The most influential man in the world of high school basketball may be a paunchy, 48-year-old former player agent and one-time Las Vegas gambler who works for the Nike shoe and apparel company and who, if given the opportunity, “would go to a presidential ball wearing a Nike sweat shirt,” according to his best friend, John Thompson.
His name is Sonny Vaccaro and, over the last decade, since quitting the agency business--he boasts that he once negotiated a contract for George (Ice Man) Gervin on a napkin--he has become one of the most controversial and well-connected figures in basketball.
John (Sonny) Vaccaro has clout.
--As a promotions consultant to Nike, Vaccaro has an open line to more than 60 major college coaches and 20 high school coaches. Through Vaccaro, the college coaches have lucrative endorsement contracts with Nike and the high school coaches receive carloads of free merchandise for their programs.
--Vaccaro’s personal friends include college coaches such as USC’s George Raveling, who was the best man at his wedding, and Georgetown’s Thompson, who will coach the 1988 U.S. Olympic basketball team. “I don’t deal with a lot of people closely, but Sonny and I are very close,” Thompson said recently. “I love Sonny dearly.”
--Vaccaro manages the prestigious Nike-ABCD All-America basketball camp at Princeton. An invitation to the summer camp, which is attended by swarms of recruiters, can be a player’s ticket to a college scholarship. Who has the final say on who’s invited? “I do,” Vaccaro said.
Vaccaro also oversees the annual Dapper Dan high school all-star game in Pittsburgh. Who picks the stars? “There is a committee of one,” Vaccaro said. “Me.”
--Vaccaro has nearly unlimited access to high school basketball stars-access that college recruiters cannot enjoy under NCAA rules. When Alonzo Mourning, the nation’s No. 1 prospect, was off limits to college coaches last summer, Vaccaro was taking him to lunch. “Sonny’s a good man,” said Mourning, a 6-foot 10-inch center who signed with Georgetown. “Sonny’s a friend.”
Vaccaro said he does not tout colleges to high school basketball players--"I know nobody will believe that"--but if a player asks for his opinion of a college coach, he will gladly give it. And if the coach happens to be Vaccaro’s friend, more power to the coach.
As for his ties to Las Vegas, where his brother John is a nationally known oddsmaker and bookmaker at the Golden Nugget Hotel and Casino, Vaccaro makes no apologies. He quit gambling in 1978 when he went to work for Nike, he said, and his basketball connections have never been used for gambling-related activities.
“I know it’s scary how people can become influential over people,” Vaccaro said, trying to explain his peculiar role in the high school basketball environment. “The kids are so impressionable. I just hope that I am looked at as a friend of basketball, a friend of the kids.”
Vaccaro has been trying to fill that role since 1965, when he happened upon an idea that would change his life. “I was coaching at my high school alma mater (near Pittsburgh),” he recalled. “I had a vision of: What would happen if you brought the best high school players in the world to Pittsburgh for a game?”
He named his vision the Dapper Dan Roundball game, after a local charity, and although he pocketed only $5,000 from the event (the rest went to charity), he gained something far more valuable: contacts. Within several years, every college recruiter worth his road map had heard of Sonny Vaccaro.
In the late ‘60s, Vaccaro took a job as a recruiter for a sports agent. His first assignment was to woo college athletes to a fledgling league: the American Basketball Assn. For every player he delivered, he was paid, through the agent, about $2,500. Later, he became an agent on his own. But he wasn’t in business for long. “I just thought being an agent was the ugliest business in the world,” he explained.
For several years, Vaccaro did not have a steady job. “I basically existed,” he said. Meaning: he moved to Las Vegas and took up gambling. “I had a lost weekend that lasted three years,” he said with a chuckle. “I gambled--good, bad or indifferent. I bet baseball, basketball . . . But it wasn’t illegal.” Sports betting is, of course, legal in Las Vegas.
Vaccaro continued to promote the Dapper Dan, but said he didn’t feel right about it. “I loved sports, I loved kids,” he said. “But I knew I couldn’t be around them if I was directly involved with these people (in Las Vegas).”
