On Saturday, Pulitzer Prize-winning writer George Dohrmann will discuss the culture of youth sports as part of the Arkansas Literary Festival. In 2000, the Sports Illustrated investigative reporter started documenting the lives of talented grade-school basketball players in southern California.
For eight years, he followed these players and their fiery coach as they gained national acclaim by becoming the first middle school team to score a shoe deal while producing a player ranked No. 1 nationally among middle schoolers — Demetrius Walker. Dohrmann's work was published in his first book "Play Their Hearts Out," which he will discuss at 2:30 p.m. Saturday during a free appearance on the first floor of the Main Library. Dohrman lives in San Francisco, and finds release from the sports world by building furniture and restoring trolley fareboxes.
Welcome to Arkansas. What brings you to this festival?
Jay Jennings, one of the guys who organizes the festival, is a former Sports Illustrated writer. He reached out to me. I’m happy the logistics worked out and I was able to make it.
Have you been to the state before?
In 2001, I flew into Northwest Arkansas to help report on a guy who burned swastikas and obscenities with acid into the greens at Southern Hills Country Club [in Tulsa], where they had the U.S. Open. It turned out to be this guy who was living up in Eureka Springs. When we found him, he was just playing a guitar.
Wild. Off the top of your head, have you written about any Arkansans?
I was in Las Vegas at Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) tournament, and I met an Arkansan sitting in the stands. He was a really nice guy, and we started talking. He pointed out his son who was playing and was pretty good. He gave me his card. It turns out he was a CEO, and I think his last name was Tyson. I was like ‘Whoa.’... it sort of struck me as a potential storyline somewhere but it never really worked out.
How can a book about youth basketball appeal to a general audience?
I think it’s a book about parenting. I spent a great deal of time in the book dealing with the choices the parents of these kids make, and their background. Their good choices and bad choices and how it’s affecting their children. It’s certainly about business; I take a really hard look at how the shoe companies market and their different strategies when it comes to young players in this country.
Why did you write it?
If I had to whittle it down, the raw reason was I wanted to show what happened to the kids. We always hear about the guys who make it, and also about the sort of spectacular flameouts. We also hear about the Lenny Cookes and the Shea Cottons of the world. So we hear about the big busts and the successes, but we sort of never know about the middle class and the toll that [high-pressure organized youth sports] takes on the kids.
You completed an MFA in creative writing in 2006. Why did you enter the program?
It was a chance to push myself. It forced me to read things that I normally wasn’t reading. As a journalist, you’re normally more focused on the reporting than the writing. But this was really forcing me to think about the craft. Secondly, it helped me organize. To get an MFA, you have to turn in a thesis which is like a 200-page book. Well, for me, I just tried to turn in the first 200 pages of my book.
You stopped most of your reporting for “Play Their Hearts Out” in 2008. By then, the Real Deal on the Hill, a youth basketball tournament based in Northwest Arkansas, was emerging as a big deal. Did anybody in your circles mention it?
It was definitely heard about. I think one or two of the boys [featured in “Play Their Hearts Out”] went to that event. At that point, all the boys — who were high schoolers — were playing on different teams. When we first started out, they were on the same team.
The Real Deal on the Hill, now called the Real Deal in the Rock and based in Little Rock, starts in a couple weeks. Any advice for basketball fans who want to attend but may feel cognitive dissonance after learning about the world surrounding some of its participants?
For fans who go to these events, you could see 10 future NBA players in an afternoon. So there’s something very titillating about that when you know, ‘Yeah, that guy’s probably gonna be in the League.’ But so many of them in the tournaments as a whole won’t even make it college, that it’s sort of smart to just settle down and not focus who’s gonna be the next this and that and just enjoy the basketball.
A new rule change will allow college coaches to attend Real Deal in the Rock, now the nation’s largest spring youth basketball tournament. They hadn’t been allowed into the gym the last four years. What does this change?
It will change the vibe of the event. On one side of the court will be the parents and fans, and on the other side will be the coaches. Every big name in coaching will be there. The stakes will be really ratcheted up.
Let’s talk Bobby Petrino. You’ve covered plenty coaching scandals in your career. Is this Petrino mess unique?
Petrino is an example of what’s so fascinating and so typical about these powerful coaches.They get to a point where they feel they are untouchable. I wrote about [former Ohio State coach] Jim Tressel last year, showing how he had cultivated this image of being this senatorial, perfect person. And then he was a big cheater. At every point in his career, he cheated. These guys are mythmakers, they are in their own myth and we’re supposed to be surprised when they end up being far less than perfect? Bobby Petrino would not have gotten fired if he didn’t open the University of Arkansas up to significant legal issues.
Given the acrimony he’s left following departures at Louisville, Atlanta and Arkansas, do you think Petrino will ever coach again at the NFL or major college level?
I think he will coach again. The question is at what level, and will it be a head job or a coordinator’s job or something like that. His track record is so good it will be enticing for some school to get him a job. We’ve seen this again and again. It would not surprise me at all if he showed up at, say, UAB [University of Alabama at Birmingham] one day. Look, Michael Vick tortured animals and he’s still making millions and playing the NFL. Bobby Petrino can certainly coach again. Our capacity to forgive those who can win us football games is boundless.
In college, you worked for the Los Angeles Times where there was a two- or three-person team dedicated to investigative sports reporting. What’s that job entail?
Stuff would happen at USC, or UCLA or a pro team and the beat writers would be able to turn stuff over to the investigative team and they could investigate without fear of losing access or endangering a coach or things these beat writers tend to worry more about. It was a very effective tool because you had very smart reporters who were not beholden to anybody, not beholden to writing game stories and features, who were just watchdogs.
If there had been a full-time investigative sports reporter whose beat included the University of Arkansas athletic department, I wonder if that person could have prevented or mitigated what seems to have been Petrino’s self-destruction.
Did anybody on the beat at Arkansas know that Petrino was gallivanting around with a woman in the athletic department? It’s possible, it’s possible there were whispers. But to investigate whispers comes with repercussions if you’re the beat writer. If you’re trying to figure out Bobby Petrino’s personal life and he gets wind of that, what is that gonna mean for you as the beat writer? But if that beat writer can turn it over to someone who understands the sports world, someone who is dogged and is really gonna look into these things, then that is just something so valuable to the newspaper and to the community.
Evin Demirel writes more about sports and society with an Arkansas focus at thesportsseer.com.