SL Interview: George Dohrmann’s New Book on AAU Youth Basketball

A few weeks before Christmas in 2000, while working on a feature story about Southern California high school basketball phenom Tyson Chandler, Sports Illustrated staff writer George Dohrmann interviewed Joe Keller, Chandler’s former youth coach. After the publication of the article, Dohrmann stayed in contact with Keller, who was in the process of forming a basketball team of 10-year-olds in the San Bernardino area. Keller believed that the star of the team, Demetrius Walker, would develop into a surefire lock for the NBA.

Dohrmann followed the fortunes of Keller, Walker and his teammates for the next eight years, or until the boys were high school seniors. As they navigated the labyrinthine world of AAU basketball, Dohrmann was eye witness to a grassroots sub-culture populated by sneaker company marketing reps, college and high-school coaches, sports agents, media titans and the youths’ own parents.

Dohrmann notes that the AAU system has produced “nearly every great American-born basketball player of the last ten years – from Kevin Garnett to Kobe Bryant to Tracy McGrady to LeBron James.” And yet, argues Dohrmann in his exhaustively reported book, “Play Their Hearts Out: A Coach, His Star Recruit, and the Youth Basketball Machine” (Ballantine Books; Amazon), the vaunted AAU basketball machine has also degenerated into a sleazy cesspool of greed and waste.

This groundbreaking, enlightening and passionate book should serve as a wake-up call for those parents, coaches and administrators who profess to care about youth sports. Commented Los Angeles Times columnist Bill Dwyre about “Play Their Hearts Out”: “A good book will leave you laughing or crying. I just read one that left me wanting to take a shower.”

Dohrmann first reported on youth basketball in the mid-1990s for the Los Angeles Times, where Dwyre was his editor. Dohrmann went on to win the 2000 Pulitzer Prize for beat reporting while working at the St. Paul Pioneer Press. His investigative story unearthed academic fraud within the men’s basketball program at the University of Minnesota. He has worked at Sports Illustrated since 2000.

SportsLetter spoke to Dohrmann from his home in San Francisco.

–- David Davis