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Play Their Hearts Out: youth basketball and the shoe purveyors (like Adidas, coming to Barclays Center) that are "going to do what's good for their companies" (plus: the Dwight Howard angle)

Basketball, the American game, the city game, the Brooklyn game--it takes armadas of talented youth, puts them through years of effort and hope and in many cases illusion, and a select few make it to college, with a trickle going pro, earning the riches to (in many cases) vault their families from poverty.

We see the successes most often, not the casualties, though we're hardly unaware. But the casualties go deep.

According to a gripping book about youth basketball, there's a lot of collateral damage, fueled by a star-making machine of hype (recruiters' newsletters and premature Sports Illustrated coverage); manipulation (AAU coaches promising the world but more in it for themselves), and money (sneaker companies wanting a piece of the action from ever younger kids, throwing swag to coaches, who can dangle it in front of recruits, as well as events they can run and earn six figures).

Sports Illustrated writer George Dohrmann's fascinating, not completely painful 2010 book, PLAY THEIR HEARTS OUT: A Coach, His Star Recruit, and the Youth Basketball Machine, tells the story, in part, of Demetrius Walker, a physically-gifted Californian who'd been named the best eighth-grader in the country and was unwisely deemed by SI, "14 going on LeBron."

He wasn't, and his Machiavellian coach, overburdened single mom, and understandable juvenile misjudgment, not to mention the end of his growth spurt, compounded his crash.

Walker's in college now, a sixth man, having made up some of the skills he never learned when his power outdistanced his peers, some of whom transcended the same team, thanks to wiser parenting and better high school coaching.

Walker was steered by his coach to the wrong high school, but may not have been as bad off as another teammate, whose mother got her rent paid for by Coach Joe Keller and thus remained in his sway.

Enter Adidas

The shoe companies get a good deal of the blame too, especially Adidas. In its competition with Nike and Reebok, Adidas pushes harder than ever.

Wanting a piece of Walker and his teammates, Adidas becomes the first company to sponsor an AAU team at the middle-school level, adding commercial pressure to the hoop dreams of kids more easily manipulated by coaches.

Adidas, of course, is opening its first store in Brooklyn at the Barclays Center, as announced 3/2/0/12. And Adidas, some suggest, is pushing Orlando superstar Dwight Howard to come to Brooklyn and the major media market. (Others say Adidas would be fine with Howard in the major media market of Los Angeles, as well. But SI suggests that Brooklyn still has the lead, even though the deal might not get done until December.)

The overview

From the blurb for the book:
The NBA has returned to prominence on the backs of such phenoms as LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, and Kevin Garnett. The media promotes them, the shoe companies pay them, and America applauds. But how exactly do such players reach the pros? What do they do to get there? And what happens to those who fall short?... It’s a cutthroat world where boys as young as eight and nine are subjected to a dizzying torrent of scrutiny and exploitation. Coaches vie to have them on their teams. Sneaker companies ply them with free shoes and gear. All-star "camps" are glorified cattle auctions, providing make-or-break opportunities to secure the promise of an elusive college scholarship and a possible NBA career. Following a team of pre-adolescents from its humble origins through national championships and high school, PLAY THEIR HEARTS OUT exposes a shady system in which talent is a commodity even before puberty and where big business rules the day.
Here's a review in the Times and an excerpt in SI. TrueHoop's Henry Abbott sees the book as the foundational document for reforming a corrupt system:
They dream of reforming American basketball development. All those coaches and runners buying and selling players. All those agents and sneaker companies bribing their way close to teenagers with potential. All those top players surrounded by, coached by, and essentially raised by, connivers -- while the best mentors in the world are fed up, marginalized, or out of elite development entirely. Nobody going to much trouble to see to it the athletes get an education, a decent childhood, good parenting or meaningful relationships.
Cleaning up the system: get the shoe companies out

