FD Book Club: They Grow Up and Die
Josh Spilker writes about books at Impose Magazine and writes about music at Deckfight.
Before the game when Wade was talking about his retired No. 3 Marquette jersey that hangs in Bradley Center rafters, James told Wade he remembered watching him lose to Kansas in the Final Four.
"You weren't watching the game, you were riding around in your Hummer," Wade said.
"Yeah, I know, I watched it in there," James said. "I had satellite." -- from ESPN.com
If humor brings out our insecurities and fears, then this exchange was very funny. Not TBS funny, but an anxious funny. It’s easier to pass this off as a joke rather than acknowledge it as the truth, because actually, it's kind of disturbing
Is it defensive on James’ part? Is Wade joking showing some jealousy, since after all, he had to seek glory in the Final Four to earn national recognition? James had it as a high school sophomore, and ironically, would become even more famous for the Hummer at the heart of this exchange.
I read this quote shortly after finishing George Dohrmann’s Play Their Hearts Out which tells the story of Demetrius Walker, a would-be phenom touted as the next LeBron, and the circus that springs up around him. Dorhmann’s book follows Walker from age ten through his junior year in high school. During this period, Walker is celebrated, torn down and brought up again, all under the watch of fixer Joe Keller. A welder with limited playing experience, Keller discovered Tyson Chandler as a young kid before handing him over to a more established AAU coach. Chandler may have forgotten him, but for Keller, seeing what happened to the one that got away (and imagining the financial benefits reaped by the coach) propels Keller with an almost feverish intensity, with little regard for who is in the way.
We all understand, on some level, that this stuff goes on. It’s grimy and cynical, but there’s also something quintessentially American about it. Not only in the rags-to-riches trajectory of Walker and Keller, or the undeniable racial tension that, if nowhere else, is plain to the observer. If that seems to have the beginning of a mythology you’ve heard before, it most certainly does, because George Dohrmann’s book fulfills those American tropes. This is pure capitalism: Keller’s drive in taking advantage of a mostly middle school group of kids goes unchecked; Keller makes the money, the kids do the work. It’s the most basic feature of Dohrmann’s book, and yet is easy to overlook.
The “grassroots” or “developmental” basketball does not seem to protect or even maximize the kid’s best interests, only their college basketball eligibility. Keller shields them from accepting payment, because he’ll accept the payment and pay rent for them. His degrading deal-making at youth baskerball tournaments feels both seedy and like a cover-up, something like the tournaments being a legitimate front for his real business interests, can be passed of “doing what’s best for Demetrius.” No one ever offers a salary to Demetrius or one of his other players, but several deals are cut where Keller gets a salary from a shoe company and the kids get shoes. Keller provides a service, of sorts, but clearly ends up with the greatest short-term benefits.
What’s most bizarre about Walker and Keller’s story, and may serve to shock even the most jaded basketball fans, is just how much Keller stands to gain before Demetrius has even proven himself a future pro. Keller makes millions, taking advantage of hundreds of other middle schoolers who hope to achieve the same hype as Demetrius by enrolling in Keller’s Junior Phenom Camp. But just because your kid attends a camp with “Phenom” in the name doesn’t mean he is one, just like if your kid attends NASA Space Camp it doesn’t mean he’s an astronaut. Walker himself never lives up to the hype that has served Keller so well. From a basketball perspective it would have been better for Demetrius to have learned some more ballhandling skills at an earlier age, to not have practiced the “Red Sea” (in which teammates part for an 11-year old Demetrius to dunk) or depend on low-post moves that just involved jumping higher than everyone else. When he stops growing, he's like a broken toy -- misfit and no longer needed.
In 8th grade, Demetrius Walker was on the cover of SI as the next chosen one and Lance Stephenson was being followed by a documentary crew. We have to trust the way (i.e. the system) that basketball players get to the NBA and become successful that it will allow the best to come out on top, that neither hard work, nor connections, nor the number of All-Star Camps they make will be the ultimate determinant of future success. Or perhaps the secret to the system is understanding it’s a sham all along. There’s no telling that if Demetrius had ignored the world of AAU ball, that he still wouldn’t be in the same position he is now: a talented kid playing Division I basketball, maybe or maybe not with enough to make it.
It’s worth comparing Play Their Hearts Out to The Blind Side, which is universally regarded as a great act of charity. The essential difference is that Keller made money off of Walker and that, from the beginning, he insinuated himself into Walker’s life for that express purpose. But he does care, in his way. In the most publicized piece of this book, Keller skipped his wife’s C-Section for a basketball tournament after counseling a 12 or 13 year old Demetrius for his opinion. Keller did refer to Demetrius as “like a son” and if he believed in him that strongly, maybe he should have tried to gain custody of him. His mom was in and out of the picture and Keller was paying part of her rent anyway. Would Keller come off as evil if he adopted Demetrius along the way?
Maybe having someone care about Walker was better than no one caring at all, even if Keller enabled Walker to a certain extent to create excuses for his poor play. Walker may have never been at these crossroads of opportunity without Keller putting these dreams in his head. That’s AAU and grassroots basketball’s deal with the devil: players do, ultimately, benefit from the relative stability and pseudo-management that figures like Keller provide. Walker’s drive ebbs and flows, his confidence sometimes wholly dependent upon how much Keller pays attention to him. That said, Dohrmann takes some pains to show that when Keller didn’t show attention to other kids, it derailed them.
Joe Keller could be viewed as a smart businessman, he could be viewed as having poor moral character, he could be unscrupulous, he could be smart, he is probably all these things. Demetrius Walker, young as he is, is sometimes the victim, sometimes the hero, and sometimes both -- depending on who’s paying attention. We can safely assume the same of LeBron; "taking my talents to South Beach" is either arrogant and backstabbing or both an homage to old friends and a show of loyalty to new ones. It doesn’t make them bad people -- not even Keller -- nor does it absolve them of blame. It makes them American to a fault. But you can’t really blame anyone for that, now can you?