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Sparing No Expense, but at Whose Expense? : Shoe war: Nike's recent 'Fab 40' fiasco, as well as its plunge into sports management, has some wondering if company is going too far to broaden its influence.

October 17, 1993|DANNY ROBBINS and ELLIOTT ALMOND | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Said Bob Minnix, an NCAA enforcement representative who monitors summer camps and all-star games: "You couldn't separate a (prominent agent such as) Leigh Steinberg from what his real business is, which is being an agent. But you can separate several areas with Nike.

"Their main thing is to sell shoes. Like fingers on a hand, (Nike's shoe and sports management interests) are together, but separate. I don't know. Time will tell if that whole view of things will end up changing."

Calling the ruling by the NCAA Interpretations Committee "a joke," Louisiana State Coach Dale Brown, who endorses Reebok, said he will work to change it.

"Why don't we run the same camps and take kids who aren't stars and develop them? Let's take the guys who don't have good (basketball) skills," he said. "Well, of course, that's not the way it works. It's the superstars who go. And why are they going? Because somebody's profiting from it. And now, if Nike can represent those kids, I think that's absolutely, totally ludicrous."

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Nike, for its part, did not seem particularly sensitive to the issue in setting up its "Fab 40" tournament.

"Come See 40 Players Better Than Michael Jordan," proclaimed Nike's ad in the Portland Oregonian touting the portion of the competition that was open to the public.

Among the players on display was Felipe Lopez, a 6-foot-5 shooting guard from New York who is perhaps the top senior prospect in the nation.

Lopez's presence in Beaverton was, by some accounts, due as much to his choice earlier in the summer to attend Converse's ABCD camp in Ypsilanti, Mich., (run this year by Vaccaro) as it was to his talent.

"(Nike) was never going to have access to Felipe," Vaccaro said. "So how do you get it? You fly him across the country for three days . . . show him the Michael Jordan Center. Now you've got an entree."

Said Pat Barrett, who runs a Southern California spring league for Nike: "Sonny badmouths Nike, so some of the kids think Nike is bad. These kids from the ABCD camp who were brainwashed by Sonny got to go up (to Beaverton) and see what Nike is all about."

Shuebrooks, a former coach at Texas A&I University who joined Nike two years ago after stints with other shoe companies, has declined to discuss any aspect of the "Fab 40" event, referring all questions to Peters, the company spokesman.

Peters said the notion that the "Fab 40" was a way to get a leg up on Vaccaro is "speculative."

Exposing the top high school players to Nike was, he said, one reason for staging the event. But the company also had other reasons, he said, such as helping the players improve their communication skills and giving them insight into NCAA rules.

As for the idea that the event was simply another way for Nike to get its hooks in the next Mourning or Jordan, Peters said: "For as many times as the warm, fuzzy feelings prevail (between a company and a professional athlete), I'm going to suggest that those warm, fuzzy feelings are much, much less significant than the green stuff."

Outside "the berm," however, there are many who remain unconvinced.

Sparks, the Maryland high school administrator who compared the "Fab 40" to "child abuse," recounted how he recently received a letter from Nike explaining the company's position. According to Sparks, Nike's letter described the "Fab 40" as a way to give the participants "a positive playing and learning experience while building emotional ties with Nike."

Sparks found the letter to be less than reassuring.

"When I read that, I said, 'Hey, they still haven't figured out why everybody's upset,' " he said. "It hasn't dawned on them. When they put in a letter that they are building emotional relationships (with high school players), who's kidding whom about what's going on?"

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