November 30, 2021

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Sonny Vaccaro left out of Michael Jordan’s story

For the briefest of moments, Sonny Vaccaro appeared in Sunday’s episodes of “The Last Dance,” the 10-part, Michael Jordan-focused documentary running on ESPN. The back of his head was in a photo of Jordan’s historic meeting with Nike, the start of the most significant sports marketing partnership in American history.

Vaccaro, then a consultant for Nike, was instrumental in the entire deal. He helped conceptualize the signature sneaker. Then he helped persuade Nike, a company known for running, to bet on professional basketball, only not by signing an NBA star but a rookie whose college team hadn’t even made the Final Four the past two seasons. 

Many at Nike thought it was a foolish gamble. Some thought signing an established All-Star was the smarter play, or maybe three young players to hedge bets and see who would make it big (Hakeem Olajuwon, Charles Barkley and John Stockton were under consideration).

Vaccaro saw Jordan for what he was, a thrilling athletic talent with a bright, charismatic way about him. Jordan could transcend not just the game, but race and culture, and was capable of moving shoes in the cities and the suburbs. 

Jordan was the one, Vaccaro kept arguing. Just pick Jordan, give him all the money.

“Would you bet your job on it?” Nike’s Howard Slusher asked Vaccaro at the time.

“Yeah,” Vaccaro said.

With Nike convinced, Vaccaro and then-friend George Raveling got a sitdown lunch with Michael Jordan at Tony Roma’s in Los Angeles during the 1984 Olympic training camp. Vaccaro and Jordan connected on a personal level.

Vaccaro then sold the concept to Jordan’s agent, David Falk, during a meeting at the Viceroy L’Ermitage Beverly Hills hotel. It included how Jordan could get a share of shoe revenues, believed to be a first.

“The whole plan was about how we were going to market Air Jordan, how we were going to make it different,” Vaccaro said. 

Sonny Vaccaro works a basketball camp in Teaneck, N.J., in July 2005. (Bob Leverone/Sporting News)

Finally came a multi-day visit to Beaverton, Oregon, by Jordan and his parents, who were far more engaged in the process than their son. Jordan had worn Converse at North Carolina and personally preferred Adidas, but the opportunity was too great to pass up.

A deal was made. History too.

The shoe business, sports marketing and the NBA were never the same.

Little to none of that was in “The Last Dance.” Vaccaro’s name wasn’t uttered. Vaccaro, despite sitting for a lengthy interview, didn’t appear on camera. Other than being unidentified in the photo, he was absent. 

None of it was surprising. Maybe it was just time constraints. In an odd way, it is perfectly appropriate when it comes to Vaccaro’s place in history.

Namely written out of it.

Sonny Vaccaro, now 80 and retired with his wife, Pam, in the Palm Springs, California, area, belongs in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame as a contributor.

The chances of that happening seem slim. It’s not that his career wasn’t impactful; it’s that it impacted all the most influential people in all the wrong ways. For decades he operated on the outside, a sweatsuit-clad, anti-establishment cage-rattler who looked and talked like he came from a Scorsese film and made the powers that be nervous. 

Back in the 1980s, Nike was the upstart, especially in basketball. It was trying to crash the party. Vaccaro, who was plugged into the hoops world because he operated the Dapper Dan Roundball Classic — a high school All-Star game out of Pittsburgh — served Nike perfectly. 

Converse had the NBA wrapped up, but Vaccaro had the idea of not just giving colleges free shoes for their star players to wear, but paying the college coaches to contractually assure it would happen. The idea was baffling at the time: You’re going to pay me to accept free shoes?

“Sonny, is this even legal?” the late UNLV coach Jerry Tarkanian, the first to sign with Nike, asked at the time.

Soon, Nike owned half of college basketball — Duke, Georgetown, Syracuse, N.C. State and so on. Five basketball national champions in the 1980s wore the swoosh, and, of course, the entire business of college athletics was uprooted. At first, the schools were wary of the arrangement. Then they figured out how to get in on it directly. These days they sign $100 million-plus contracts with shoe and apparel companies.

In 1992, however, Vaccaro and Nike had a bitter falling out. Over the next couple of decades, Vaccaro sought revenge by upending his old employer via a superior grassroots basketball system and by signing most of the promising young talent.

Always a genius at identifying the exact right person, he scored in 1996 when he got Adidas to ink Kobe Bryant, then just a high school kid from suburban Philadelphia who was jumping directly to the NBA. He even helped work a draft-night misinformation campaign to get Bryant to the Los Angeles Lakers (via a trade with Charlotte) and not the New Jersey Nets, who wanted him. L.A., Vaccaro believed, would maximize Kobe’s star power. (Bryant later switched to Nike.)

