach what would happen if Walker never made it to the NBA, Keller responded, "Well, then all this would have been a waste of time. Demetrius would have been a bad investment."

For Keller, however, the investment eventually paid off no matter the long-term basketball prospects for Walker. In part because of Walker's reputation, Keller secured an Adidas shoe contract for his team of grade-school-aged kids, the first grassroots coach to do so for players so young. The five-year deal paid $60,000 the first year, with a $10,000 increase each of the following years.

A skilled entrepreneur, Keller parlayed that deal into an even bigger one: Adidas Jr. Phenom Camps. These camps for sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders were his brainchild, and he estimated he could make a profit of more than $800,000 annually.

Keller eventually left coaching to tend to the camps, just when Walker seemed to need a father figure most. As the young player entered high school, the hype had made him a target for other players looking to make a name for themselves. Eventually, Walker cracked under the pressure. In 2006, at a camp for high school players looking to impress college coaches, he refused to participate, hiding in a bathroom stall.

He e-mailed Keller, who was spending less and less time with him: "I don't understand how you say I'm like your son, but you aren't there for me anymore." Keller replied, "It's a shame we can't continue our relationship. I guess we have to go our separate ways."

Walker was struggling on the court. As a grade schooler, his height made him a great low-post player. But at 6-foot-3, he would be expected to play guard in college. To do so, he would have to improve his jump shot and ball handling, skills that Keller, a master recruiter but weak coach, never taught him. At 16, Walker was written off as washed up. But in the last, suspenseful pages of Dohrmann's book, Walker tries to make a comeback - with no help from Keller.

Keller now mentors his own 8-year-old son in grassroots baseball. "I'm telling you, Jordan is the real deal," Keller tells Dorhmann. "I'm telling you, my son is a phenom."

Sean Callahan is an editor at Crain Communications.

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