For the most devoted sports fans, there is no shortage of avenues to explore the machinations behind what we see on television or in the stadiums. With an Internet connection and a library card, the devoted follower can plumb the depths of all manner of statistics, anecdotes, legends and game analysis. The only risk (aside from alienating your loved ones as you sink all your free time into your fantasy league team) is that you could learn more than you'd like to know.
The NBA is no exception; Despite (or more likely because of) the fairy tale-esque ascension of superstars along the lines of LeBron James, Kobe Bryant and Kevin Durant, only the most naive of fans would think that the path to professional basketball is free of backroom dealings, player manipulation and straight-ahead politics. George Dohrmann, a senior writer at Sports Illustrated, earned a Pulitzer Prize in 2000 while at the St. Paul Pioneer Press for his exposé of academic fraud in the men's basketball program at the University of Minnesota.
A couple of years later, after writing a story for Sports Illustrated about corruption in sports that led to no consequences for the unethical coaches, Dohrmann set himself to digging deeper into grass-roots basketball to find some answers.
Grass-roots league coach Joe Keller -- a minor source in Dohrmann's earlier reporting -- agreed to give the reporter unrestricted access. The caveat was that Dohrmann wouldn't publish anything until after Keller's current crop of players had "become famous." By this point, Keller reasoned, he would be so wealthy that it would no longer matter what was exposed; he would no longer need to protect his position in the league. Thus, Dohrmann had complete access to the street-level games and leagues from which future NBA stars are plucked.
Nearly a decade later, we have "Play Their Hearts Out." Dohrmann snuffs out any notion that this book is merely a padded article from word one; there are complex, intertwined and riveting stories here of urban teenagers led to believe that they are the second coming of Jordan. Dohrmann follows one such player closely. Demetrius Walker -- Coach Keller's secret weapon, his golden ticket -- has the chops, the heart and the anointment (Sports Illustrated profiled him at age 14, declaring Walker to be "the next LeBron").
The likelihood that you've ever heard of this sensation -- well, there's a spoiler. My apologies. The aforementioned risk of losing blissful ignorance fades out once Dohrmann's story takes you. While there's a heaping helping of corruption, Dohrmann never resorts to pedantic lecturing. He doesn't shy away from the seamy underbelly -- it's there, but it's only a piece of the story being told here. Like other great works of sports journalism, the book whitewashes nothing and simultaneously makes you love the game all over again.
Matthew Tiffany is a clinical counselor and writer in Maine.