Villain? Enabler? Vaccaro Stays Defiant
"The only problem I have is the word 'slime,' '' Vaccaro said. "A lot of what you say is right. But why is that word only connected to AAU? You've got to define what that means and who you're talking about. When you say slime, that envelopes everybody."
Yes, OK. Well, Rodney Guillory met 15-year old basketball phenom O.J Mayo at the camp in 2003.
Guillory went on to become a known street agent or runner, which is a much nicer term than bag man. He allegedly took $250,000 to direct Mayo to an agent, Bill Duffy Associates, shower the kid with TVs, clothes and other improper gifts and get his confidence.
"You're a purist at heart,'' Vaccaro said. "You still think there's virginity in this.''
Yes, OK. Well, Louis Johnson, a one-time hanger-on to the Mayo entourage said USC coach Tim Floyd also was in on it, paying Guillory at least $1,000 in cash to help get Mayo to Southern California. Mayo did play there.
But this isn't about one dirty case. It's a dirty culture. Mayo is just one example. And it's symbolic of so much that they met under Vaccaro's roof, because Vaccaro has a clear role in developing the way all of this works. He is the former shoe executive who started the Shoe Wars between sneaker companies, which all but professionalized youth sports with shoe company money, and...
"OK, so you want to start with that,'' Vaccaro said. "Let me say this and hopefully you understand: I am obviously the person who started the whole thing. ABCD camps, all these things, big-time tournaments, promotional things. The only problem I have with whoever the detractors are, and I hope you describe this well, is that I accept the responsibility, and I'm proud of it.
"If someone says I ruined basketball, I want them to explain why I did it alone. Everyone took money from the shoe companies. If they think this is a negative, then why absolve the NCAA and NBA? They took the money.''
This is what it's like spending an hour on the phone with Vaccaro. He's the godfather of youth sports, and explains his role convincingly at times, but at other times with a galling lack of accountability and recognition.
He has not ruined basketball. He has helped some kids to become recognized and to develop skills against the nation's best players.
But he has also set up a culture where the Guillorys of the world meet the Mayos, where street agents get control of kids, and shoe companies control AAU and high school teams, and everyone's financial interests meet in an unseemly way around children.
"No one stopped it when it started,'' Vaccaro said. "It's like a Trojan horse. They put it in front of the gate, and they opened the gate.''
Who put it in front of the gate?
Vaccaro starts with a history lesson, way back when Converse dominated basketball. He went to work for Nike, signed Michael Jordan, and helped to turn the place into a giant.
"We [Nike] thought, 'We'll pay coaches [to have their college teams wear Nike] and give them shoes for free,'' said Vaccaro, who's 69. "In the late '70s and '80s, we paid some of the NCAA coaches more money than the schools did. They weren't making a lot of money then. That's where I knew we had a bonanza. That's how it all started.
"And why didn't they stop Nike and Sonny Vaccaro then? They wanted the money. The presidents didn't stop me. Sure, give John Thompson the money. Give Eddie Sutton the money. Give Jim Boeheim the money. They lost their virginity a long time ago. How could it not be wrong then, but it's wrong now.''
Because then, you were dealing with men. Now, it is down to high school kids and younger. It's different with 13-year-olds.
"I'm not disputing that,'' he said. "The argument you're preaching is a good argument. But no one stopped it when it started.''
It didn't just start, though, Sonny. You started it.
"I'm not saying what you're saying is wrong,'' he said. "But the rules allow it. Parents, you should have better control of your situation.
"You have to admit that the signing of Michael Jordan was one of the greatest things done in the history of anything. It made Nike. The NBA took my money. The Bulls? The profited. We marketed the hell out of Michael Jordan.
"I wasn't chastised for that. I was chastised when I went to AAU, summer leagues, high school basketball. But everything I did was accepted by the people who talk about me behind my back now. Everything I did, they let me do.''
Vaccaro said things didn't start to escalate until he left Nike for Adidas in 1991. The shoe companies started bidding higher and higher in the Shoe Wars for AAU teams, high school teams, college teams to wear their stuff, affiliate with their camps.
With the bigger bucks around young kids, the street agents and runners started slithering in. Vaccaro feels that many kids are better represented now than they were, that many AAU coaches are looking out for the kids, and that when control was with the NCAA and NBA, it was not about looking out for kids' best interest.
It's hard to argue with any of that. Innocence is gone from all angles.
"Part of beating Sonny Vaccaro up,'' he said, "is I took the kids away from the 'sanctity' of college basketball.''
Vaccaro mentions that he left the shoe companies two years ago, and no one has stopped the camps or shoe deals. And he points to several college teams today, including Kentucky, Illinois and DePaul, saying they have gotten oral commitments from eighth and ninth graders.
So they also are getting their hands on young kids.
"What's the difference between an agent and a runner, and a college coach and an assistant coach?'' he said. "No difference, except the agent and runner are going to make money off the individual, but the individual is going to get paid by a shoe contract or pro contract.
"With the college coach and assistant coach, the player they're recruiting gets nothing. But the coach gets a $3 million raise.''
The player does get a chance for a college education.
Vacarro's latest cause is to fight the NBA and NCAA over the new age limit rules, prohibiting kids from going straight from high school to the NBA. On this one, he is 100 percent right, as no one should be stopping 18-year-old men from starting their careers. Yet again, the NBA and NCAA do not look out for the players, but for themselves.
If a player goes to college, and plays in the NCAA Tournament, then he comes to the NBA as a fully marketed commodity, not an unknown high school grad. Meanwhile, the NCAA gets the best players, and credibility, for its tournament. So Vaccaro has started to help direct some high school grads not into colleges, but into pro leagues overseas, where they are getting six- and seven-figure contracts.
He looks to the NBA conference finals, with teams filled with alumni from his camps or players who jumped straight from high school before the age rule.
"Orlando. Two of their best players are Dwight Howard and Rashard Lewis,'' he said. "LeBron James, high school player. Kobe Bryant, Andrew Bynum high school players. J.R. Smith, a very valuable player of the Nuggets.
"If everything is so bad for them, how could it be that the four best teams in all the world, and every one of those kids, except Bynum, played at my camp?''
And Mayo, he said, makes $4 million a year in Memphis.
Sure, we hear about the ones it works out for. But too many young kids don't make it, and don't need slimeballs handling them.
"I'm not saying that what you're saying is wrong," Vaccaro said.
Only that the Trojan horse is already in the gates, shown again, allegedly, with Guillory, Mayo, Floyd and the USC, yes, Trojans.