VICE Sports Q&A: Sonny Vaccaro Talks Sneakers, NCAA Amateurism, and Basketball
Sonny Vaccaro talks about his early days in the shoe business, the hypocrisy of the NCAA, and what it was like to sign Michael Jordan
For decades, John Paul Vincent "Sonny" Vaccaro has been one of the most influential, colorful, and polarizing figures in basketball. Back in the 1960s, he established the "Dapper Dan Classic", the nation's first high school all-star basketball event. He also ran hoops camps and later worked in high-profile marketing capacities for Nike, Adidas, and Reebok. Vaccaro was the first to introduce "shoe deals" to coaches and universities, and he was instrumental in signing Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, and Tracy McGrady, among others, to multimillion-dollar endorsement deals for his employers.
Along the way, critics have accused Vaccaro of unduly influencing the college recruiting process, and of contributing to what they see as excess commercialization in youth and college sports. Over the past several years, Vaccaro has been speaking out against the NCAA and what he sees as the economic exploitation of college athletes; he was a key figure in the genesis of former UCLA basketball star Ed O'Bannon's landmark federal antitrust lawsuit against the NCAA, which sought compensation for college athletes whose name, image or likeness have been used for profit.
VICE Sports: So how did you get into the shoe business?
Sonny Vaccaro: By accident. A complete accident.
It was the 1970's and I was running summer basketball camps for kids back in Pennsylvania. Some young guys came up to me and said, "Mr. Vaccaro. They should do something with the tennis shoes." The kids told me that they wore theirs on the court, off the court, to church, to school and everywhere. They put the thought in my mind that someone should make a tennis shoe that was different. Something nicer that they could wear to the dance so they wouldn't have to wear their dirty canvas Keds or Converse.
I took the idea, and a raggedy pair of Converse tennis shoes, to an Italian shoemaker, Bobby DiRinaldo, who lived in my little town. About a month later, I went back and he showed me some of his designs using white leather and little cushions.
Bobby and I weren't going to go into business.
I didn't know what the hell I was doing, but I had some lawyer friends who were representing NBA players and they said they would write a letter of introduction for me to a brand-new company on the West Coast called "Nike". I thought it was pronounced "Nicky" and for about a year, I called it Nicky.
Nike invited me out to Portland, so I bought my own airplane ticket and took a potato sack filled with seven or eight prototype shoes that Bobby had made. I showed them to Phil Knight and some other people that were there at that time.
Nike was really new. They didn't sell basketball shoes. They were just planning to sell running gear. That was going to be their niche. They took my shoes and I never saw them again, but the conversation came around to my basketball camps and the Dapper Dan Classic that I started in Pittsburgh. It was America's very first high school basketball all-star game. We brought in players from California, Florida and all over. That is when things started to happen with Nike. Not with the shoes. Nike never designed the shoe, but they hired me to get them involved in basketball, so that's how it all evolved.
So, you had all this young talent in the Dapper Dan Classic and in your hoops camps and you had an "in" with Nike and it all turned into a great opportunity for you. Didn't it?
Absolutely. Nike gave me a great opportunity in the '70s. They had nobody in their shoes. They had no teams! Oregon was wearing something else and the Ducks are Phil Knight's pride and joy. It's the University of Nike, as we know it today.
So I said, "I'll get your shoes on people."
"Well. How will you do that?"
"We'll pay college coaches and we'll give the shoes away free to the kids."
This is 1977 now. College players were buying their own shoes and most of them didn't have sweat suits. The coaches used to have these great summer basketball camps where they made their money. They'd get 300 to 400 kids and then make $20,000-$30,000 in the summertime. So I said, "Let me pay them."
It all started with my friend, Jerry Tarkanian, in Las Vegas. I saw him buying basketball shoes and I said, "Jerry, how about if I give you the shoes and we work it out?" He says, "What do you mean?" I gave Jerry $5,000. I think I still have the original check because I wrote my check and then Nike reimbursed me. "I'll give you 120 pairs of shoes and I'll give you T-shirts for your camp and sweatshirts." He said, "What? You're going to give me $5,000?"
That was the story.
I think people believe that I should feel guilty about the commercialism. I feel proud of the commercialism. The people who we did the business with were the greedy ones. That was the NCAA.
All this B.S. about the NCAA and purity. They are so hypocritical!
They could have stopped me if they thought we were doing something illicit.
Is it safe to say that, throughout your career, Sonny Vaccaro has been misunderstood?
Half the people think I'm the bastard child who ruined basketball or some goddamned thing? I probably did more for basketball, and the success of basketball, with the help of individuals like Phil Knight and the companies that I worked for, or used my ideas, than anybody that ever lived.
I started the Dapper Dan Classic thirteen years before McDonald's got involved in high school sports. McDonald's is a multi-billion dollar corporation. I pulled it off in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and sold 17,000 seats in 1966. So there are people reading this who are saying, "Did he say he did more for basketball than anyone who ever lived?"
Yeah. I say that with no ego. I am who I am. I'm different.
There is no question and I'm so glad and grateful to God that I am different. I like who I am.
I wasn't a player and I wasn't a coach and I wasn't an executive. I was just this guy. I never took a title with Nike, Adidas or Reebok, but no basketball deal was ever signed, player or team, that I didn't set the benchmark for how much money we were going to pay them.
