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November 9, 2010
Book Review
Play Their Hearts Out

by Kevin Pelton


Let's start with a question: What made Moneyball so phenomenally successful? Obviously, any number of factors came into play. Moneyball hit at a time when sabermetrics were growing rapidly--a process the book itself accelerated. It featured rare behind-the-scenes access and fascinating "inside baseball" stories about the draft and the trade deadline. Moneyball also happened to be written by what might be the finest author of his generation; Michael Lewis made bond trading fascinating, so baseball was an easy task.

Ultimately, though, I think the success of Moneyball can most easily be explained by the fact that it is compelling on multiple levels. The takeaway from the book was the value of statistical analysis in baseball, but if Lewis had simply written a book with this kind of big-picture perspective, it would have interested only a small segment of devoted fanatics. Instead, it was the way Lewis personalized the story by focusing on the players whose lives and careers were altered by the Oakland A's front office that kept the pages turning and gave Moneyball mass appeal.

Something similar can be said about Play Their Hearts Out: A Coach, His Star Recruit, and the Youth Basketball Machine, George Dohrmann's masterful look inside the world of youth basketball. The unifying theme underlying Play Their Hearts Out, the ills of the way future basketball stars are identified and developed, has gotten most of the attention in the media. That is understandable, but in some ways a disservice to the quality of the gut-wrenching story Dohrmann develops by following Demetrius Walker and his Team Cal teammates from the age of 10 to the doorstep of college.

My reading is almost entirely done right before I go to bed. This became a problem while reading Play Their Hearts Out because I could not stop. I finally powered through the final 120 pages in a single sitting, but even then I could not sleep, consumed by the fates of the players who grow up over the course of the book.

It surely did not hurt that Play Their Hearts Out feels like a local book for a Pac-10 fan. I was at Walker's high-scoring game of his freshman season at Arizona State (he has since transferred to New Mexico and will sit out this year) and wrote about Gary Franklin (Cal) and Roberto Nelson (Oregon State, if he ever gets cleared) for this year's College Basketball Prospectus. However, it is clear that Play Their Hearts Out could have been set anywhere and told the same tale, which is sort of the point. Recognizable names like Tyreke Evans and Lance Stephenson make appearances

An accomplished investigative reporter who won the Pulitzer in 2000 for his reporting uncovering academic fraud in the University of Minnesota men's basketball program, Dohrmann invested countless hours in following Team Cal to various tournaments. The story takes us to the bigger world of youth basketball at times for perspective, but always returns to Walker--the emotional center of the book--his teammates, and their former coach Joe Keller.

Throughout the book, it is impossible not to root for the players to overcome the pitfalls along their path--including, at times, their coach and each other--and succeed. Two key players are sidetracked by off-the-court issues. Meanwhile, even the players who do make it struggle to various degrees with the pressure put on them from a young age. This is most apparent in the case of Walker, who was hyped as the top eighth-grader in the country and featured in a Sports Illustrated article that tried to ask tough questions about youth basketball.

The lawless nature of AAU basketball is a topic that has been well-trod by the media, though surely not to the detailed extent seen here. The newer angle, however, is the "how soon is too soon?" question. Keller emerges as both a visionary and a parasite because of his determination to pick out future stars at a younger age and extend the trappings familiar with high school-age players down to the middle school level. Keller succeeds financially, but the effect on the players is dubious at best.

There are two reasons that the trend toward identifying future stars at a younger age is problematic. First, each additional year between where a teenager (or even younger kid) is now and maturity increases the margin of error in projecting how they will develop physically and grow their skills. Keller's success in finding kids with Division I talent is remarkable, but relatively few of the players hyped as NBA prospects actually reached that level. If we cannot predict reliably which high school seniors will become productive college players, let alone NBA stars, how can we possibly do so at even younger ages?

The other aspect is the way ratings influence player development. Walker's early success puts a target on him, while also leading Keller to conclude that the goal is not for Walker to improve his game but simply to avoid doing anything to jeopardize his rating. Inevitably, this has consequences down the line. I'm not sure what age is the one at which players can handle the attention that comes their way. 16? 18? Later? I am confident that the answer is not 13 or 14.

Within Play Their Hearts Out, there is room for plenty of blame to go around. The free-for-all that is AAU basketball deemphasizes skill development in favor of playing game after game under coaches of widely varying Xs & Os ability. Prep basketball comes off little better, with coaches aggressively recruiting players to their schools. The NCAA recruiting process is fraught with confusion at best and outright deception at worst. Even the NBA plays a role. It's no coincidence that Keller made his reputation with one of the most prominent preps-to-pros, Tyson Chandler. Keller correctly predicts that iHoops, the joint youth basketball initiative between the NCAA and the NBA, will have no tangible impact.

The one surprising villain that emerges is the insatiable desire of fans for rankings. It's easy to criticize evaluators like Clark Francis of hoopscooponline.com, who ranks players down to the high school class of 2016--just entering seventh grade now--with a laughable degree of precision. (Exactly how do you determine the difference between the 74th- and 75th-best seventh grader? We can't do that in the NBA.) But Francis would not be offering the service if people were not reading. I complained, but did I look at the ratings when I visited Francis' site? Of course. Fans pack gymnasiums to see the meetings of the top teenagers. We want to be able to say we were ahead of the curve and saw the next LeBron James. That interest is not responsible for the problems of youth basketball, but it doesn't help.

TrueHoop's Henry Abbott suggests that Play Their Hearts Out could help catalyze what has thus far been an aimless effort to reform youth basketball. That kind of influence, similar to how Moneyball irrevocably changed the way baseball's front offices went about their business, is possible because of Dohrmann's detailed reporting and ability to immerse himself in the AAU world. However, Play Their Hearts Out will also reach a wide audience because, at its heart, it is a well-told and engaging story.

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Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus. You can contact Kevin by clicking here or click here to see Kevin's other articles.

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