Yesterday, Sonny Vaccaro explained why he feels defensive about Brandon Jennings.
Jennings, says Vaccaro, has endured criticism -- and perhaps was drafted artificially low -- as punishment for playing his post-high school year playing professionally in Italy, instead of paying his dues to the powers that be in NCAA basketball.
The way people talked about Jennings leading up to the draft does suggest opinion-makers weren't at all sure what to make of the player who has been the shining star of the rookie class in the season's early going.
Vaccaro is a powerful basketball insider, who has played a pivotal role in the careers of may top basketball players, from Kobe Bryant to O.J. Mayo. In the second installment of the conversation, Vaccaro discusses getting to know a young Brandon Jennings, a fateful meeting in an Italian restaurant, and how Jennings came to the decision to skip college.
Do you have a favorite Brandon Jennings moment? When you thought he would be special?
Yeah! This is a true story. He was in eighth grade, going into ninth grade. We had one of my camps or something at Artesia High School. Near his house.
He was playing on this AAU team. The best one. Southern California All-Stars. They had great players. They were really good, and he was beating this team like 100-10. Just killing them.
And the end of the game, he threw a long pass, like over his head and behind his back to get somebody a dunk. I ran after him, I swear to god almighty, and he's like 13 or 14, and I ran after him and said: "Don't you ever do that. You're too good. Don't you ever show up the people you're playing against like that."
I gave him a Sonny speech. It was a Sonny moment.
I don't know why I did it.
But I saw that this kid had this thing about him. But I didn't ever want him to take it for granted, or to embarrass other players. It was a moment.
He didn't play at a lot of my camps. I quit the camps his senior year. He didn't play at the Roundball Classic because I didn't have a Roundball Classic his senior year. Those are the things that the kids usually went through all the process, O.J. [Mayo], Kevin [Garnett], Greg [Oden], Kobe [Bryant] ... they went from the camp to the Big-Time Tournament and all that.
The last time, his junior year his team beat Derrick Rose and Eric Gordon's team in the final of the Big-Time Tournament in one of the greatest summer league's game ever. I just talked to Reggie Rose -- Derrick's brother -- about it a couple of days ago. It was Eric Gordon and Derrick Rose and his Chicago team, against Pat Barrett's Southern California All-Stars team with Kevin Love, Daniel Hackett, Taylor King, Brandon Jennings, a sophomore Renardo Sidney. And they won by two points or something. Derrick and Eric were unbelievable. It was one of the greatest summer league games ever.
Then there was a year of separation. He went to Oak Hill. I didn't talk to him for a year.
Then that fateful call. I flew to New York as soon as I got that call. I wanted to be part of that.
Tell me about the fateful phone call.
I hadn't seen him in a year. That was the first thing. It wasn't like we were continuous, like everybody thinks it was. Then he said I'm in New York. [Vaccaro's wife] Pam and I were going to the draft the next day. So we flew and met Brandon in an Italian restaurant.
Just a coincidence that -- as you embark on sending him to Italy -- it was an Italian restaurant?
No. Most of my restaurants are Italian restaurants. [Laughs].
Turned out to be prophetic.
Yes it was.
You have to understand. That was right before the NBA draft. I kept saying: Do you know what you're doing? They're going to beat you up. And then when you say that I'm the guy who is handling all of this, you're going to get double indemnity here. The two of us ... a perfect couple for Vogue magazine, you know that!
I think I was a little proud that he asked me to do this. That he believed in me.
Had you shared with him in advance that going to Europe was something he ought to consider?
He heard it on the radio! I never spoke to him about it. He heard me say it on the "Loose Cannons" radio show I used to be a regular on. I had nothing to do with Brandon's decision.
I had been preaching "Go to Europe" since David Stern put that stupid rule in. And then he heard me and called me.
It's too simple for skeptics to believe.
I told him they were going to kill him.
We did everything, Pam and I. I did the shoe contract, I did everything. Duff [Agent Bill Duffy] came on in January.
Brandon, me, and Alice, and [Jenning's half-brother] Terrence, and my wife Pam, we walked this walk together. And that's what people don't understand. And to see this happen now. You have to be inhuman not to feel good for him.
I don't know what's going to happen. But one thing we can say, Henry Abbott, there's no more questions about whether he can play basketball. All the great coaches, all the great commentators, and all the great universities had nothing to do with it.
Why Italy, by the way?
Well, because we went to Las Vegas. Right after the draft, as you know, they all go to the Summer League out there. ... He started working out at the Tarkanian gym, and then I got these teams, reluctantly, to come watch. The Italians were really really interested. I met the general manager, and he worked him out personally. The first day, there was great interest. So the Israeli people come. The Russian people come to meet the next day at the games over in the gym, and they wanted to have workouts.
And by the afternoon of the second day, the Italian team had made, to paraphrase, an offer that we couldn't refuse.
I said Brandon, this is a lot of money. We can work out for the Israelis, the Russians, the Greeks. But s---, this is a lot. This is a lot! Let's go for it.
They were good. We met, and we got the deal done, and everything they said it was going to be, it was. They called the coach up, who was in Greece for the World Championships and all that sort of stuff, so they really wanted him. They recruited him, and we never really entertained much else. Two days after that I saw these other guys in the gym, and I said we made a deal.
Basically, the money was great. And Brandon had an affinity for going to Rome. If nothing else, Rome is an international city. A lot of Americans go through it. It has such history to it. The amenities were great. The living quarters, the car for the mom, the school for the brother -- they paid tuition, $25,000 for his brother to go to a diplomat's school -- all the things were good. And it was the highest level of European basketball. That was basically it.
And then we did the shoe deal. I talked to all the shoe companies, they Under Armour stepped up, and I think ... he got the fourth best shoe deal last year, I think the money he's earning this year, is more than what any rookie got this year. I don't know that the other people all got, but Brandon's is pretty damn good. And Under Armour stepped up.
We had the stars and the moon, everything lined up. They were a new company, and he's dynamic, and we go to Rome, and have a beautiful press conference overlooking the city.
I think the one thing that really helped a lot was the honest look that Bryant Gumbel did on Real Sports. I think Bryant helped defray the negative stuff that was coming. And I think Chris Broussard went over there, and Brandon was the leading scorer in the exhibition season. That was the irony here. Then his coach went brain dead on me [and played Jennings in a limited role].
It all happened. But the public didn't know that. They just know he didn't go play for Lute Olson.
Moreso than Kobe and all those guys, he's demonized. Because he took the European route. In the eyes of a public, he was a failure. But in Brandon's eyes, he wasn't. He learned. And that's why, of all the kids, through all the things ... Obviously, my life has been blessed, and every one is special in their own way, but I think I feel better personally, my wife and I, about the outcome of Brandon Jennings to this point then all the other ones.
Because the other ones, the landmines weren't there. When Kobe went out of high school, when Kevin went out of high school, when they all went out of high school you accepted it. That was the rule.
This guy wouldn't accept what they told him he had to do.