Readers of your book might be reminded of the 1994 documentary Hoop Dreams, which closely follows two high school basketball players in Chicago over five years. Was that movie a source of inspiration?

When I set out to do the book there were a couple projects like Hoop Dreams that, because of their scope, I drew inspiration from. I reread There Are No Children Here by Alex Kotlowitz and A Prayer for the City by Buzz Bissinger, and then Adrian Nicole LeBlanc’s Random Family was published, which was a few years into my reporting. The challenge was always going to be turning so much reporting, this eight-year arc, into a compelling narrative. That those authors and Steve James (the director of Hoop Dreams) pulled it off gave me some hope.

The updates on your blog about the kids and coaches and faces from Play Their Hearts Out really expand this universe and create the impression that the final chapter of the book is still being written. How has the Internet and the digital age changed your job as a journalist and sports writer over the years?

I really became aware of this shift when the boys hit high school and they all got cell phones and e-mail accounts. Some of the boys who maybe weren’t that comfortable talking with me in person or over the phone were willing to exchange text messages or e-mails. With them and all the athletes I interview, it is important to identify the form of communication that they are most comfortable with. For example, Demetrius likes talking on the phone; Justin [Hawkins] enjoys trading Tweets; Roberto [Nelson] is more of a Facebook person. Knowing their preferences makes a difference.

You’ve remained close with many of the players from the book. When you first started this project, did you ever foresee that they would one day become a big part of your life? Was it difficult to maintain a journalistic distance?

I didn’t foresee that, though I probably should have. Spending so many years around the players and the parents, it created a different dynamic than the one I typically have with subjects. I was more invested, although it took me a few years before I realized how much I cared. I’d tell someone, “I’m going down to L.A. to see my kids,” and if they didn’t know about the book project they’d ask, “You have kids?” It became important to set boundaries.

First, I constantly reminded everyone that I was a journalist working on a book. Even though I was pulling for them the same way a parent would, they also couldn’t forget that I was chronicling everything. I would constantly tell them, “That is going in the book,” and I would do it with happenings that I knew they wouldn’t be pleased to read about. I also did my best not to influence events. If I felt like my words would sway a kid or parent in a certain direction, I would choose my words wisely and more often than not I would tell them to look elsewhere for council.

You’ve suggested in other interviews that the NBA should abolish its age limit and create a farm system in the mold of European soccer clubs, to nurture young talent and shield these kids from the grassroots system. It has much more pressing problems at the moment, of course, but do you feel the NBA is genuinely concerned about cleaning up grassroots basketball?

The NBA is not genuinely interested and I understand why: It would be expensive to implement that kind of system. As far as the NBA is concerned the current setup, while inefficient and corrupt, still churns out enough talents like LeBron James and Kevin Durant to keep NBA teams stocked. So, there is no impetus for change. I’d like to think that David Stern would learn about what happens to kids like Demetrius and Aaron and realize it serves a greater good to revamp the youth basketball system in this country, but first and foremost he is running a business. He isn’t going to direct his teams to invest millions of dollars to create a new setup when it isn’t absolutely necessary for the welfare of the NBA.

With the entire NBA season now in jeopardy, it looks like the college game might be all we have for a while. Who do you like this year?

You could place the games I watch in two groups. There are those games I watch for my job with Sports Illustrated, and those games I watch as a fan rooting for the boys from the book. As an SI writer, I’d say watch out for UConn. They are young at spots but have a ton of talent. I also like Texas A&M. As a fan, I’d say that Demetrius is going to play well for New Mexico, and watch out for Roberto at Oregon State. He’s going to have a big year.