Thad: Playing Their Hearts Out

We may not live in the golden age of college basketball, but we do live in a golden age of basketball literature.

Outstanding recent books I've had the chance to read include Reuben May's "Living Through the Hoop," an ethnographic account of an inner-city high school basketball team in Georgia written by an assistant coach cum sociologist and Chris Ballard's "The Art of a Beautiful Game" detailing the subtle tricks of the trade in pro basketball. The War and Peace of recent basketball books, however, is without question Sports Illustrated writer George Dorhmann's epic book "Play Their Hearts Out," published this past October. The book is about youngsters playing their heart out, but its contents will rip the hearts out of basketball fans who believe in even minimal ethical criteria for how young players should be treated.

Dohrmann's book documents in absorbing detail the manner in which the AAU-shoe company nexus in youth basketball creates an environment in which adults can exploit children (and deceive their parents) for financial gain.

The core narrative describes how southern California AAU "coach" Joe Keller assembled a national champion team of middle schoolers revolving around promising talent Demetrius Walker, then converted that attention into first a shoe deal and then a lucrative camp business for "junior phenoms" (middle school players seeking exposure). Keller essentially uses Walker to get rich, but makes terrible choices on Walker's behalf (not teaching him fundamentals, sending him to a bad high school, and more). When Walker's fortunes as a prospect precipitously decline, Keller essentially exits the relationship, secure in his business.

Along the way, three current Tar Heels (Dexter Strickland, Leslie McDonald, and Kendall Marshall) whose paths crossed with Keller and Walker on the AAU circuit make cameo appearances, as do three other former Tar Heels hailing from California.

More importantly, the book illustrates the full gamut of good and bad behavior by coaches, parents, and players at this level, from savvy players and parents with the resources and foresight to make the system work for them to gullible and in some cases negligent parents who turn their children's well-being over to strangers they hardly know and should know better than to trust. Coaches cut players as it suits them, and players who feel wronged leave, with departures sometimes taking place at times calculated to cause the most damage to the old team.

It's a sobering, disturbing depiction not just of youth basketball "corruption" but in some cases out-and-out exploitation of children. What makes it disturbing is the willingness of adults to treat very young pre-teens and teenagers as vehicles to make money, and the willingness of some parents (and their kids) to believe that it is in their long-term interests to allow themselves to be treated this way. What makes it at times tragic is the way this process can (at least temporarily) destroy a young player's sense of self and in turn his love of the game.

Dohrmann is not against elite-level youth basketball as such. In interviews he has stated that the AAU circuit undoubtedly helps some players. It's hard to believe that the unique passing abilities and court vision of Kendall Marshall, a player identified as a future star at a shockingly young age but who seems to have turned out quite well, do not owe much to years of experience on the AAU circuit. And without some sort of opportunity to play other talented young players, there would be no realistic way for players not at elite high schools to gauge their relative abilities.

The key problems instead are twofold: first, when very young players become concerned with a bogus player ranking, as if being highly rated at age 13 or 14 was a guarantee of anything, they imbibe a fundamentally misguided account of what it will actually take to succeed. What they should be told instead is that the most trustworthy route to success is first, sustained hard work, particularly on the game's fundamental skills such as shooting, ballhandling, and footwork, and second, maintaining a level head. What they should be looking for are coaches and older mentors who can help with both.

The second problem is when AAU coaches are allowed to gain control not only of young players' basketball fortunes but the rest of their lives as well, often taking advantage of single parents whose lives are already overstretched as well as the hunger of their sons for a positive male role model. The motivation for such coaches is that ability to "control" talent translates into influence and eventually payouts from sneaker companies and (Dorhmann strongly implies) schools and their representatives.

At the root of both problems is the willingness of shoe companies to "invest" in grassroots basketball in an attempt to build "relationships" with young talent as soon as possible. Any serious reform of the system -- and few will be able to read this book and conclude that serious reform is not warranted -- must aim to displace the predominant role of Nike and Adidas. There are two possible ways to achieve that end.

The less likely way would simply be for the NCAA to prevent Division I coaches from taking sneaker company money in endorsement deals. That would all but eliminate the rationale for the companies to "invest" in grassroots basketball with the hope of steering players to particular schools. It's difficult to see this happening because of the strong resistance such move would invite from coaches, who depend on the shoe money to supplement base salaries.

