In the summer of 1977, a small-time basketball promoter named Sonny Vaccaro came to Oregon to see the men at Blue Ribbon Sports. Vaccaro, who had been referred by sports agent Jerry Davis, carried with him prototypes of a sandal-type basketball shoe he had designed and hoped to sell to Nike.
About half a dozen managers took Vaccaro to lunch at a local Chinese dive, where they listened to him talk about his shoe. Nobody was very interested in it. They were fascinated, however, by Vaccaro. Maybe they had seen too many movies, but they believed Sonny had Mafia written all over him.
A plump man with big brown eyes and an impish laugh, Vaccaro had grown up in Trafford, a factory town outside Pittsburgh. After graduating from Youngstown State, he started teaching special education at Trafford High School and coached local all-star tournaments in Ohio and elsewhere.
At age 24, he drew up a plan to start a high school charity basketball tournament and persuaded a local newspaper to sponsor it. The “Dapper Dan” as he envisioned it, was a tournament that allowed the country’s best high school players to compete against each other while giving college recruiters a central spot to scout them. By 1977, he was 38, a former teacher with an ex-wife and four children to support.
Vaccaro was something of an institution in the Las Vegas sports books like the Barbary Coast or the Aladdin. He could be seen most days, unshaven, in a well-worn warmup, reading the paper in coffee-shop booths near the action. His name was paged every few minutes, particularly as kickoffs drew close. He lived off what he made from football bets, either betting alone or in pools.
But, he would stress to anyone who happened to ask, he kept his betting season separate from his working season. August through the Super Bowl was Vegas and football. The rest of the year was Pittsburgh and basketball.
Rob Strasser, Blue Ribbon’s large, gregarious marketing director, loved characters, and feared the world was running short. He instinctively liked and trusted Vaccaro. Vaccaro didn’t show up in a coat and tie and try to be something he wasn’t. He came to Oregon on his own nickel, and didn’t ask for anything other than a chance to be heard. When Blue Ribbon misplaced his prototype sandals, Vaccaro didn’t get upset or make threats.
Over the next few months, Strasser talked to Vaccaro about basketball, and the prototype shoes were forgotten.
By 1977, Blue Ribbon already had one of the biggest basketball promo programs--45 pro players under contract, 10 of whom were Nike Pro Club members, who were receiving increasingly expensive annual trips. In 1977, Pro Club players and their families went to the Royal Lahaina in Maui, a first-class, old-style resort on the Kaanapali Coast. When some players complained about paying their own phone bills, Blue Ribbon got a taste of just how pampered top NBA players were becoming.
The NBA’s a stupid place for Nike to spend money, Vaccaro said over and over again.
“Nobody’s taking on these young kids in the colleges,” Vaccaro said. “Black and East is basketball. It isn’t pros. It isn’t West Coast white kids. You guys are missing the playgrounds, and you’re missing the colleges and that’s what basketball’s all about.”
“We’re selling a lot of basketball shoes compared to a year ago,” protested Strasser.
Vaccaro shook his head.
“You know a guy named George Case with Pro-Keds?” he asked. “He came to the Dapper and gave kids a few pairs of shoes. No T-shirts, just shoes. They loved those shoes because they got them at the Dapper, which meant they were some of the best high school players in the country. They were like a badge of honor.”
Basketball wasn’t an individual sport like track, Nike’s mainstay. A company usually had to get a whole team in a shoe because it was part of a uniform. The question was how to do that without breaking NCAA rules, which prevented companies from giving free shoes directly to individual athletes or paying them to wear shoes.
The rules didn’t forbid the paying of coaches, and Strasser and Vaccaro figured that was their opening. The coach got money from Nike. The kids got free shoes. The schools spent less on their equipment budget at a time school budgets were constricting. Who could possibly be a victim?
But Strasser did have one major concern.
“We don’t want to look like we’re paying college kids to wear shoes,” he said to Vaccaro. “Let’s focus on the coaches. Make them part of a Nike advisory staff. Set up clinics, and give their kids free shoes. Let’s also do an annual trip for the coaches and their families so that we can make them feel like part of the Nike family.”
“OK,” said Vaccaro confidently.
“What’s in it for you?” asked Strasser.
“I want to be Joe Dean,” he said. “I want to beat Joe Dean.”
Every basketball junkie in the country knew who Joe Dean was. He had been Converse’s key basketball promotion man since 1970, and had gotten the best teams in the country in All-Stars.
Strasser asked how much Vaccaro thought it would cost to get coaches to switch to Nike.
“Nothing,” said Vaccaro. “I mean practically nothing. Nobody’s giving them anything now.”
Strasser presented the plan at the Nike management summit in December 1977.
“Sonny runs the Dapper Dan, the most influential high school tournament in America,” Strasser said. “I say we bump Pro-Keds and become a sponsor of that tournament. Then we put Sonny on our payroll, give him a budget and let him figure out a way to get top college coaches with Nike.”
There was a short pause.
“Let me run an FBI check and find out if this guy is Mafia,” said Bob Woodell, a onetime college long jumper who had been paralyzed in an accident and was now running Nike’s shoe factory in Exeter, N.H.
” . . ., you’ve got to be kidding!” Strasser yelled.
Woodell wasn’t kidding. A union leader had recently threatened him in his office. Woodell had done some checking around and determined that the guy had ties to organized crime. Not that it fazed him. “What’s he going to do,” Woodell had joked, “break my legs?”
The rest of Strasser’s friends merely saw in this debate a chance to egg him on--getting Strasser riled was great sport.
