The Godfather Of Basketball Is Writing A New Ending
Sonny Vaccaro, the mastermind behind summer camps and the million-dollar shoe deal, has been accused of ruining basketball. He disagrees. But that doesn't mean he won't try to fix it
The parents and guardians of 22 of the country's best teenage basketball players sit in a hotel conference room in downtown Chicago. Sonny Vaccaro stands before them, welcoming all to his Roundball Classic as he has each spring for the past 43 years. During that time he has either revolutionized or wrecked the game of basketball, depending on your point of view. But this first Saturday in April is different. This hello is Vaccaro's goodbye.
"Many of you have heard I've left Reebok and will no longer run my summer events," he tells them. "You've always been my biggest sponsors, and I love you for that. So I want to tell you why I'm leaving and what I'm going to do next."
Few in the room are surprised; many are his friends, and the news began to leak out six weeks ago. All of them know he was the first to pay the coaches who take their sons on the summer tournament circuit. They know he started the camps where hundreds of college recruiters pass judgment on their kids. And they know he's handed out millions in shoe deals—on behalf of Nike, Reebok and Adidas—to boys just like theirs.
But they also know that Vaccaro's been called the Godfather of Grassroots Basketball and that he's been accused of everything from corrupting the game's youth to losing Olympic gold. They know that when David Stern said "these world-class athletes get exploited all the way up," he was talking about the summer hoops scene Sonny helped create, and that when NCAA president Myles Brand called "precollegiate basketball issues the most damaging of any we're dealing with," he was too.
"They've called me the devil," Vaccaro continues. "I'm the bad guy. That's okay. But they've come down on what they call the 'summer culture,' and they've called some of your children thugs and punks. How can they do that?"
On the cusp of what is likely the last move of his career, Sonny Vaccaro has a lot more questions, and he wants answers. "How can they stop your kids from earning a living?" he asks, referring to the NBA's new rule that prevents players from turning pro straight out of high school. He's shouting now. "Isn't this America? Why can a college coach make millions while your sons can't make a dime? Why can that coach leave his school without being penalized while your sons cannot?"
Vaccaro is here to tell the mothers and fathers in the room that he hopes to build a national basketball academy, one that will develop elite players to be role models and bring home gold medals. It's the centerpiece of his plan to transform the image of youth basketball—his legacy, which is now under fire from every angle. He's going on tour over the next year to speak up for the kids, to lobby for an end to the one-year rule, to make the NBA game more like the summer one, not less. Most of all, he will challenge the NCAA to stop abusing the very people who bring in the fans and the money: the players themselves. "Isn't it odd," he asks his rapt audience, "that the NCAA makes rules for those who are least able to defend themselves?"
Heads in the room nod. Their sons have earned major college scholarships, and you don't get this far without having seen it all. The recruiting game is about whom you can trust. And one they trust most is the balding, 67-year-old white man in the gray sweatsuit with the sleepy eyes and raspy voice.
"I've always been Sonny Vaccaro, the guy who worked for the shoe companies," he says. "If I'm going to speak out, if I'm going to force change, I have to cut the umbilical cord. Like me or hate me, I don't care. But I'm going to ask people to listen."
WHEN HER son Gani, a 6'9", 220-pound forward headed for Georgia Tech, accepted the invitation to the Reebok-sponsored Roundball, Michelle Lawal called to tell Sonny she'd arrive the day of. "No," he told her. "You have to come when Gani does."
Now she understands why. Sonny flies in the players and their families three days before the game and puts them up in a boutique hotel a block off Chicago's trendy Magnificent Mile. There's a breakfast buffet each morning, a dinner cruise around Lake Michigan one night, bowling and dinner another, a stocked hospitality suite and, of course, free gear. At the moment, Michelle stands in the buffet line in a private room at Harry Caray's restaurant, about to enjoy lunch on Sonny.
It's this kind of treatment that brings Vaccaro grief from the critics. It's also an indication of how much is different from the day he signed Michael Jordan for Nike and changed marketing forever. Sonny barely knew Jordan until right before the 1984 draft. But once MJ morphed into Air Jordan, it became Sonny's job to find the next great salesman. By the late '90s, sneaker companies were inviting 14-year-olds to their camps and travel teams.
