In 2004, the star-making machine, in the form of a Sports Illustrated reporter, descended on a 14-year-old basketball player from Fontana, Calif., named Demetrius Walker. The scouting newsletter The Hoop Scoop had recently proclaimed Walker the best eighth grader in the country; now the pre-eminent sports magazine was going to take that hype to a new level. While the article about Walker carried the requisite caveats — about whether he would fulfill his potential and whether it was even fair to be placing such expectations on a kid — it described him as “14 going on LeBron.” The reason was not just Walker’s physical gifts, but also his Amateur Athletic Union coach, Joe Keller, who, according to Keller himself, was keeping Walker on a righteous path — arranging for him to be home-schooled by a tutor, checking to make sure he did his academic work and paying as much attention to the boy’s well-being as to his jump shot. “I’m not going to get a thing out of this,” Keller told S.I. “My only hope is that maybe, one day, when Demetrius is in the N.B.A., he can come back and sponsor my team.”
Much in the article was wildly off the mark, but not because Walker never became “the next LeBron.” (He averaged 4 points as a freshman last season at Arizona State and then transferred to New Mexico.) Rather, it was because Keller was no Father Flanagan. As George Dohrmann points out, the coach had arranged for Walker to be home-schooled so that he could repeat eighth grade — and thus remain eligible for the A.A.U. team. What’s more, there was no tutor supervising Walker’s education, meaning that for one year he received no instruction at all. Finally, Keller expected to get a lot more out of Walker than just a future team sponsorship. He was counting on a $500,000 cut from Walker’s first N.B.A. contract, plus several hundred thousand dollars from agents and colleges interested in securing the services of some of Walker’s teammates. “Within six years,” he predicted, “I am going to be a millionaire.”
By now, it’s a commonplace for sportswriters to describe A.A.U. basketball as a cesspool of corruption. Unfortunately, very few ever bother to detail the forms that corruption takes, either because they don’t actually know, they’re too lazy to find out or, when it comes to particular players and coaches, they’d rather preserve the myth of purity. Dohrmann, thankfully, is unlike so many of his colleagues. By immersing himself for eight years in the lives of one coach and his team, he witnessed what goes on at the grass-roots level. And while there’s probably no single instance of corruption in the book that will land a college team on probation or cost a coach his job, the sheer accumulation of transgressions makes for a devastating portrait of a culture in which teenage boys are treated as, essentially, chattel.
And not just by their coaches. The most villainous characters are sometimes the boys’ parents. “Whoever pays the rent is who you are going to play for,” one mother says to her son when he’s trying to decide between playing for Keller and playing for another coach. When the boy later tells his mother that the rent-paying coach, who has previously been accused of sexually assaulting one of his players, is now inappropriately touching him, she makes him stay on the team because no other coach will give her $1,000 a month.
Dohrmann relates this horrible episode and others with a minimum of editorializing. He’s a reporter, not a polemicist, and he’s comfortable letting the facts speak for themselves. And the facts at his disposal allow him to create a rich narrative. In Keller, Dohrmann found the perfect protagonist. At the beginning of the book, he’s installing car alarms and coaching a team of preadolescent boys — all the while dreaming, impossibly it seems, of becoming a millionaire. Although he’s no Father Flanagan, he’s no Fagin, either, and his affection and concern for his charges are evident. But Dohrmann shows that over time, as those boys get Keller closer to his goal — as he parlays their on-court success into a consulting contract with a shoe company and, eventually, a franchise of basketball camps — he begins viewing them as instruments rather than people, and in the process they become disposable. None more so than Walker — the player who thought of Keller as a father and who, after failing to fulfill his basketball potential, is simply abandoned by the coach and left to strive for his increasingly unobtainable hoop dreams on his own.
Of course, Keller all but predicted as much when he first agreed to let Dohrmann into his world. “When the boys graduate from high school, I’ll be rich and done with coaching,” he told the author, adding that he wouldn’t give a damn what Dohrmann wrote. That doesn’t mean the rest of us shouldn’t.
New York Times