Examining the seedy underworld of grassroots AAU basketball
An excerpt from George Dohrmann's book, Play Their Hearts Out
Demetrius Walker was top 12-year-old in nation, but never fully developed
Top players get money, entitlement at young age and often flame out
From the Book, PLAY THEIR HEARTS OUT: A Coach, His Star Recruit, and the Youth Basketball Machine by George Dohrmann. Copyright © 2010 by George Dohrmann. Reprinted by arrangement with Ballantine Books, an imprint of The Random House Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved.
Demetrius Walker and his coach, Joe Keller, were at the Rancho Cucamonga (Calif.) Family Sports Center early in 2003 when a young man Demetrius guessed to be about twenty years old entered the gym. Demetrius did not recognize him, but Keller hurried over and they hugged, and he then led the young man to where Demetrius sat lacing his shoes.
"D, this is Keilon," Keller said. "He used to play for Pat [Barrett]. He's going to work out with you."
Demetrius looked at Keilon, more than a little confused. Keilon was a man, with several tattoos on his arms and a chiseled physique. Why is he going to work out with me? Demetrius thought. But he didn't say anything. If Coach Joe wanted him to work out with Keilon, there must be a good reason.
Demetrius and Keilon loosened up and ran a bit, but eventually the practice turned into a prolonged game of one-on-one. It was, however, the most lopsided game of one-on-one in history. Keilon was the quickest guard Demetrius had ever seen, with the sweetest handle, and he could drive past Demetrius whenever he wanted. They were about the same height, around 6-feet, so when Demetrius had the ball he couldn't just back in and shoot over him. When he tried to dribble past, Keilon either cut him off or robbed him of the ball.
During one possession, Demetrius tried a crossover move, but Keilon easily picked the ball from him. "You can't show the ball like that. Do it like this," Keilon said, and he yo-yoed the ball to the right, then quickly to the left, and then burst past Demetrius for a layup. Later, Demetrius tried to drive, but Keilon slid in front of him, so Demetrius threw up a soft runner in the lane. "You can't get away with that bulls--- against good players," Keilon said. "Go strong to the basket. You've got to be fearless."
His comments were not mocking but instructional, and Demetrius soaked them in. He began looking forward to the individual workouts with Keilon, rushing into the gym and quickly lacing up his shoes, eagerly waiting for Keilon to arrive. Over the next month and a half, as they continued to work out together, Demetrius learned bits of information about Keilon's past. He had played on the Southern California All-Stars team that lost to Tyson Chandler and Keller in 1996. He attended Compton Dominguez High with Chandler but was sent to Camp Kilpatrick in Malibu, a state-run juvenile detention school, where he also played basketball, and in 2001 was named the Southern Section Division V co-player of the year.
"It's just part of growing up where I did," Keilon told Demetrius about why he had been sent to Camp Kilpatrick. "Sometimes you've got to do things to protect yourself."
Demetrius did not hear that Keilon escaped from Camp Kilpatrick after an all-star game in May 2001. (He was eventually caught, his sentence at Kilpatrick extended.) Demetrius was also unaware that Keilon was trying to catch on with a junior college team because no Division I schools wanted him, due to poor grades and his criminal past. He did not know that Keilon needed money and had called Keller, who agreed to slip him a few bucks if he worked out his young star.
During one session, another former Barrett player arrived at the gym. He was 6-foot-4 and was introduced to Demetrius as "Olujimi." He was several years older than Keilon but they were friends, and Olujimi took a turn instructing Demetrius. "Man, he is just so strong," Demetrius told Keller after the practice. Keller did not tell Demetrius that Olujimi had verbally committed to UCLA in 1995 as a junior at Santa Ana Valley High but that poor grades and a Pac-10 Conference investigation into a car he'd received from Barrett soured the Bruins' interest. Demetrius did not hear how Olujimi tried to get back on track at the junior college level but that by 2003 the NBA dreams of a player once likened to Oscar Robertson were all but dead.
Demetrius came to view Keilon and Olujimi as mentors, older brothers, and he was heartbroken when the pair suddenly stopped showing up for workouts. One day they were there, teaching him all their tricks, and the next they were gone, with no explanation from Keller as to why. He wondered if they'd tired of hanging out with a 12-year-old, if he wasn't a good enough player or wasn't cool enough for them. Eventually they washed from his memory, ghosts from his grassroots past, great players forgotten until someone brought them up one day much later and he said, "Man, Keilon and Olujimi could ball. Whatever happened to them?"
When they plunge into the grassroots world, parents and kids are bombarded with success stories. From Keller, they learn how he found Tyson Chandler. From Barrett, they hear how NBA players like Tayshaun Prince and Josh Childress wouldn't be in the NBA if it weren't for him. Other coaches have their own tales, and the message is the same: Trust me, and your son can also achieve basketball riches. There are no disclosure rules in grassroots basketball, and thus parents rarely hear about the ?ameouts. Barrett never talks about Keilon Fortune and Olujimi Mann and the other seemingly sure?re stars who ?opped under his tutelage. He doesn't mention the directionless lives they led after they failed to reach the heights he'd promised them, how as adults they continued to ask him for money as they had as teenagers, and how he continued to give them handouts because he didn't know another way to help them.
Even if parents were aware of these unhappy endings, it is doubtful they would boycott AAU basketball, because they know how vital it is to their children's chances of landing a college scholarship. When they ?rst look into placing their kids on a team, parents are confronted with a chicken-or-egg question. It begins with an irrefutable fact agreed upon by everyone: that the majority of American players who go on to play in college and the NBA pass through the grassroots system. Proponents of the system say that pitting talented kids against one another forces them to play the game at a higher level, thus developing them into college and pro players. Critics of the system believe that if you abolished grassroots basketball, the same kids would still get scholarships, because they possess the most talent. The argument can be reduced to this question: Do kids become elite by playing grassroots basketball, or are they top players already and AAU coaches just latch on to them?