That's how old Gani was when he began to compete in summer ball, the same year the college recruiters first came calling. Michelle, a collegeeducated single mother of two, told Gani's high school and travel coaches that all communication had to run through her. The phone started to ring constantly. Then came the text messaging, blowing such a hole in her budget that she changed Gani's cell number, then canceled the phone altogether. But that was the least of her concerns. "These college coaches look at us, see we're single and black, and assume we're uneducated and want money," she says. "All you hear is, 'Here's how many kids we put in the league.' My son had a 3.8 GPA. He didn't need basketball to go to college."
Lunch ends, and everyone boards buses for practice at nearby DePaul, where about 100 fans and a handful of reporters await. Vaccaro rides with the parents. Now that he's walking away from the scene he helped create, Vaccaro knows he'll be asked where the bodies are buried. Does he know which college coaches are paying families six figures to land recruits? Yes. Does he know which travel coaches have pocketed shoe money instead of providing for their teams? Sure. Is he going to name names? Of course not. "It's not my place," he says.
Among the first to take the practice court is O.J. Mayo, the much-scrutinized star whose Huntington High School (W.Va.) team cleared in excess of $200,000 in ticket sales and TV money last season. Practice is supervised by Gary Charles, who bounces between his job as a computer programmer at a Manhattan bank and running the New York Panthers, an AAU travel team that counts Lamar Odom and Joakim Noah among its alums. If Vaccaro is the architect of summer basketball, the 45-year-old Charles is the foreman, the first AAU coach Sonny approached after his breakup with Nike, in 1992. Together they selected the travel programs and coaches that Adidas, and later Reebok, would finance with annual payments that sometimes reached six figures.
Pro and college coaches used to attend these practice sessions, but now both the NBA and the NCAA prohibit it. They miss a fun show, full of fast breaks, dunks and three-pointers. Gani impresses, as the gathered Roundball participants watch him run the floor, block shots and dunk the ball effortlessly.
Practice ends, autographs are signed and players and parents are off to the buses. The dinner cruise awaits. Sitting midway back in the parents bus, Michelle talks again about recruiting in both summer and college hoops. "Everyone knows that if you want to get paid, all you have to do is make it known," she says. "People blame Sonny, or AAU coaches, or college coaches. But your kid is your responsibility. If you focus only on basketball and he doesn't make it, why is it someone else's fault?"
ON THE morning of his last all-star game, Sonny is telling stories. There's the one about signing George Gervin to an ABA contract on a napkin in the early '70s, when the league paid $3,500 to Vaccaro for each player he secured. And the one about the eight hours of gin he played against MJ—$100 a hand—as they flew from Germany to Chicago after a Nike tour in 1990. Vaccaro was ahead by one hand when the plane landed, so Jordan pulled out the ace of spades, signed it and threw it across the table. "He said, 'This is worth more than $100.' But I told him I'd never sell it, and I never have."
Vaccaro delights in his stories. As he laughs at this one, Annette Legion—mother of Alex Legion, a 2-guard from hardscrabble Inkster, Mich.—leans forward. "I've always wanted to know how Kobe came into your life," she says. "That's Alex's idol."
"Well," Vaccaro begins, "I knew Kobe's daddy." Joe Bryant was the MVP of the Roundball in 1972, he says. When he returned from playing pro ball in Italy in the early '90s, Joe asked Sonny to put his 16-year-old son in Vaccaro's ABCD camp. It took one day for Sonny to realize he'd found a new star. Two years later Vaccaro signed Kobe to an $8 million Adidas contract, before he'd played a minute in the NBA. "Shows you the circle of life," Sonny says.
Like the other parents, Annette praises Sonny for giving her son the chance to compete against the best and market his skills. But now she and Alex need more of Vaccaro's help. Last fall, Alex signed with Michigan to play for Tommy Amaker. The coach had taken over a scandal-ridden program in 2001, posted three 20-plus-win seasons and graduated 17 of 19 players. Still, he was fired after failing to reach the NCAA Tournament. "We're devastated," Annette tells Sonny. She and Alex have asked for his release, but as of this April day, Michigan hasn't agreed, so Annette is turning to Vaccaro for counsel. "You have rights. Keep fighting," he says, and before he moves on to another table, he pledges to help.
"Sonny always fights for the kids," Annette says. "I don't know why he has a negative reputation. All I can think of is some white people don't like it that he has helped so many black kids and coaches."