Dohrmann was asked by the Times how to clean up the atmosphere surrounding A.A.U. basketball. His response:
Not until they kick the shoes companies out or find some alternative way to fund these teams. Academy teams supported by the N.B.A. teams is a possible solution you hear talked about. When Demetrius was 12, if had gone to play for the Lakers’ or Clippers’ youth teams, that would have eliminated the middleman of the A.A.U. coach. You’d have good basketball people and people who care about their education controlling the players.
Beyond that, I think if there was some sort of database that parents could look at that would say, hey, these are the coaches who have felony records, these are the coaches who worked with this N.B.A. player and those who haven’t, and you could have endorsements. Somewhere on there it could say something like Nike endorses this particular coach, so parents would know for sure.
Yahoo asked him if the book could instigate change. He was pessimisitic:
I don't know if it's possible. There's some debate over what the problem is, and I think if you read the book you know that the problem is with the developmental system of basketball. Until we remove the shoe companies' control and interests, it won't change. I'm not that optimistic that the book will spark any reform because the system is so corrupt and it's so embedded in the way that the talent comes up. But I at least hope that some important people like David Stern or the head of the NCAA or some prominent coaches do give it a glance and put aside this charade that Nike and Adidas are going to do what's good for basketball in America. They're going to do what's good for their companies and to think they're going to serve a dual purpose and take the high road is a joke that they need to stop perpetuating.
How clear was the exploitation?

Yahoo asked him when it become clear the boys were being exploited:
Early on, it was more complex than that. Joe did a lot for Demetrius. He took him to school, helped him with his homework and really was a father figure for Demetrius. It was sort of later as Demetrius' star rose, shoe companies got involved and money was on the table, then it became more about Joe setting himself up. You could see where that was going and how it was shifting. He started out with some good intentions but money got in the way.
The rise of AAU hoops

From an interview in SportsLetter, published by the nonprofit LA84 Foundation:
SL: At the time you began reporting the book, AAU basketball was getting a lot of publicity because of stars like Tyson Chandler and their ties to the sneaker companies. How did AAU basketball get to be so prominent within the culture of youth sports?

GD: It all started with the sneaker companies. In 1995, when [marketing executive] Sonny Vaccaro went to Adidas, they started sponsoring AAU coaches. That infused the game with money. By giving these AAU coaches money, you gave them power and you gave them control over the kids. This basically created a group of middlemen who NBA teams, agents and college coaches could go to to get access to the kids. Before, they had to go to their parents or their high school coaches.

Also, in 1995, Kevin Garnett got drafted [as a high school senior] and went straight to the NBA. So, it was this perfect storm of Sonny Vaccaro dumping money into the grassroots game, creating this sub-class of middlemen, and at the same time, everybody realizing that one of these guys is controlling the next Kevin Garnett.

SL: How would you characterize the role of the sneaker companies?
GD: It's like the old saying goes: follow the money. The sneaker companies infused the game with money. Previously, they had only done this with coaches of high school-aged kids. Then, for the first time ever, the shoe companies went down to the seventh- and eighth-grades of middle school and aligned themselves with those coaches. Joe Keller would not have been powerful if Adidas had not chosen to sponsor him. He's a perfect example of the shoe company's influence and how they operate. Here's this guy: he's a nobody, but he controls some kids. Adidas gets in with Joe and puts their shoes on Demetrius and the other boys and the viral marketing begins. Not only do they have the purse strings, but they tab guys like Joe and say, "You're now a power-broker." In the book, Joe talks about when you get the gear and the reputation that comes with shoe company sponsorship, you can buy people, you can control the market. That's what happened.
SL: Was it inevitable that the sneaker companies would reach beyond high school and start to sponsor teams of kids younger than the ninth grade?
GD: I think it was inevitable. What it took, though, was one guy who put together enough talent on one team, and that was Joe. I don't think Adidas would have pursued this strategy if it had just been about one kid. But they know how this business works – they know how to sell shoes. It's not their fault that they do it. They're just businessmen.
From the book: Keller "is so driven by it that it is scary"

