"Whaddaya wanna be? Where ya wanna go? How ya gonna get there? Whaddaya wanna do? What can ya do? What's it all about, Sonny?"
The questions came at him like machine-gun bullets. The time was 1977. The place was Las Vegas. The man, the target, was 38 years old, lumpy, sluggish, virtually jobless, separated, on the way to a divorce, the father of four children he saw only on birthdays and holidays and at convenient sporting events. He was drifting, a vagabond, a fat shadow hiding in plain sight. And all John Paul (Sonny) Vaccaro could answer to those questions was "I don't know."
A man named Tark the Shark was asking the questions, but it might as well have been Gip or Doshie or Zilk or Tootie or Spook or Garf or Manny or Deuce or Hambone or any one of Vaccaro's friends, all those guys whom others referred to as "characters" or "questionables" or even as "unsavory lowlifes" but whom Sonny always called "good people" and treated as such.
But what had Sonny done for himself? And what could he do? He had already tried just about everything, and quit from tedium. He had succeeded only in demonstrating just how far you could take a wardrobe consisting entirely of sweatsuits and T-shirts. So how could anyone have known at that moment—certainly not Tark, and least of all Sonny—that this rumpled mess of a man would one day become a giant in the world of athletic wear? That he would become the greatest sneaker salesman in America? And a ubiquitous power broker in the game of basketball? No, there in Vegas in 1977, sad-sack Sonny couldn't know that. All he could answer was "I don't know."
Things just hadn't quite come together for Sonny, but not for lack of dabbling. Let's see.... He had been a 5'10", 170-pound running back, a certified high school football star, back home in the factory town of Trafford, Pa., 17 miles outside Pittsburgh. He had peddled fruit and vegetables during high school from what he called a "huckster truck." He had been a good enough high school shortstop that the Pittsburgh Pirates offered him a $3,500 signing bonus in 1957, a good enough son to have turned the money down because he had promised his immigrant steelworker father that he would be the first of his family to go to college. After graduating from Youngstown (Ohio) State, Sonny had been a teacher and coach. He had operated some of the first sports camps for kids. He had organized the first national high school all-star basketball game. To top everything off, he had been a sports agent [he negotiated George Gervin's first ABA contract on a napkin], a gambler and a rock 'n' roll concert promoter—but Vaccaro had been full-court pressed into oblivion in each case.
"I was way ahead of my time in several things, way ahead of everybody," Vaccaro, 49, says. "People have made millions doing what I used to do. Business is not my baliwack."
No, his baliwack is basketball. Hoops and humanity, they're what make Sonny run. Basketball is the game he has always really loved; and those who know him well have always raved about his compassion, his care for others—a regular Albert Schweitzer in a schweatsuit. On a recent afternoon in Trafford, Sonny's aunt Irene Mastroianni sat in her living room, remembering and saying, "If Sonny saw you were barefoot, he'd give you the shoes right off his feet."
Basketball. Shoes. It has a nice beat. And since Vaccaro has learned to dance to it, it is accurate to say that this shuffling, pudgy, salt-and-pepper-frizzed fellow with the little-boy name has tap-danced all over the worlds of basketball and shoes at the same time.
It wasn't until the end of 1977 that Vaccaro began to pick up the tune. Nearly at the end of his twine, he had yet one more brain squall. There was a shoemaker in Trafford named Bobby DiRinaldo, and Vaccaro went to him one day with some queer ideas about sneakers. Let's come up with some gangbusters new stuff in athletic footwear, he told DiRinaldo. Make me a pair of sneaks with air vents. Make me another without any backs, sort of like sneaker-sandals. And let's make one pair that you don't have to tie—throw some Velcro on the tongue.
Vaccaro tossed DiRinaldo's designs into a knapsack and, in the fall of 1978, marched into the headquarters of a fledgling shoe company in Portland, Ore. "Sure, all the guys at Nike laughed, and then they threw my shoes in the back room," Vaccaro says. "They're probably still there. But look at where air vents are and where Velcro is today. I was way ahead of my time. Like Tucker with his car. I think Mister [Phil] Knight felt so sorry for me he gave me a job in the promotions department."