His dilemma was resolved in 1978 when he approached Phillip Knight, chief executive officer of Nike Inc., with an idea to boost the company’s basketball shoe sales. “I told Phil that I could probably get all the major college teams in the country (to wear Nike shoes),” Vaccaro said. “He looked at me very startled and said, ‘How’s that?’ I said, ‘Well, pay the coaches. Hire them as consultants.’ ”
Under Vaccaro’s plan, the coaches would receive free shoes for their players, who in turn would become walking billboards for the Nike swoosh. Knight bought the idea, and Vaccaro hit the road for Nike. “I moved from Las Vegas to Santa Monica because people associate Las Vegas with gambling,” he said. “I stopped gambling and started leading what I called ‘the straight life.’ ”
Within four months, Vaccaro signed about 20 high-profile coaches, including Lefty Driesell of Maryland and Jerry Tarkanian of Nevada Las Vegas. “I called that my kamikaze sweep,” he said.
The next year, he swept 60 more coaches, including Thompson, into the Nike fold. “I was extremely suspicious of Sonny the first time I met him,” Thompson said. “Just because Sonny came on with this informality. I said, ‘Well, here’s another person who’s trying to have an influence (over players.)’ But I later learned that Sonny is an extremely sincere person.”
At first, Nike paid each of its coaches no more than $5,000 a year. But as competition with other shoe companies increased, so did the size of the contracts. Today, Thompson earns more than $100,000 annually from Nike, according to an industry source.
In 1982, Nike sought to increase its influence in the high school marketplace by co-sponsoring an all-star camp at Princeton and dispensing free merchandise to selected basketball programs. One coach who benefited was Bob Wade, who had made a habit of winning championships at Dunbar High in Baltimore. Not only did Wade receive free shoes and travel bags for his program, he was paid by Vaccaro to work at the Princeton camp, the Dapper Dan and at Nike clinics. “Bob was well paid,” Vaccaro said. “Bob is my friend.”
Vaccaro’s friends in high school basketball circles are not all coaches. Case in point: 6-foot 10-inch Brian Williams, who struck up a friendship with Vaccaro during the summer of 1986, before his senior year at St. Monica High in Santa Monica. “Brian went to school two blocks from where I live,” Vaccaro said. “He’d come over after practice and sleep on the couch, then we’d ride him home. He’s somebody who, you know, my wife and I got very close to.”
That summer, Williams was better known for being the son of Gene Williams, bass singer for The Platters, than for being a basketball hotshot. That changed quickly after Vaccaro invited him to the Nike camp, where he met Wade. “Brian was very dominating at the camp,” Vaccaro recalled. “He was the biggest ‘unknown’ ever uncovered at our camp.”
In the fall, Williams became the target of dozens of college recruiters, including Wade, who had been named head coach at Maryland. As the school year progressed, Vaccaro said he often spoke with Williams about his recruitment. “As far as him picking a school, we talked about Coach Wade an awful lot,” Vaccaro said. Williams signed with Maryland.
Did Vaccaro have any influence?
“Yes, I did. I certainly didn’t say bad things about Bob, that’s for sure,” Vaccaro said. “I didn’t choose the school for him . . . But I was so close to Brian. I mean, Brian was at my house five days a week.”
Williams said through a Maryland spokesman that he did not care to discuss his recruitment. Asked if he thought Vaccaro had any influence in Williams’ decision, Wade said: “I recruited Brian Williams.”
Vaccaro certainly travels as much as any college recruiter. “I have 450,000 miles in one of those airline frequent traveler programs,” he boasted the other day. “And I’ll give you a stat: from last Feb. 23 to a week after the NCAA tournament (in April), I was home a total of 11 days.”
He began curtailing his travel last June, however, after his cardiologist told him, “You are looking for a heart attack.” Overweight and over stressed, he stepped down from his full-time position at Nike to become a part-time consultant. But a month later, he was back supervising the week-long Nike camp.
“My dream when I went to Nike was that we’d own basketball--I mean, at every level,” Vaccaro said. “I think I accomplished my goal without abusing the kids. For all the outside arrows that are shot at me by detractors, the only thing I can say is: After 24 years of being around kids, have I ever told them a negative thing? I don’t think I’ve done any bad.”