Talk hoops all year long in Luke Winn's blog, a journal of commentary, news and reader-driven discussions about the college game.
9/23/2007 09:57:00 PM
The Godfather Goes to Law School
NEW HAVEN, Conn. -- Among the fliers in the main hall at Yale Law School was an advertisement for a lecture, in room 128, by "The Most Influential Man in Basketball." There was a small photo on the sheet, of a man standing next to a high-school age LeBron James, smiling, wearing a gray sweater. That would be Sonny Vaccaro, who recently left summer basketball behind to go on the speaking circuit. And there he was, inside room 128 at the No. 1-ranked law school in the country on Friday afternoon, telling students, "I need you guys."
Vaccaro was at the center of the summer basketball scene for so long that he's been called "the Godfather of Grassroots", having worked for the Holy Trinity of footwear -- first Nike, then Adidas, then Reebok -- over a 30-year stretch that began in 1977. "Grassroots" is the term shoe companies use for their sponsorship of AAU teams, summer camps and summer tournaments.
In the minds of the marketers, it's an accurate definition -- it's how they get the brand directly on the high-profile kids' feet -- but hoops fundamentalists find it highly euphemistic, as they believe the sneaker wars have taken a negative toll on the development of American basketball talent. Partly as a result of this heat, Vaccaro hung up his tracksuit this spring, leaving two years on a contract with Reebok and shutting down the famed ABCD Camp that he'd run since 1984. The summer circuit was reorganized in what some viewed as attempt to push Vaccaro out of the picture.
But rather than fading away into retirement, Vaccaro has undertaken a new grassroots movement: He's urging law students to take action on his two most "pressing" causes, which are challenging the NBA's mandate that American players must be one year removed from high school to enter the draft, and eliminating the NCAA's infinite ownership of rights to the images of players when they were student-athletes. Vaccaro's East Coast speaking tour includes stops at Harvard (Sept. 19), Yale (Sept. 21) and Maryland (Sept. 26), because, he says, a student at an institution the ilk of where he attended -- Youngstown State -- "isn't going to have access to the world" like the Ivy Leaguers will.
"Everything I ever did was to promote the individual," Vaccaro said as explanation for a career in which he pioneered the signing of college coaches and athletic departments to shoe deals, and inked Michael Jordan, Tracy McGrady and Kobe Bryant to their first major footwear deals. The assemblage of approximately 40 included Yale Law Students, Yale athletic director Tom Beckett, the school's basketball team and coach James Jones.
Vaccaro's speech, which lasted nearly two hours, ranged from comedy (of the ease of signing former UNLV coach Jerry Tarkanian to his initial Nike contract: "Tark would take money from a dead man") to intense discussion of ethical issues (in response to a student's question of whether his signing of Anna Kournikova to Adidas at the age of 12 was premature: "TOO YOUNG? WHAT THE HELL IS TOO YOUNG? WHAT ABOUT CHILD ACTORS?").
Even when ranting against the NCAA and NBA, though, Vaccaro is still a storyteller at heart, with generation-jumping tales that span from finding George Gervin on an ABA scouting trip to Detroit's 3 Mile in the '70s, to discovering a young Kobe Bryant before the Italian-raised phenom had played meaningful basketball in the U.S. Vaccaro says his life is "a story that's been unreal," a statement that's backed up by the fact Sopranos star James Gandolfini was willing to play the Godfather in the upcoming biopic entitled ABCD Camp.
Perhaps Vaccaro's most memorable line referred to the beginning of his relationship with Nike founder Phil Knight, in '77. Before there were Air Jordans, or Mars Blackmon, or UNLV and Georgetown and nearly ever other major program signed to Nike contracts, there was a meeting between a 37-year-old organizer of a Pittsburgh-area high school All-Star game and the CEO of a running-shoe company folks on the East Coast pronounced "Nickie." Knight brought Vaccaro to Oregon on a $137 plane ticket, and asked him, "How do we get involved in basketball?"