The book Play Their Hearts Out by George Dohrmann is required reading in many NBA offices. The book is a case study for the route that many NBA players are taking. It is helping NBA executives empathize with players who have trouble confronting obstacles. After reading it myself, I believe it is a valuable book for high school and youth coaches to read as well. Joe Keller, the book’s antagonist, does many things that coaches should not resort to. Here are ten themes I learned from Keller on what not to do in coaching basketball.
1. Don’t Drop out of the Handshake line.
Dohrmann illustrates several examples in which Keller shows no regard for sportsmanship. At the end of one game, the two coaches withdrew from the handshake line. The game was heated, but the players still shook hands. What purpose does it serve? Even if the other coach is completely detestable, a coach should not take it out on the twelve-year olds that actually played the game. The players see this behavior and eventually emulate it. Additionally, Keller won games by ridiculous scoring margins. He did so by keeping the press on and reinserting his best player late to put an exclamation point on the affair. Again, what purpose does it serve?
2. Don’t sever a relationship.
Keller’s best player on the team is Demetrius Walker. Keller meets Walker as a young boy and then becomes a father figure for Demetrius up until high school. The team wins the AAU national title and Adidas offers Keller a contract. While running camps in the middle school age group that make him a fortune, Keller basically cuts off ties with Demetrius as Demetrius enters high school. Demetrius reaches out to Keller for help while transferring from school to school, but Keller ignores his pleas.
Inevitably coaches move on and players move on. It is still important to keep in touch. Alumni or former players (depending on the level you coach) may need letters of recommendations, be willing to help during summers, and could become friends for a lifetime. Being invested in the long-term success of your players is one of the most rewarding aspects of coaching.
3. Don’t take credit for the win.
Many years after the team won the AAU national championship, Dohrmann sees the trophy in Keller’s house. He proceeds to ask him given all the fortune he has achieved as a result of the players if he will give it to the players. Keller quickly shot the idea down saying that he earned the trophy.
It is laughable, but also a little sickening that Keller held this perspective. Coaches are only a part of the equation. Contrast Keller’s perspective with that of Bill Belichick. Belichick is not exactly the most compassionate person at press conferences, but he always credits the players and the staff.
4. Don’t lie.
Keller would tell parents that the team had an apparel contract well before they did. He lied about relationships he had with coaches like Bobby Knight to appeal to parents who wanted their children to get college scholarships. He routinely lied to a parent about touring historically and culturally significant places between games. Instead he made his team take up a position that basketball is more important than education. Not surprisingly, some of his former players struggled with drug addiction and motivation in high school.
Eventually people discover liars for the frauds that they are. Let hard work do the talking. If the coach earns everything, it will not be as hard to sell the players on doing the same.
5. Don’t coddle.
Keller and other big-time AAU coaches continuously fail to confront players for their bad habits on and off the court. Once Keller secured the deal with Adidas, players were getting four new pairs of shoes at once. They did not need them, but by giving into the materialistic desires of the players, they were creating a bond that made it harder for these players to leave.
As if that were not enough, executives from Adidas would fret about being gentile on players because of the threat that they could leave for another apparel company. By the time some of these spoiled players arrived at college, coaches could not corral them because they were used to getting their way.
6. Don’t praise the uncontrollable.
Players from the class of 2028 are ranked right now. That is third grade. If you tell a third grader that they are the best, they are going to want to stare in the mirror for a while. Inevitably the competition will catch up. Praise work ethic, decision-making, or leadership. Praising a player by telling them where they rank is dangerous and a deterrent to growth because they do not have control over it.
Demetrius was ranked as the top player in the country for his age at one point on the cover of Sports Illustrated as “the next LeBron.” He played Division I college basketball which is an incredible achievement, but he always struggled mentally to fulfill the expectations of becoming the next LeBron.
7. Don’t celebrate individual over team.
Keller made no secret that Demetrius was the best player on the team. That by itself is reasonable. It helps justify playing time and decisions made in close games. Keller took it much further in the way he worshipped Demetrius. Demetrius was allowed to do his own thing in pregame while the team warmed up. He wore different sneakers than the rest of the team.
If a player is coming back from injury and needs to get loose differently, explain that to the team from the outset. When players routinely go in a different direction than the other ten or eleven are pulling without good reason, intervention is required. The team is always the greatest ego. Even in the case of Demetrius who was the “number one player in the nation.” Players are best served learning to fall in line with everyone else. In my own experience, navigating this is much easier to say than to do. There is a balance of celebrating individuals mixed in, but the majority of your energy and time needs to go back to the team.
8. Don’t teach fancy.
Joe Keller failed to teach fundamental skills to players. Keller spent an inordinate amount of time teaching an inbound play during practice that resulted in an alley-oop. The play was put in as a marketing device more than a basketball strategy. At the time, the team dominated games and utilized this play for wow-factor in blow outs. It rarely worked and did not make any of the players better.
Coaches should focus on fundamentals over the fancy plays. Players will work on behind the back passes and alley oops on their own time. Do not reinforce bad habits.
9. Don’t be consumed by reputation.
In one tournament, Keller wanted to leave early because of the threat of losing to a team they had just beaten. To play them again and lose meant losing the “street credit title” of best team in the tournament. Keller claimed they had a flight to catch. In other words, he put the team’s reputation over competition.
Coaches cannot be perfect. Mistakes, failures, and losses coupled with their opposites create optimal motivation. Unfortunately, Demetrius followed Keller’s example and also grew shy of competition. During one showcase in front of college coaches he hid in a bathroom. Typical of any fixed mindset, the fear of losing his ranking was greater than the desire to grow from competition.
10. Don’t have all the answers.
Keller said he learned by doing and not by studying. He never watched film of his team, did not attend coaching clinics, and only later down the line did he give in to assistant coaches. Lies and sleazy sales techniques got the team he started off the ground. He got rich off basketball, so you can argue his methodology was effective. I believe that if he watched film, networked with other coaches, and consulted other opinions he would have been even better off.