Play Their Hearts Out

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by George Dohrmann

Pulitzer Prize–winning writer George Dohrmann takes readers inside the system that develops America's basketball stars, thanks to eight years of unrestrained access, a sharp awareness of a story's fundamental realities, and true love for his subject.

Basketball aspirations aren't limited to athletes. Coaches, parents, and shoe executives are all affected by the fever that consumes collegiate basketball hopefuls expecting to hit big-time NBA gold. Every one of them has a vested interest in keeping America's outrageously dysfunctional, enormously profitable youth basketball machine afloat, no matter the cost.

George Dohrmann gives us an up-close and memorable glimpse inside the jaws of the machine in Play Their Hearts Out. He explains what he learnt while travelling the country with a group of exceptional young recruits from Southern California competing in premier Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) tournaments. Boys as young as eight or nine years old are vulnerable to a barrage of scrutiny and exploitation in this ruthless society. Coaches compete for their services. They are plied with free shoes and kit by sneaker makers. "All-star camps" are essentially glorified cattle auctions, with make-or-break possibilities to get a coveted college scholarship.

The personal stories of two compelling figures are at the heart of the book: Joe Keller, an ambitious AAU coach with a master plan to find and promote "the next LeBron"—thereby paving his own path to power and wealth; and Demetrius Walker, a fatherless latchkey kid who falls under Keller's sway and struggles to live up to the unrealistic expectations his ostensible benefactor has set for him. As their fortunes unfold and the strain mounts—Demetrius is covered in Sports Illustrated at the age of fourteen, while Keller builds his business empire—Dohrmann interweaves the lives of a slew of other parents, coaches, and athletes. As a result of poor judgments and bad luck, some of them see their chances dwindle. Others learn to prosper in a corrupt system by finding the appropriate angles to play.

Play Their Hearts Out is a truly unique novel that explores the inner workings of an American game, exposing the brutal truth that lurks underneath so many aspirations of fame and glory, written with extraordinary detail and insight.

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— George Dohrmann, Play Their Hearts Out