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The Life

October 29, 2002
The NCAA's nightmare
ESPN The Magazine

The announcement blares over the gym's P.A. system: "ALL COACHES MUST EXIT THE SAME WAY THEY CAME IN." Then it's repeated, in a tone just shy of Andrew "Dice" Clay, delivering the subliminal message that the announcer finds the duty both silly and insulting.

Welcome to July's ABCD Camp at Farleigh Dickinson University in Teaneck, N.J. -- sponsored by adidas but still wholly owned by Sonny Vaccaro, who has been associated for decades with one athletic shoe company or another but regards himself as a "talent supplier." In any case, his courtship and accommodation of young talent has built an express lane to pro basketball that offers an alternative to the NCAA toll road.

The NCAA, quite naturally, is not happy about this, so the powers that be have tried to -- well, I'm not sure what their purpose is, but they write more restrictions governing Vaccaro's events every year. That they're still trying to rein him in smacks of the marathon runner still out on the course long after the crowd has left and the race banners and finish line have been put away. Sonny heeds what the NCAA imposes upon his camps and high-school all-star game and summer AAU tournament because the majority of his campers won't make the pros and need to maintain their collegiate eligibility. But the younger the talent entering the NBA, the more his value has increased among the pros rather than the colleges.

"The college game has not been important to me in a long, long time," he says. "But they'd call off the watchdogs tomorrow if I retired. I'm their No. 1 canonite for expulsion." Sonny says it gleefully, as well he should. The more of a bad guy the NCAA tries to make him out to be, the more any kid from a poor background identifies with him. If the NCAA was hoping to undermine his influence or the kids' devotion, they'd be better off taking his cell phone.

"Sam Clancy, my friend," says Sonny, talking into his phone as he watches the action courtside. "Bring me your son when you have one and I'll put him in camp, too. Are you in California or Cleveland? How's the rehabilitation on the knee coming? Good. Okay, I'll talk to you tomorrow."

If Clancy, the USC forward and 76ers' second-round pick, has a son who plays ball, bet that he will. Playing in an event run by Sonny has become a sort of family heirloom passed down through generations or across families. Both Jelly Bean Bryant, Kobe's father and Jelly Bean's brother-in-law, John Cox, played in Sonny's all-star game, as did Kobe. As did Stephon Marbury, who has stopped by to check on his cousin, Sebastian Telfair. As did Tracy McGrady, who will stop by and talk to the campers about what Sonny and the camp's exposure did for him right before NCAA officials meet with them to discuss the complicated and peculiar rules they must follow to remain eligible.

"There's not a kid I'm closer to than this one," Sonny says, hugging T-Mac in front of the campers. "There were some people who told him he couldn't have a dream. He overcame that. If ever there was a story, none epitomizes ABCD more than Tracy McGrady."

T-Mac is wearing a baseball hat, a white 1996 camp T-shirt, shorts that stop at mid-shin and glittering chain. "Sonny," McGrady says into a microphone in front of the campers, "I appreciate what you've done for me. You've done a lot for a lot of guys."

One kid stands up and asks McGrady what he thinks of European players. Before he can finish the question he's drowned by boos. The next question is, "Seeing as you dunk on everybody, how'd you feel when Ray Allen dunked on you?" The room explodes with laughter. McGrady waits for them to calm down, then turns to Sonny. "How much did I just sign for," he says, then turns back to the kid in the audience, "and what's your name?" That draws an equally loud chorus of oooohs.

Next up: the NCAA enforcement officers in their crisp polo shirts and belted slacks, clean-cut to the max, working with an overhead projector to explain the number of phone calls a school is allowed to make, or parents are allowed to make in return. The campers' biggest issue actually is why they're not allowed to keep their camp gear. It's one of the many restrictions that make the NCAA look either na´ve or punitive, and rest assured the adidas soccer camps aren't held to the same limitations. No wonder when Sonny pipes up from the back of the room to suggest some families can't afford the long-distance return calls, the campers chant, "Son-ny! Son-ny!" He quiets them and apologizes for the interruption to the young black female enforcement officer running the projector.

"Don't call me 'honey,'" she says, bristling.

"I do apologize for that," he says.

Somehow, you get the sense the NCAA had hoped to get a little more out of him than that.

Ric Bucher covers the NBA for ESPN The Magazine. E-mail him at

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