“We want him investigated by the FBI,” said Phil Knight, Blue Ribbon’s founder.
“For what?” Strasser shouted. “Betting on football? Hardly a federal offense unless you want to indict half of America.”
When Strasser was suitably riled, the group agreed to hire Vaccaro as a consultant. If Vaccaro was ever investigated, no one remembered it.
The plan was to get top teams in Nike before the Final Four, four months away. Strasser drew up a simple two-page contract offering $2,000 for giving Nike clinics for high school coaches and players. The contracts did not demand a coach put his kids in the shoes. They did provide, however, free Nike shoes for the coach and his team and support for the coach’s summer camp.
Vaccaro boarded a plane out of Portland with a fistful of Strasser’s cookie-cutter contracts, an expense account, a checking account into which Nike had deposited $20,000 and carte blanche on how to spend it. When he landed in Las Vegas, he walked over to his friend, UNLV Coach Jerry Tarkanian.
He signed Tark.
Vaccaro then flew to Pittsburgh and drove up to the basketball camp of Duke’s head coach, Bill Foster, in the Pocono Mountains. (Duke had been the NCAA runner-up and was ranked No. 1 in preseason polls.) Then he got Jimmy Lynam at St. Joseph, Lefty Driesell at Maryland, Hugh Durham at Georgia and Frank McGuire at South Carolina. McGuire had coached the famous 33-0 (North Carolina) team in 1957 that had beaten Wilt Chamberlain’s Kansas team in triple overtime to win the NCAA title.
Many coaches didn’t believe Vaccaro’s pitch at first; the deal seemed too good to be true. When Iona Coach Jim Valvano saw Vaccaro reach into his briefcase and draw out a check, he later joked, he thought Vaccaro was going to ask him to throw a game. Here he was, a nameless coach at a nameless college, and Nike was going to pay him, give him free shoes for his kids, support his camps and take him and his wife on a trip every August. “This can’t be anything legal,” he finally said. Vaccaro convinced him it was, and Valvano signed.
In less than a year, Nike had signed 10 of the best schools in the country and sponsored a premier high school all-star tournament.
In 1978, Strasser and national sales manager Jim Moodhe were at a routine sporting goods industry breakfast in Houston where Gib Ford, vice president of Converse, was addressing the problem of escalating shoe contracts in the NBA.
Violation of those contracts was costing everybody money, Ford said. Then he dropped a bomb: He suggested that the shoe companies share information about which players they had signed in hopes shoe companies would stop stealing each other’s athletes.
Strasser, who figured the comments were directed at Nike, thought the idea ludicrous. Some of the players who wore Nike didn’t have contracts. Others had contracts due to expire. Sharing information would be like giving the competition a treasure map.
“No way,” said Strasser. He and Moodhe got up and walked out.
The meeting was a turning point in the war for NBA players. Without such cooperation, the endorsement war escalated.
Things were going better than Vaccaro or Strasser had ever imagined--until November of 1978.
“Have you seen the Washington Post?” Strasser asked Vaccaro over the phone one day. “There’s a story about Nike paying college coaches. Get your butt to Oregon. Go through Idaho if you have to.”
The Post story suggested the very thing Strasser had feared by stating that ". . . coaches should get out of the shoe business because of the nasty step it suggests--that college players will be the next ones offered money by overzealous salesmen. Of course, this assumes some of them are not getting money under the laces now.”
Vaccaro got to Oregon as fast as he could, sleeping in an airport overnight to get there. When he walked into Blue Ribbon, he kept saying, look, they hadn’t broken any rules. They hadn’t forced coaches to make players wear the shoes; not all the players on their teams had worn Nike that first year, and Nike had lived with that.
Strasser started talking damage control.
“Now’s the time to strike,” he told Strasser. “Don’t you see? We’re home free. This only makes our job easier. Now everybody knows what the hell we’re doing. It’s good advertising. My phone is already starting to ring with guys who want to sign up.”
Strasser weighed his options. Nike could pull back and keep quiet. Or they could say to hell with it, and move on. If the NCAA was going to come down on them, they would do it whether Nike signed one coach or 50.
Strasser upped Vaccaro’s budget to $90,000 and told him to make an all-out push to sign more coaches before the competition--namely Adidas, Converse, Pro-Keds and Puma--started another bidding war.
What Strasser thought might be a disaster turned out to be a national ad. Although the article painted Nike as the primary culprit in the payment of college basketball coaches, it also mentioned that Converse had been paying a few famous coaches like Dean Smith and Joe B. Hall. A few Converse coaches who hadn’t gotten money felt Converse had misled them and ultimately switched to Nike.
In another unexpected payback, the Post got “Iona” mixed up with “Iowa,” and reported that Iowa Coach Lute Olson was being paid by Nike. Olson signed with Vaccaro, joking that if he was going to take some heat, he might as well get some benefit.
Instead of offering coaches more, Converse pulled back, waiting for the storm to blow over. By the time Converse wanted back in, it was too late. By 1979, Nike had the signatures of more than 50 college coaches on the same two-page contracts, and Converse sales were declining. When Vaccaro walked by a newsstand in Las Vegas and saw the cover of the March 26, 1979, issue of Sports Illustrated covering the NCAA tournament game between Indiana State and Arkansas, he saw Indiana State’s No. 33, Larry Bird, in a pair of Nike shoes.
Vaccaro headed to the closest phone.
“Pick up the . . . Sports Illustrated,” Vaccaro shouted to Strasser. “We were right and we’re gonna be more right. They’ll all come with us. I know it.”