In the book, the historically controversial Vaccaro, at Reebok and formerly Nike and Adidas, comes off as relatively ethical:
Vaccaro could have sponsored both [teams] SCA and the Inland Stars, but as he thought longer about the implications of signing a team of middle school kids to a shoe contract, he decided it was not something he wanted to add to his legacy. He was regularly lampooned for opening the doors for the shoe companies, agents, and other profiteers to infiltrate youth basketball, but over time he had found peace with his role....
Vaccaro liked to take stands, but being the first to sponsor a younger team didn't feel like a stand. It felt like lowering the bar,... It didn't help that, as he called around to further investigate Keller, he heard mixed reviews about his morals. "Look, we are all in it for the money, but from what I am hearing about Joe, he is so driven by it that it is scary," Vaccaro said.
And so is Adidas. Dohrmann writes:
Near the end of the meal, [Adidas executive Daren] Kalish moved to Keller's end of the table and laid out his philosophy on grassroots programs, which differed form Vaccaro's. "We don't care if Demetrius makes it to the NBA like Sonny does. We just care that we can market him now."
Vaccaro at one point warns about the dangers of hype, pointing to how a Brooklyn kid, Lenny Cooke, was once ranked as the top player in the country but had been dominated by a lesser-known teen named LeBron James. The latter, of course, is now an NBA superstar and Cooke, as detailed in a doleful account recently in the Times, never made it and still struggles.

The book describes an Adidas Superstar Camp, including 14-year-old Demetrius:
They [17 hoopsters] were termed "highlight Athletes," and Adidas considered them the elite of the elite. They would be pushed to media outlets and photographed the most and, in the competition between the shoe companies to control the best kids, those seventeen would be used as proof that Adidas held its own with Nike and Rebook.
By the end of the book, the author deems Keller "the Sonny of middle schoolers." It's not a compliment.

An interview with Vaccaro

This 11/18/11 Frontline interview with Vaccaro shows a man deeply angry at the commercialization and exploitation of players, a process he acknowledged he was fundamental to the shoe business. Some excerpts:
It befuddles me to sit here this late 2010-2011 basketball season arguing this moot point of the commercialism of sport when they themselves bartered out every student-athlete on their teams to wear the product of the companies that they sold to.
...They sold the rights; I didn't sell the rights. I sold the rights to the NCAA, to the universities, "I" being the shoe companies. They accepted it.
I don't get this. When they sit down and they'll arbitrarily throw out people's names and say, "The bastardization of sports," or whatever, and "They did this or did that," all we did was make a business deal that the other side accepted.
... If they don't sign this, they probably wouldn't be playing for that school. Or if they refused to, they'll probably lose their scholarship. It's a one-sided contract forced on an individual that's forced to remain what they deem amateurism. The question I'm going to ask this program is, why doesn't this make them a professional, since the employer is the school? ...
...I did a business deal with the universities. Protecting those kids was their job -- not mine, not Phil's. They had the obligation not to sell their souls -- not me. I went there like any businessperson, and I represented the people I work for with all the good intentions. At every point it could have been stopped. 

The Adidas press release
adidas [officially lower-case] is coming to Brooklyn.

The innovative sports and retail company has formed a momentous integrated partnership with Barclays Center, which includes adidas operating the Nets Shop in the arena. The Nets Shop by adidas will be the retailer's first store in Brooklyn, New York City's largest borough with more than 2.6 million people.

Featuring a full range of Nets official merchandise, the Nets Shop by adidas will include jerseys, men's and women's tee shirts, jackets and other extensive apparel and items. The Nets Shop by adidas will be located on the main concourse level of the 18,000-seat world-class Barclays Center, which will open on September 28, 2012. While accessible from inside the arena during events, the Nets Shop by adidas will also be open to visitors as a retail store through a direct street-level entrance by Flatbush Avenue when the arena is not hosting an event. In addition, there will be two adidas branded built-in Nets merchandise stands on the north and south sides of the main concourse.

The official outfitter of the National Basketball Association, adidas has been providing innovative products for the world's best athletes for more than 50 years, including several NBA All Star players today.


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