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Grass-Roots Basketball: 9-Year-Olds, Shoe Fortunes

At age 9, Demetrius Walker was dunking basketballs into a 10-foot hoop. By the time he reached 11, Demetrius was signing autographs. And as an eighth-grader, he made the cover of Sports Illustrated.

Big shoe companies were clamoring to have Demetrius wear their gear, and much of the hype was generated by the man who discovered and then later abandoned Walker: Joe Keller.

Pulitzer Prize-winning sportswriter George Dohrmann spent eight years hanging around Keller, Walker and the cutthroat world of youth basketball. That's the focus of his new book, Play Their Hearts Out.

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The Roots Of Grass-Roots Basketball

"Basketball is this sort of unregulated world," Dohrmann says, "where anybody can wake up tomorrow and start a club basketball team, recruit players and start playing."

The best of these teams, he says, get sponsorship from shoe companies and travel from coast to coast playing games.

Like coaches across the country, Keller scoured playgrounds, rec centers and middle schools looking at athletic kids he thought might grow up to be great players.

Keller was competitive and ambitious when he began scouting but had little coaching experience. "He couldn't even demonstrate a proper defensive stance," Dohrmann says.

As a result of his inexperience, Keller relied on sure-fire physical signs to help him spot the most talented players." Maybe they were tall or fast," Dohrmann explains, "but he was sort of looking for that one or two things that held the promise of greatness."

Keller is portrayed in Dohrmann's book as a yeller who demonstrates few real teaching skills. He wins over parents by clothing and feeding some of the kids, becoming almost like a father figure to them.

"For Demetrius and a few others, he was truly the only father that they ever knew," Dohrmann says. "He understood how parents, kids, dreamt of college scholarships and the NBA. And he put that out there: He said, 'If you trust me, I can get your kid there.' "

Discovering Demetrius

The book describes how Keller built a team around Demetrius -- a "latchkey kid who had to grow up very fast," according to Dohrmann.

"They just spent so much time with each other -- they were never apart," the author explains. "Demetrius spent more time with Joe than he did with his mother, who was working two jobs. So as they go forward, they kind of grow together."

Dohrmann describes the relationship between Keller and Demetrius as "something that he had never seen before." It could not be defined as either coach/player or father/son, but was far more complicated and complex.

In the eight years that he spent with them, Dohrmann watched Demetrius go from child to young man. He also witnessed firsthand Demetrius' fallout with Keller.

In high school, Demetrius leveled off at 6-foot-2 and didn't have the growth spurt that Keller had originally predicted. Frustrated, he had trouble turning his game into that of a guard.

At the time, Keller was focused on his newly-formed all-star camps for sixth, seventh and eighth graders. (He told Dohrmann that those camps had earned him as much as $4 million a year.) The author argues that the coach was more concerned with the financial revenue and sponsorship coming from these camps than with helping Demetrius grow as a player.

"He made this choice: He said, 'I'm going to step away from the team and from Demetrius and just focus on my camps and making money.' "

Cash From The Shoe Companies

Shoe companies are no strangers to sponsorships -- we've all grown accustomed to seeing their brands worn by high school and college players. But the emphasis on sponsorship of 9- and 10-year-old kids by major brands such as Reebok, Nike and Adidas is a recent phenomenon.

In the case of Keller and Demetrius, "what Adidas did was they identified Joe's team -- Demetrius and a couple of other star players -- before they reached high school," says Dohrmann. "They sponsored Joe Keller and made Joe Keller one of their signature coaches. And this was a monumental shift."

Today, Demetrius is in his sophomore year of college. He played last season at Arizona State, but transferred this summer to the University of New Mexico. And compared to a few of the other players profiled in Play Their Hearts Out, he is faring well.

Joe Keller is still running all-star camps but is now more focused on his son Jordan's baseball career than on basketball. Although regardless of the sport, Keller is still known for his rabid competitive streak.

"It's amazing," Dohrmann says. "I could probably sit down right now and start another book on Joe Keller and youth baseball because it's almost like that journey is at the starting point."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.