A few years later, Vaccaro signed a high school team out of Akron, Ohio — paying $15,000 a year to put an Adidas logo on the basketball jerseys of St. Vincent-St. Mary High School. The jersey, of course, appeared on ESPN and the cover of Sports Illustrated and aided his relationship with one LeBron James. Adidas foolishly wouldn’t bid high enough when LeBron turned pro, allowing Nike to swoop in. The price tag wouldn’t have hit $90 million without Sonny, though.

That’s Vaccaro, always in the middle of everything, always pushing the industry into uncomfortable waters that it would soon come to embrace as business as usual.

His personality, guile and street smarts, forged in a Western Pennsylvania milltown, helped him become close with scores of players and their parents, regardless of race or economics. He was an always available guide/confidant to help them navigate the confusing process of going from high school prospect to professional player, whether it included college or not. It was Sonny, maybe more than anyone, who people trusted. 

He pushed and fought for athlete rights and pay. He ripped the concept of amateurism even against intense backlash and damage to his open reputation. He stood up for players. He cut checks. He was decades ahead of his time.

Michael Jordan stalks the court during the 1998 NBA Finals. (Jonathan Daniel/Allsport)

He never feared speaking truth directly to power, especially when illuminating the hypocrisy of college sports. 

In 2001, he appeared in front of the Knight Commission, a high-minded gathering of university leaders, where he was questioned about shoe and apparel deals with college programs.

“Why,” Penn State’s then-president emeritus asked him, “should a university be an advertising medium for your industry?”

“They shouldn’t, sir,” Vaccaro responded. “You sold your souls, and you’re going to continue to sell them. You can be very moral and righteous in asking me that question, sir. But there’s not one of you in this room that’s going to turn down any of our money. You’re going to take it. I can only offer.”

There was no reasonable retort. Sonny was right. He’d bought the whole damn NCAA by then, and no one could do a thing about it. 

Yet once he waged war with Nike, a bridge was burned. Jordan made Nike a billion-dollar behemoth. It’s days as a scrappy upstart were over. Once it could wield power and control narratives, it wasn’t going to give Sonny Vaccaro an inch, let alone any credit. “Sole Man”, an ESPN “30 for 30” about Vaccaro that came out in 2015, contained no interviews with players or coaches under Nike contract, a glaring omission. 

So was a Jordan/Nike-influenced doc really going to give him some love? There are four more episodes, so we’ll see, but the Nike deal was his real involvement.

That’s why he needs the Hall of Fame to preserve his place in history. No one else is going to do it. Not Michael. Not LeBron. Not the NCAA. Not some of the media that spent decades vilifying him. Who would dare take on Nike? 

Making waves also makes powerful enemies.

Vaccaro never cared then. He won’t apologize now. He isn’t even bothered about “The Last Dance.” He says he’s waiting for all 10 episodes to come out before he watches. He hopes it depicts the Jordan he knows.

“I love Michael,” Vaccaro said Tuesday. “One of the biggest thrills of my life — and much of the reason for my success — is because I lived with Michael Jordan for nine years. Michael opened every door in the world for me. Other than my family, there wasn’t a bigger day of my life than when they signed with Nike. I bet my life on Michael Jordan and won on Michael Jordan.”

Over the last decade, as Vaccaro’s career in sneakers ended, he focused on securing the right for college athletes to profit off their name, image and likeness. He toured campuses giving speeches. He lobbied politicians. He recruited former UCLA star Ed O’Bannon to file suit against the NCAA.

“When a man of his stature calls and wants you to help him get something accomplished, you have to do it,” O’Bannon said. “I [was] honored.”

The lawsuit pulled the curtains back on the emperor, whittled away public support for amateurism and led to state legislatures passing laws to give student-athletes the right to profit off their talents. 

Just last week, the NCAA finally began to concede Vaccaro’s decades-old position. By 2021, the rules are expected to be all different, although hurdles remain. 

He calls it the most important battle of his life, what could be a massive swing of revenue from institution to individual.

He was always ahead of his time though. Spotting trends. Spotting talent. Believing in once-illogical concepts such as a young black man selling shoes to white families. He did that because he believed in Michael Jordan, yes, but also because he believed in Middle America. 

He has generated billions. He has shepherded thousands. He has changed multiple industries. He has made off-the-wall business concepts and societal ideas become common practice.

You simply can’t write the history of basketball, let alone the history of the business of sports, without Sonny Vaccaro. 

Except some want to. Some are. Maybe some can. 

So put him in a place that Nike or the NCAA or anyone else can’t edit him out. Put him where his truth is etched into a plaque.

Put Sonny in the Hall of Fame.

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