Book Review: Play Their Hearts Out by George Dohrmann

“There’s nothing wrong with the Little League World Series that locking out the adults couldn’t cure.”  ~Mike Penner, Los Angeles Times

DohrmannIn 2000 George Dohrmann wrote a series of articles for the St. Paul Pioneer Press that ruined University of Minnesota basketball for me and a lot of Gopher fans… while winning for himself a Pulitzer Prize. In Play Their Hearts Out, Dohrmann has done the same thing now for amateur youth basketball, following a team of kids from Southern California and their monomaniacal coach over a number of years to write this highly readable and compelling book about a game that had to stop being fun for most of the participants well along the way.

Penner’s quote about the Little League World Series (that was once upon a time limited to just the championship game being broadcast on ABC’s Wide World of Sports, but has this summer (2010) become a daily staple on ESPN) applies equally well to the youth basketball Dohrmann followed from the inside for a number of years to research this book. Youth basketball would be much better for those who play it if adults– parent, coaches, and corporate sponsors– were locked out of the gyms.

Sports is big business. Maybe more so at the amateur level than even the professional level. Shoe companies and colleges lavish gifts on amateur coaches and player representatives. The goal is to find the next LeBron and the millions that go with him. The methods used Dohrmann learned are all too often intimidation, manipulation, and exploitation.

Basketball is a simple game. That is the myth. It is popular in the inner-cities because it is so cheap to play. You need hardly any space or equipment, only a ball and a hoop and blacktop heroes are born.

The reality is much more complicated. Sports have always been seen as the “way out” in America for the underclass. In the early part of the 20th Century the sport was baseball. The sons of coal miners and share croppers fought cleat and nail to get out and make the show. Before Jackie Robinson, of course, it was a color-divided dream they chased….

The youth basketball that Dohrmann describes is born of the same desperation that has always given America its sports heroes… and is tainted with the same under and overtones of race and class.

Dohrmann has done a great service with this book. Whether it will make a difference when so much money and hope is on the line… only time will tell. We can only hope.

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