At Adidas, I gave Kobe over a million dollars a year. Straight out of high school. Nike didn't even recruit him!
You are a controversial figure, though. The NCAA has been on your case for years. Have you ever pushed the envelope too far?
No. Absolutely not!
Why isn't the NCAA saying anything now that the summer camps are being run by the shoe companies? They are bigger than ever and USA Basketball is the thousand-pound gorilla in the cage. I mean ...
Mike Krzyzewski may be the greatest coach that ever lived. He's the coach of USA Basketball and that allows him to go everywhere and have access to young players and their coaches.
I'm not saying it is wrong. It's all about recruiting, right?
USA Basketball is the greatest recruiter in the world for the elite coaches who want the best players in America, but isn't it interesting that they are not "bad guys?"
My whole point is that I'm no longer with Nike, Adidas, or Reebok, and there is probably more cheating happening now than ever before in the history of cheating. It is unbelievable. Every day there is a new scandal somewhere!
Nike made a big splash when it signed Michael Jordan to an endorsement contract right out of the University of North Carolina. There are conflicting reports as to who made this deal happen and who was the most valuable "player" for Nike. You say that Sonny Vaccaro made it happen. Other people who say, "not so."
There are NO other people! There were five people in the room and Phil Knight wasn't one of them. Howard Slusher, the great agent was there. Rob Strasser was there.
They had a $500,000 budget that year, and they wanted to divide the money between three players. Nike was considering John Stockton, Charles Barkley, Sam Bowie, and Jordan. They came to me and said, "What would you do?"
I did not know Michael Jordan. I only saw him play against Georgetown, but I knew who he was. I said, "Give it all to the kid. Give it all to Jordan. No one else."
Did I sign him? I'm not a lawyer. I didn't sign him. What I did was make sure they took him. Nike didn't want Michael!
By Jordan's own words, he did not want to sign with Nike. Michael wanted to go somewhere else and it wasn't settled until we flew him up to Oregon and Michael's mother convinced him. All I did was say, "He's the man." I picked him. That's been my forte.
Just so that our readers understand, Phil Knight from Nike and Michael Jordan have disputed Sonny's version of what happened in 1984. But my question to you is this: If you had barely seen Michael Jordan play, what was it that made you think that Nike should hang its banner on this guy and put all their money into him?
How about if I told you that I only saw Kobe Bryant play at my camp before we signed him to Adidas? I never saw him play in high school.
How about if I never even saw a high school game of LeBron James?
I'm gifted. I'm just going to tell you that. I can spot talent.
I don't know how. It would be easy for me to make up some stupid thing like, "I researched him and I did analytics," but I just look at somebody. I get a feeling and I make a judgment.
I knew LeBron better than I knew any kid in my life, but Adidas tied my hands and LeBron signed with Nike before he was taken No. 1 in the NBA Draft. I can go to my grave knowing that we lost him because Adidas didn't believe me.
That's what happened. The biggest mistake corporate America ever made was Adidas not giving me the $100 million to give LeBron. I don't know if he would've signed or if Phil (Knight) would have given him $150 million.
I just know that we wouldn't have had to just chicken out. That's what Adidas did with LeBron. They chickened out.
Decades have gone by, now, since the shoe business got into the business of college sports. As you look back, Sonny, do you feel that corporate involvement was a good thing for college sports?
I think we saved college sports, but we saved it and then the people who owned it, abused it.
I think the NCAA abused it. I don't think Nike, Adidas, or Reebok abused it.
What we did was make a deal with those people. They took our money. It was a business deal. It's still a business deal. What happened was they (the NCAA) kept all the money.
There are billions of dollars being made now, but if God gave me one life to live again, I wouldn't change anything that I did. We created a business.
What was it that got you fired up to the point where you wanted to spearhead the Ed O'Bannon case against the NCAA to try to get some money for the athletes?
The NCAA tells athletes that they are amateurs. Isn't that interesting? The ones that use you. Are you nuts? It is so hypocritical! College athletics is so big commercially and the NCAA puts themselves in a different light. The public thinks the NCAA is a gift from God.
They are just people. That's all they are, but they run the greatest nonprofit in the world.
College athletics. They pay themselves. They're like FIFA.
There's a million scandals! Every day there is a scandal someplace. I mean, what the hell? This isn't the purification of mankind. They make up rules as they go along.
The money is obscene and I'll just say something to you. I know for a fact, between both sides, the dollars spent on the O'Bannon lawsuit were in the hundreds of millions.
Can you believe that? All that money to fight this. Give the kids something.
I had to do get involved and I am proud of that. The Supreme Court chose not to consider the case, back in October, but the NCAA was found to be in violation of the antitrust laws. The class action suit is over, but the players won the right, as individuals, to sue the NCAA.
The NCAA will be sued and they will be sued forever. There are going to be billions of dollars.
The O'Bannon case is the greatest thing I've every done other than marrying [my wife] Pam. I just feel it is worth it. It was all worth it. I hope the people representing the NCAA and the lawyers representing O'Bannon get together and figure out a formula where they can somehow give the kids money on the teams they played for, once their class (not them individually) graduates.
That case was about people I've never, ever met. When I worked for the shoe companies, I knew who the athletes were and the teams and the coaches. I have no idea who the future athletes will be, but they're going to benefit.
Want to read more stories like this from VICE Sports? Subscribe to our daily newsletter.