"You want to play on my team?"
Demetrius shrugged. "You better talk to my momma."
Kisha Houston--a home retention specialist (she helps homeowners avoid foreclosure)--took one look at Keller, a potbellied, 29-year-old and thought, Uh-uh. Do I really want my boy with this weird white dude who keeps saying, "I can see talent before it is even there"?
But as Keller explained Team California, the Adidas grassroots program and his plans for Demetrius, the guy started to look a little better. In her day Houston, now 35, was a player, a six-foot forward nicknamed Helluva Hops who started for Crenshaw High in 1985 and '86. "If they had Prop 48 and the WNBA when I was coming up, who knows?" she says. Keller was talking about a basketball program that would get D noticed and would also train and discipline him. Even if he didn't develop big-time skills, it couldn't hurt to spend five afternoons a week at the gym instead of on the street. And maybe he'd get the chance she never did. Wasn't that what she'd had in mind when she moved out of the gang-ridden Crenshaw district to Rialto when he was two, then into slightly less gang-infested Fontana when he was seven?
D's first day working out with Team California was almost his last. Keller had assembled a squad that today includes six of the 40 best eighth-graders in the country and was putting them through Hell Week. A typical drill: sprint from baseline to baseline, then drop and do 40 push-ups, baseline to half-court, 40 push-ups, baseline to the top of the key, 40 push-ups. Finished? O.K., do it again. That workout would make a grown-up puke; D was barely nine.
"I thought, Man, this dude must have had a hard life growing up," Demetrius recalls. "I thought, I ain't gonna listen to this guy--he's crazy."
D stopped running, and Keller told him to go home.
"I need to see which kids are mentally tough enough to make it," Keller says. "And D just wasn't."
But D couldn't go home. "I knew if I called my mom and told her she had to pick me up because I wouldn't work hard enough, she'd go crazy," he says. Instead, he hung around outside the gym, crying. When Keller came out and saw him, D said, "Why are you picking on me?"
"Because I think you are the best player I've ever had," the coach said. "And if you work hard enough, you can be big time. You want that?"