In 1991 USA Today noted that Vaccaro was being called "the most powerful man in college basketball"—and it was around that time, says Vaccaro, that "Nike got rid of me. I never dreamt in my wildest dreams that I wouldn't be with Nike all my life. But as I told Phil recently, I was like the gunslinger brought into Dodge City to clean up the bad people. In this case the bad people are the other shoe companies. Once I got rid of them, the good people realized they didn't need a gunslinger anymore."
However, with the advent of the sports management program, Nike gunfighters were back on the street. Mourning was shocked by negative reaction to his business arrangements during his holdout with the Hornets. "People actually got mad at me because of who I worked for," says Mourning.
"Control is sensible, but overall management isn't smart for Nike," says Mark McCormack, whose packaging of Arnold Palmer as founder of the International Management Group is considered the first endorsement coup of the modern sports-business era. "Phil's killing an ant with a machine gun here. I endorse his desire to be more involved in marketing Nike superstars and in controlling what they're doing, but taking it to the extent he has will be complicated down the line. Agents and managers are going to be less inclined to sign athletes with Nike just to keep them away from the web."
Mourning talks regularly to White, Nike's pro basketball guy, and he's in daily contact with a Nike sports marketing executive. When Mourning recently said that he was thinking of buying some new television sets for his house in Charlotte, Nike arranged to have them brought in. "All I have to do is work hard on the court, and Nike will take care of the rest," Mourning says.
With only a few weeks left before the end of the regular NBA season, Mourning was nervously awaiting news about his first Nike commercial, which was tentatively scheduled to run during the playoffs. Charlotte teammate Larry Johnson was already on TV all the time, slam-dunking as a grandma in a dress for Converse. Mourning was indeed working hard on the court, and members of the Nike rank and file were tracking his rebounds and points and comparing them with Shaq's.
Still, there was the not insignificant matter of the commercial. "Clearly Alonzo's dream is yet to be realized," says David Falk. "But he's with the company that can do it—Nike really can make him a household name. The fact is, though, Michael is one of the reasons Alonzo might have to wait."
So Mourning waited anxiously for his script to arrive, for his chance to take the court in prime time during the playoffs, and for those magical 30 seconds when the Nike hero machine would take him up and away.
V. The Store
In Newark, 3,000 miles—and a world away—from Beaverton, the broad thoroughfare called Market Street crosses Halsey and is suddenly abloom with startling colors and noise and urgent circles of shoppers. Along the sidewalk across from the empty shell of an old Macy's, the huge crowd mills on Sneaker Row, staring at the overstuffed picture windows of Bros. Sneakers, the Sneaker Room, the Sneaker Joint, Dr. Jay's Sneakers and a veritable metropolitan museum of athletic shoes, the Essex House of Fashion. On Market, news of the back-room unpacking of a new model from one of the big shoe companies can cause a stampede. Most of the regulars on Sneaker Row are young, and in a city in which truancy rates reach 49%, the athletic-shoe stores arc often full of kids in the early afternoon.
A beleaguered-looking 38-year-old named Steven Roth has, for 18 years, served the citizens of Newark from the 10,000 square feet inside the Essex House of Fashion. Roth rings up sale after sale from behind a long counter set in the middle of a quarter acre of shoes and athletic apparel. Beside Roth, working the next register, stands a much larger man wearing gold chains and a bright green sweatshirt that is heavily "strapped," as they say on urban streets, his black nine-millimeter pistol lodged in a shoulder holster attached to his broad chest.