The more likely and probably better way would be for the NBA to take direct responsibility for training young players, and to create a route to the professional ranks for youth players that does not necessarily run through college. Following the model of professional basketball and soccer clubs in Europe, NBA teams could be required to establish "academies" open to players 14 and up, in which players would develop their skills while also completing a high school degree, with the NBA teams picking up the tab. To ensure that the education offered these young men is not a farce, each NBA team should also sponsor a charter school on the model of Andre Agassi's successful academy in Las Vegas that would be accessible to not just the players but other residents in each NBA city.

To be sure, this would not solve everything, as Keller-like entrepreneurs might still find business in trying to promise kids and their parents access to these academies if they play for a particular team or coach in the preteen years. Mechanisms would need to be established to limit such influence (such as forbidding the individual NBA teams from hiring "talent consultants" in attempt to lure players to its particular academy.) But it would limit the amount of time youth players are susceptible to the influence of entrepreneurs more interested in making a buck than teaching basketball.

Many further details would need to be worked out, particularly the crucial question of whether 18 year old "graduates" of NBA academies would be allowed to play college basketball despite in a sense having turned pro at age 14 or 15. My inclination would be to say yes, provided the players meet the normal academic requirements and provided the players make at least a two-year commitment to college basketball. NBA teams might be given the option of retaining rights of first refusal to a player if they pay his college tuition, or could simply release its graduates at age 18 with no further obligation from either party. (Presumably almost all of those players would be good enough to get a scholarship somewhere.) The key, however, is that the NBA teams should also create a high quality minor league that 18-year-old academy graduates could play in -- an alternative route to the pro game for those who are ready at a very young age or just have no interest in college.

Any reform that is more than window dressing will, of course, reshape the college basketball landscape. A significant portion of the better players would never suit up for a college team if the NBA, as is the norm in other pro sports around the world, steps up and takes responsibility for training young talent instead of leaving it to entrepreneurs who know more about making a deal than teaching a jump shot. But, I'm convinced, college basketball would still endure, and still be worth watching.

Why? Well, consider why the RBC Center will be full Wednesday night of N.C. State fans cheering another struggling Wolfpack outfit on against the Tar Heels, with probably only slight expectation of seeing a famous upset victory. Regardless of the talent level on either side at a given time, the front of the jersey is still there, and so is the tradition and history. My view is that people would still get excited, still feel passionate about a reformed college game with a somewhat diluted talent pool.

Indeed, one takeaway from Dorhmann's book for me is a renewed appreciation for the virtues of honest competition, and games played because they matter in themselves and not because of what financial and fame benefits they may bring. Indeed, if a reformed regime steers young players and parents who view the colleges simply as instruments for advancing potential pro careers down an alternative path, it might actually improve the stability and spirit of the college game.

Another takeaway from the book is renewed respect for ethically minded coaches at all levels -- AAU, high school, college -- who continue to stay in the game for the right reasons, and who manage to negotiate the challenge of fielding competitive teams while sincerely caring about the players as people.

And a final takeaway is tremendous respect for the players who have survived the AAU circuit and made it to the college game. To be able make it to the level of playing for North Carolina without having either your head or your game messed up by the toxic influences involved in the youth basketball scene -- a scene regarded by most players as at least a necessary evil -- is a major accomplishment. And as Carolina fans have found out in recent times, it is not an accomplishment to be taken for granted.

Nonetheless, that respect is chastened by concern for those once-stellar prospects who for various reasons did not make it to college basketball, or whose careers (like Walker's) took a serious detour. Players -- young people -- like those in Dohrmann's book who were discarded by Keller and like-minded coaches deserve better. Until someone takes the system on in a serious way, they won't get it.

Thad has returned to Inside Carolina in 2011 as a regular columnist. He is the author of "More Than a Game: Why North Carolina Basketball Means So Much To So Many" (now available to be read for free online here: More Than a Game - ONLINE). A Chapel Hill native, he operated the manual scoreboard formerly located at the end of the UNC bench between the 1982-83 and 1987-88 seasons in Carmichael and the Smith Center. Thad wrote regularly for Inside Carolina and from 1995 to 2005. He's an assistant professor of leadership studies at the University of Richmond.

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