Examining the seedy underworld of grassroots AAU basketball
Demetrius Walker and his coach, Joe Keller, were at the Rancho Cucamonga (Calif.) Family Sports Center early in 2003 when a young man Demetrius guessed to be about twenty years old entered the gym. Demetrius did not recognize him, but Keller hurried over and they hugged, and he then led the young man to where Demetrius sat lacing his shoes.
"D, this is Keilon," Keller said. "He used to play for Pat [Barrett]. He's going to work out with you."
Demetrius looked at Keilon, more than a little confused. Keilon was a man, with several tattoos on his arms and a chiseled physique. Why is he going to work out with me? Demetrius thought. But he didn't say anything. If Coach Joe wanted him to work out with Keilon, there must be a good reason.
Demetrius and Keilon loosened up and ran a bit, but eventually the practice turned into a prolonged game of one-on-one. It was, however, the most lopsided game of one-on-one in history. Keilon was the quickest guard Demetrius had ever seen, with the sweetest handle, and he could drive past Demetrius whenever he wanted. They were about the same height, around 6-feet, so when Demetrius had the ball he couldn't just back in and shoot over him. When he tried to dribble past, Keilon either cut him off or robbed him of the ball.
During one possession, Demetrius tried a crossover move, but Keilon easily picked the ball from him. "You can't show the ball like that. Do it like this," Keilon said, and he yo-yoed the ball to the right, then quickly to the left, and then burst past Demetrius for a layup. Later, Demetrius tried to drive, but Keilon slid in front of him, so Demetrius threw up a soft runner in the lane. "You can't get away with that bulls--- against good players," Keilon said. "Go strong to the basket. You've got to be fearless."
His comments were not mocking but instructional, and Demetrius soaked them in. He began looking forward to the individual workouts with Keilon, rushing into the gym and quickly lacing up his shoes, eagerly waiting for Keilon to arrive. Over the next month and a half, as they continued to work out together, Demetrius learned bits of information about Keilon's past. He had played on the Southern California All-Stars team that lost to Tyson Chandler and Keller in 1996. He attended Compton Dominguez High with Chandler but was sent to Camp Kilpatrick in Malibu, a state-run juvenile detention school, where he also played basketball, and in 2001 was named the Southern Section Division V co-player of the year.
"It's just part of growing up where I did," Keilon told Demetrius about why he had been sent to Camp Kilpatrick. "Sometimes you've got to do things to protect yourself."
Demetrius did not hear that Keilon escaped from Camp Kilpatrick after an all-star game in May 2001. (He was eventually caught, his sentence at Kilpatrick extended.) Demetrius was also unaware that Keilon was trying to catch on with a junior college team because no Division I schools wanted him, due to poor grades and his criminal past. He did not know that Keilon needed money and had called Keller, who agreed to slip him a few bucks if he worked out his young star.
During one session, another former Barrett player arrived at the gym. He was 6-foot-4 and was introduced to Demetrius as "Olujimi." He was several years older than Keilon but they were friends, and Olujimi took a turn instructing Demetrius. "Man, he is just so strong," Demetrius told Keller after the practice. Keller did not tell Demetrius that Olujimi had verbally committed to UCLA in 1995 as a junior at Santa Ana Valley High but that poor grades and a Pac-10 Conference investigation into a car he'd received from Barrett soured the Bruins' interest. Demetrius did not hear how Olujimi tried to get back on track at the junior college level but that by 2003 the NBA dreams of a player once likened to Oscar Robertson were all but dead.
Demetrius came to view Keilon and Olujimi as mentors, older brothers, and he was heartbroken when the pair suddenly stopped showing up for workouts. One day they were there, teaching him all their tricks, and the next they were gone, with no explanation from Keller as to why. He wondered if they'd tired of hanging out with a 12-year-old, if he wasn't a good enough player or wasn't cool enough for them. Eventually they washed from his memory, ghosts from his grassroots past, great players forgotten until someone brought them up one day much later and he said, "Man, Keilon and Olujimi could ball. Whatever happened to them?"
When they plunge into the grassroots world, parents and kids are bombarded with success stories. From Keller, they learn how he found Tyson Chandler. From Barrett, they hear how NBA players like Tayshaun Prince and Josh Childress wouldn't be in the NBA if it weren't for him. Other coaches have their own tales, and the message is the same: Trust me, and your son can also achieve basketball riches. There are no disclosure rules in grassroots basketball, and thus parents rarely hear about the ?ameouts. Barrett never talks about Keilon Fortune and Olujimi Mann and the other seemingly sure?re stars who ?opped under his tutelage. He doesn't mention the directionless lives they led after they failed to reach the heights he'd promised them, how as adults they continued to ask him for money as they had as teenagers, and how he continued to give them handouts because he didn't know another way to help them.
