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Sonny Vaccaro laces 'em up for a new fight

The former shoe company executive is on a crusade against the NCAA and the NBA, whose rule barring the drafting of high school players is, he says, 'totally un-American.'

January 17, 2009|KURT STREETER

The person who may have had the biggest impact on this week's UCLA dust-up against Arizona wasn't on the court at Pauley Pavilion. Instead, he sat in Section 213, Row 8, Seat 12, talking my ear off, letting off a tremendous amount of steam.

"I have mixed emotions about watching this game," said Sonny Vaccaro. "I just can't watch without getting mad at the whole ridiculous system."

Vaccaro -- a controversial 69-year-old who proudly admits that some refer to him as a "fat, Italian gangster" -- has had broad and significant impact on modern basketball. The summer hoops camps he ran for decades were a spawning ground that helped the Kobe Bryants and Kevin Garnetts of the world go from high school straight to the pros. The shoe company endorsement deals he signed with college coaches and NBA players helped create the current gilded age of big-money corporate sponsorship in basketball.

In 1984, Vaccaro convinced the suits at Nike to sign a young point guard from North Carolina. Air Jordan was born. The rest is history.

"Everybody wanted something from me then," said Vaccaro, his voice scratchy, as always, and still tinged with the Pittsburgh hardness of his youth. "I'd get call after call after call from the coaches and the players, every day. . . . Now, it's a lot different."

Two years ago, Vaccaro abruptly stopped putting on camps. He left his job as a shoe exec for Reebok. But rather than easing into retirement, he carved out a new niche. Angered by a long-simmering distaste for the masters of college sports, and by the 2005 NBA rule that forced American high school kids to wait at least one year before joining the league, he launched himself into a one-man crusade against the very entities that helped make him: the NCAA and the NBA.

Today, instead of a high-powered job wooing college coaches and future superstars, Vaccaro toils in relative obscurity. With little fanfare, he rails at what he considers to be great injustice. "Completely and totally un-American; add to that, anti-free market," he says of the NBA age limit. "Absurdly arrogant . . . a cabal . . . racist" are just some of his terms for the powers that rule big-time college sport.

To press his point, he has taken to the college-lecture circuit, eagerly making his case at places such as Harvard, Yale, Columbia, Penn and the University of Maryland, where he has been extremely well-received, according to Wharton School of Business professor Ken Shropshire.

"Nobody knows the basketball world better than Sonny," said the professor. "He's riveting."

Pushing reform, Vaccaro says he has made inroads in Washington with power brokers who share his concerns about the NCAA, a nonprofit that takes in hundreds of millions of tax-free dollars off the backs of football and basketball players who are too often treated like pawns, discarded with little thought. His prime goal is to testify before Congress.

Maybe most important, Vaccaro is making every effort to put a fork in the age-limit rule by creating a pipeline that would send top high school players to Europe instead of the NBA. His thinking: If the pipeline entices enough star players it will have co-opted college basketball, and made European basketball a lot more attractive as a long-term career destination. Accomplish this and the NBA starts having second thoughts about keeping high school kids out of its draft.

His test case is Brandon Jennings, a McDonald's All-American who, before meeting Vaccaro, planned to spend this season as the Arizona Wildcats' prized freshman.

Jennings, 19 and so talented that he most likely would have been a first-round draft pick if he could have gone from high school to the pros, is the kind of player who might have made a big difference for Arizona in its 83-60 loss Thursday night at Pauley. But last summer, Vaccaro initiated Las Vegas workouts for the 6-foot-2 point guard, inviting scouts from Europe.

Vaccaro then helped negotiate with Virtus Roma of the Italian League a contract he said runs three years for roughly $1.5 million, with an opt-out clause Jennings probably will use after this season.

So, instead of living in Tucson and competing for free against amateurs and teens, Jennings gets paid handsomely to live in Rome and compete against grown men, which is improving his game. In Euroleague play he has averaged 8.2 points and 1.2 assists in about 18 minutes a game, making him primarily a valued reserve but hardly a superstar.

Still, Vaccaro says he believes that given the tougher-than-college competition, plus the fact he is playing far from home and must therefore show great maturity to survive, Jennings has proven to NBA scouts that he's ready to be a top draft pick.

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