VACCARO WALKS to midcourt at the United Center a few hours before tip-off. "Is this the last game?" he says, looking down at the giant Roundball logo. "I haven't decided, but yeah, I think so. I can't put Pammy through any more."
If Sonny is the devil, his wife, Pam, a former commercial actress 18 years his junior, is his angel. For all of Vaccaro's corporate connections, his events are mom-and-pop operations, and it's Pam who keeps them running. The past four days have left her voiceless and swallowing antibiotics.
The pros are among the first to arrive. Chris Wallace, the Celtics GM at the time (and whose only child is Sonny's godson), shakes hands with Spurs director of college player personnel George Felton and Clippers director of player personnel Neil Olshey. They are among the dozens of coaches, scouts and executives who have played in Vaccaro's games, worked his camps and joined his network.
Mike Conley Sr. arrives right before tip-off. Conley, who the day before was in Atlanta to watch Mike Jr. and Ohio State fall to Florida in the NCAA title game, coached in the Roundball a year ago while he was running the Reebok-sponsored AAU Spiece Indy Heat in Indianapolis. He calls Vaccaro his mentor. The two hug courtside. "We'll talk after the game," Sonny says.
Mayo and Kevin Love, the 6'9" Naismith High School Player of the Year, are the game's headliners, two of the four players here who would have been drafted in the first round in June if the old rules had still stood. Love, bound for UCLA, impresses with unstoppable inside moves and a soft midrange jumper. But Mayo delivers the game's most telling moment. With 7:22 left and his team down 20, he outruns two West players to an errant outlet pass, then flings the ball back onto the court as he plunges deep into the stands. "He's just like Kobe," Vaccaro shouts to the scouts. "He never quits."
Later, back at the hotel, Sonny huddles with Conley just outside the crowded hospitality suite. The former Olympic triple jumper has received his certification to be an NBA agent, and his former AAU players—Mike Jr., Greg Oden and Daequan Cook—are about to declare for the draft. Conley will represent all three. As Sonny shares his knowledge, this much is clear: This might be his last Roundball, but he's not leaving the game.
A FEW weeks later, Vaccaro stands in front of a different group: 40 members of Duke University Law School's Sports and Entertainment Law Society. "Is there anyone here who doesn't know or have an opinion of me?" he asks. One young woman raises her hand meekly.
Seated in the second row is Paul Haagen, a former Rhodes scholar who has taught law at Duke for the past 22 years. A widely recognized contract expert, he's advised Duke players from Grant Hill to J.J. Redick on their draft potential and marketing options.
A week earlier, TV analyst Len Elmore stood before a similar audience at Duke. Elmore, who played college and pro ball and graduated from Harvard Law, has been an agent and a prosecutor and is now in private practice. He's a frequent critic of Vaccaro and the shoe companies, arguing that their spending has thrown youth basketball into turmoil. Sonny quickly addresses Elmore's claim. "Let me say this," Vaccaro tells the students. "No matter which shoe company I worked with, I never said we weren't in business to make money."
Vaccaro spends the next hour criticizing the NCAA, explaining his academy and running through his career. He's not at all what the audience had expected. And if he's unpolished, often going halfway down one rhetorical road before turning down another, it makes him no less fascinating to this crowd. "I don't think the NCAA are bad people," Vaccaro says. "But they're so closeted in their own institution that they're blinded. The money is off the charts, and it's all off the backs of the kids. Those kids gave me a wonderful life, so I'm going to people like you to speak out for them."
Vaccaro thanks the students for listening, takes a few questions, then makes his way to Haagen's office. The professor recognizes a deep belief among many who play the game that the system is corrupt, and he understands why those people would be loyal to Sonny, one man who tries to make it work for them. They chat about the illusion of amateurism, muse about life at Duke after Coach K and share the advice they give to young players.
As Vaccaro rises to leave—he's due at Wharton School of Business the next afternoon—Haagen leans over his desk. "I'd like to ask you a question," he says. "Would you be willing to be one of the people I call to get a read on a player's draft position?" VACCARO SITS in an Italian restaurant in Manhattan four days later, talking on his cell. He's in town to see an agent about a book deal, which, if it gets done, he'll juggle with a potential biopic starring James Gandolfini and a fall speaking tour that includes stops at Harvard, Yale and Notre Dame.