Even if parents were aware of these unhappy endings, it is doubtful they would boycott AAU basketball, because they know how vital it is to their children's chances of landing a college scholarship. When they ?rst look into placing their kids on a team, parents are confronted with a chicken-or-egg question. It begins with an irrefutable fact agreed upon by everyone: that the majority of American players who go on to play in college and the NBA pass through the grassroots system. Proponents of the system say that pitting talented kids against one another forces them to play the game at a higher level, thus developing them into college and pro players. Critics of the system believe that if you abolished grassroots basketball, the same kids would still get scholarships, because they possess the most talent. The argument can be reduced to this question: Do kids become elite by playing grassroots basketball, or are they top players already and AAU coaches just latch on to them?
For parents, the debate is meaningless. They have no choice but to put their sons into the grassroots machine. They do, however, have a choice on which coach they choose and how much they trust them.
One can't help but wonder if parents would still choose Barrett if they heard the tales of Keilon and Olujimi and other Barrett-led ?ops like Schea Cotton. Would he remain the most powerful coach in Southern California if, when parents were deciding between him and another coach, they were told the story of Kenny Brunner?
A stocky guard with bulging calves and a bowlegged gait, Brunner preceded Chandler by three years in the SCA pipeline. His quickness and toughness were unmatched by other lead guards in Southern California at that time, and he became one of the nation's top prospects. Just as with Chandler, Barrett lured him from another AAU team when he was 13 and eventually sent him to Compton Dominguez High. "That Nike contract allowed Pat to do a lot of things other programs couldn't do," Brunner said. "Every kid wants Nikes. When I was 13, he gave me a care pack of shoes. That's what we called it, a 'care pack.' It was ?ve pairs of shoes and all the jerseys and the T-shirts you needed to be the prettiest basketball player."
Like Chandler, Brunner had reservations about going to run-down Dominguez High, which is situated in one of the worst areas of Los Angeles. He grew up in Inglewood and wanted to go to Dorsey High with his neighborhood friends. But he was a Nike kid with SCA, and Barrett pushed him to attend a Nike-sponsored high school. From a basketball perspective, Dominguez was good for Brunner. He led the team to state titles in 1996 and 1997 and played in tournaments all over the country.
Coupled with his travels with SCA in the spring and summer, he was seen by every major college and landed a scholarship to Georgetown. That should have been reward enough -- a full ride to a great school in the Big East Conference -- but for Brunner it felt like a step back. When he played for Barrett, he could do whatever he wanted, because the only aim was to keep him happy. Barrett took him on shopping sprees that ended with Brunner owning hundreds of dollars in shoes and clothing. When he needed money for food or to take a girl on a date, he asked Barrett and was never turned away. Barrett bought him a car and gave him gas money; he even paid an insurance deductible when Brunner got into an accident. At Georgetown, Brunner had trouble adjusting to playing for tuition only and didn't respond to authority. To no one's surprise, he left after a dispute with the coach over playing time. He enrolled at Fresno State but was dismissed after he and another player were famously charged with robbing another student with a samurai sword. Later, he was accused of robbing a junior college coach at gunpoint, though he said he was only demanding money that he was promised. Although he was eventually cleared in both incidents, Brunner never played Division I basketball again.
Certainly all of Brunner's misdeeds can't be blamed on Barrett. But Brunner believes his basketball career was destined for failure the moment Barrett entered his life. "I went for years where I could do whatever I wanted, and then I was supposed to go to college and change? Now I understand why so many kids who played for Pat have left colleges. With Pat, there is no stability, because, if you remember, it started with him taking us off other teams. ... If you look at every player -- you look at me, you look at Olujimi, the best point guard I've ever seen, you look at Schea and Keilon -- we were all blue chippers, great, great players. But Pat corrupted our minds. I'm not saying it's all Pat's fault, but I've been a professional since I was 13 years old."
Coaches like Barrett give and give, and some people will see nothing wrong with that. Shoes, nice clothes, a car -- Brunner and many SCA players might never have had such things if not for Barrett's generosity. Barrett also gave them a goal -- the NBA -- and is it so wrong to give a young life a purpose? Viewed only through a broad lens, the actions of coaches like Barrett can appear reasonable, even altruistic. But from the age of 13, Brunner believed unequivocally that he would make the NBA. Barrett, the closest thing he ever had to a father, had told him so. NBA riches became a guarantee, not the reward for sacri?ce.
