Looking at March Madness a little differently

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

My choice of weekend reading material for this, the first weekend of March Madness, was perfect in its topic, eye-opening in its no-holds-barred picture of youth basketball, and a welcome diversion from the sight of my tournament brackets, which seemed to be bleeding from all the red ink crossing out my picks.

"Play Their Hearts Out," was touted as basketball's answer to "Friday Night Lights," the unvarnished take on high school football. Since "Friday Night Lights" remains one of my favorite books, I figured its basketball counterpoint would be a worthy read.

Written by Sports Illustrated writer George Dohrmann, the book follows the lives of players in a California youth basketball team. Its coach, Joe Keller, fueled his rise on the backs of a group of 8 and 9 year old players. While he succeeded in reaching his dreams of financial success, his players struggled with expectations and too much attention at too young an age.

A cautionary tale, "Play Their Hearts Out" guarantees I'll never look at college players quite the same way again. The monster machine that eats up young players, spits out most, and brings a tiny number to our attention every March, leaves so many casualties in its wake.

In the book, the star of the young team is Demetrius Walker. Rated the number one player in the country at 9 years old, he is brought up with a sense of entitlement by coaches and boosters. With little support at home, he finds it hard to adjust when he quits growing, others catch up and overtake him, and his dream of being the next "LeBron" is taken away.

If you haven't heard of Demetrius Walker, it's because he's currently sitting out a year, having transferred after a subpar freshman year at Arizona, to New Mexico. He's pinning his slim hopes for future glory on Steve Alford and the Lobos.

While the NCAA rules are clear, the ways to circumvent them are myriad, the book shows. The money fueling big time sports guarantees that unscrupulous adults will use young children as a means to their financial end.

Profiting from the dreams of youngsters and their parents is the aim of some of these youth coaches and power brokers. The book reminded me that while basketball is a game, at the highest levels it's a business whose raw material is young people with dreams of hoop glory.