Suddenly Vaccaro pumps his arm. "Yes! Oh, that is great news, great news," he says. He's talking to Annette Legion, who's been through a rough few weeks. The situation with Michigan grew so tense, she spent a night in the hospital with high blood pressure. But her son's release has finally come, and they're already fielding calls from other schools. "Let's talk again later tonight," Vaccaro tells her.
Alex Legion is the kind of player Vaccaro has in mind when he dreams of his academy: an honor student at the academically rigorous Detroit Country Day before he starred for Oak Hill Academy, the top-ranked prep program in the nation. Vaccaro's idea is to train several dozen such players from grades nine through 12 at a high-class facility in a metropolitan area while sending them to be educated at top-notch local schools. He'd field two teams, playing a schedule of prominent national high schools, then hold a two-month summer camp in Colorado Springs directed by USA Basketball.
He's pitched the plan to the NCAA and the NBA, saying he'd get financial backing from sponsors and pro players. Brand never showed interest, but Stern did. Vaccaro first approached him about it after the Auburn Hills fiasco in November 2004, which many—predictably—blamed on thuggish, spoiled behavior they believe is born of the amateur system Sonny helped build. "Even though I've beaten up on the NBA," Vaccaro says, "David encourages me."
Ironically, it was Stern who put youth basketball in the news during the 2006 NBA Finals when, unprompted, he spoke at a press conference about its exploitation of amateurs and perpetuation of poor fundamentals. From the outside it seemed like a broadside at Vaccaro. Then last September, Stern, Brand and reps from AAU, USA Basketball and the shoe companies convened a summit to discuss an amateur system in crisis, and Vaccaro wasn't invited.
But the fact is, the two men have forged a warm relationship over time. Two years ago Stern invited Vaccaro backstage at the draft, where they debated the NBA's new age rule between the commissioner's announcements of each selection. Vaccaro drops in on Stern when he's in New York, visits that the commissioner uses to get Sonny's take on the pulse of the game's young players. And at this February's All-Star Game, the two huddled over Sonny's academy, with Stern giving an open ear.
"It's interesting—before I knew him, I'd hear people refer to him in a negative way," Stern says. "But after I got to know him, I got the sense he was a little bit of a Robin Hood and that he was trying hard in many cases to be protective of these young men. In the past three or four years, he's called us with opinions on what we're doing wrong."
The commissioner and The Godfather working together to save amateur basketball. Go figure.
- 2013 NBA playoffs: Five adjustments for Memphis Grizzlies
- 2013 NBA Playoffs - Game 2 adjustments for Zach Randolph
- 2013 NBA draft - Chad Ford Mock Draft 3.0
- 2013 NBA Playoffs - Memphis Grizzlies versus San Antonio Spurs Western Conference finals preview
- 2013 NBA playoffs -- Predicting the West finals between Memphis Grizzlies and San Antonio Spurs
- NCB: Teams, systems and players to watch
- Derrick Rose on what it means to rep Chicago
- The Mag: Fashion Forward
- Harvick embraces role as Earnhardt's heir
- The unlikely backstory of NASCAR's most promising new drivers
- The Mag: How to crash
- The Mag: Athletes' kids finding prep success
- Mag: Inside the NCAA's Eligibility Center
- The Mag: The top 20 recruiters
- The Mag: The stories behind Georgia State football
- The Mag: The journey of Alexi Ogando
- Roenigk: Mark Ingram is tough to bring down
- Mag: Singletary's reshaping of Niners
- Mag: The rise of the Blackhawks
- Olney: October baseball is amazing
- The Mag: Ron Artest on himself
- The Mag: Pros share the best advice they got
- Bergeron: A look at the side careers of eight athletes
- Player X: In praise of quiet, rich owners
- Mag: Packers are best franchise in sports
- Reilly: Rocco didn't beat Tiger, but you'd think he did
- Simmons: It's hard to say goodbye to David Ortiz
- Blowing $66,000 on a College World Series game ... yeah, that qualifies as a meltdown.
- Racing needs to find a way to let drivers attempt to win both Indy and in Charlotte on the same day.
- The Gamer: Mike Swick and Rampage Jackson are avid gamers
- Bill Curry brings Georgia State football to life.
- VIDEO: Kobe Bryant's two loves
- VIDEO: Superman Dwight -- stylin' and profilin'
- VIDEO: Ricky Rubio, on the verge of superstardom