The greatest crime committed by Barrett and coaches like him is that they bleach the drive out of some of America's most gifted players by failing to teach them that the foundation for success is a catalog of failures. These coaches' fates and fortunes are so tightly tied to their players, they never chance them being disappointed or angry or sad, which could prompt a defection to a rival coach. Rather than push their players, rather than make them work to improve, Barrett and his ilk coddle them, and in doing so fail to teach one of the realities of basketball: Those who succeed are usually the hardest workers.
Eventually, players like Brunner or Mann or Cotton or Fortune either fold at the ?rst sign of real adversity or avoid challenges altogether. They never become better players than they were at the moment when Barrett discovered them, and they drift from the basketball scene. Their legacy becomes the woebegone gym talk of AAU coaches comparing failures. "Kenny Brunner was one of the best point guards I ever saw," a coach will say. "Too bad he didn't have his head on straight." It goes unmentioned how his head got twisted in the ?rst place.
In 2000, Brunner was playing for a newly formed American Basketball Association franchise in San Diego, clinging to one of the bottom rungs of minor-league basketball. "Please don't make me look like a mis?t," he said when I asked him to talk about Barrett. He was worn down from all the negative press he'd received, which began after he departed Georgetown ("The biggest mistake of my life"). Sitting in a chair on the sideline of the court at the San Diego Sports Arena, he watched as his teammates warmed up before a game. Among them was Lloyd Daniels, once a streetball legend in New York, nicknamed Swee'Pea. Though he spent a few seasons in the NBA, drug abuse and other missteps prevented Daniels from ever reaching his full potential. He was widely viewed as a player who could have been so much more, and Brunner, only 20 years old when we spoke, had a similar aura hovering over him. He was adrift in the basketball netherworld; after the ABA would come the CBA and the NBDL -- all the acronyms except the one that Barrett had promised him long ago.
When asked how he might have avoided becoming a victim of the grassroots machine, Brunner gave a simple answer: "Help."
"When Pat found me, my dad was around but not around. Mom, she was not involved in my basketball activities. Grandma was too old. So I did the whole process by myself."
None of the players on Keller's team, the Inland Stars, was in Brunner's predicament, but the level of help they received varied. By 2003, Kisha Walker was at best a peripheral ?gure in Demetrius's basketball life. She stopped attending away tournaments and made fewer locals ones as well. When Keller bragged to other coaches, "I make the decisions about Demetrius," he wasn't exaggerating. The same was true for Terran Carter. Not long after he defected from the Runnin' Rebels, he was spending nights at Keller's apartment or sleeping at Demetrius's house. The two boys became close -- Terran the dutiful sidekick to Demetrius's bandleader -- because of the volume of time Terran spent in the Inland Empire. Rachel Carter lived more than 70 miles away in Chatsworth and had two other children. Leaving Terran with Keller was easier than spending three hours in the car shuttling him back and forth to practice and games. Soon, Keller spoke of directing Terran's future the same way he did of Demetrius's. "I'm thinking about holding D and Terran back a year in school," Keller told me. "They're young for their class." When I asked what Kisha and Rachel thought of this, he said, "It only matters what I think."
Rob Bock and Rome Draper, Sr., were more involved and knew most of what happened with their sons, Andrew and Rome Jr., but they possessed a naïveté perilous in the grassroots game. This manifested itself most obviously in how they trusted that Keller would always do right by their boys simply because they had been with the team since its inception. After Pe'Shon Howard, Justin Hawkins, and Darius Morris joined the team, I assumed the men would be concerned that their sons' playing time would be cut. In fact, I didn't see how it wouldn't be cut. Yet Rob said, "We've been with Joe since the beginning. He wouldn't treat us like that."
John Finn was more suspicious of Keller and, for a while, was the only father who possessed what most would consider a healthy dose of skepticism. But John was more obsessed than the others with how to best position his son to get a college scholarship, and that was his blind spot. If convinced that something was in the best interest of Jordan's future, he would endure a lot to stay the course. It was John, after all, who so believed in Keller's initial salesmanship that he moved his family from Orange County to the Inland Empire to be closer to the team's base.
While not exactly exposed in the way that Kenny Brunner had been, Demetrius, Terran, Rome, Andrew, and Jordan appeared, at the least, to be in harm's way if the hopes their parents had for Keller turned out to be misplaced. Hope that he would be a good father ?gure, hope that he would be loyal to the kids he started with, hope that he held the key to a college scholarship -- so many futures riding on a man who to that point had accomplished little more than the printing of a ?yer full of falsities.