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The Life

October 28, 2002
The Last Don
ESPN The Magazine

The man responsible for the most points, rebounds, assists and highlight plays in NBA history is a diabetic and amnesiac who has avoided exercise since injury aborted his college football career 40 years ago. He's hobbling this particular morning, having sprained his ankle a day earlier getting the morning newspaper. John "Sonny" Vaccaro has long been cast as some kind of mafioso, strong-arming amateur basketball for much of his 63 years. And that's by people who haven't seen him shuffling unshaven at 9 a.m. in sweatpants and a T-shirt, showing off his Calabasas, Calif., tomato garden like Don Corleone.

Sonny Vacarro
No one has more influence on the prep game than Vaccaro.
Those people were going on the bloodhound eyes beneath a balding pate, the wide shoulders above a round belly, the thin lips framing a wide mouth and a cackle straight out of The Sopranos. Throw in the nickname, the Las Vegas family ties, the lifelong battle with certain authority figures, the pretty, blonde wife -- Pam, his second -- 19 years his junior and his way of greeting everyone with a hug or a kiss, and Sonny Vaccaro fits the wise-guy persona down to the last cannoli.

Which is precisely why inner-city kids identify with this old white guy who reads Gandhi, listens to golden oldies, still doesn't eat meat on Fridays and never played organized basketball. It's the same reason Scarface and The Godfather are on every NBA player's favorite-movie list. Any minority who has busted his or her butt to succeed and has suffered that you-must-be-crooked look can relate. Any old Italian guy with lots of friends and money must be shady. A young black kid with fresh hip-hop gear and a nice car must be a drug dealer.

Let's just say it stings a little more than being tagged a yuppie because your Land Rover has a chocolate Lab in the back.

"We are all not created equal," Sonny says. "That's a fallacy perpetuated by The Machine."

Vaccaro rose to power challenging The Machine -- a.k.a. the NCAA -- on behalf of poor, young (mostly black) athletes and their families, and for those scoring at home, the war is over. The NCAA continues to craft new legislation hoping to restrict Sonny and anyone like him from holding sway over young athletes, but the bottom line is that playing in college is no longer a prerequisite for a basketball career. Instead of schools making millions off players who then have to reach the next level for their cut, the money is going directly to the players themselves.

And that means Sonny has won.

It all started in 1965 with a high school all-star game, the Dapper Dan Roundball Classic, which Sonny ran in Pittsburgh, near his hometown of Trafford, Pa. Selection quickly became the most coveted prize a young player with collegiate hopes could get. Thirteen years later, Sonny approached Phil Knight and his fledgling Nike outfit, offering to challenge Converse's dominance of the basketball shoe market. He paid college coaches (who readily accepted) to outfit their teams in Nike apparel. In 1992, a second shoe war erupted when Vaccaro joined adidas, taking his array of events -- his all-star game, his AAU tournament and his weeklong summer camp -- with him.

His legacy includes hooking up Michael Jordan with Nike and Kobe Bryant with adidas, but Sonny's success has always been based on selling himself, not his product. When Jordan took him along on a private jaunt around Europe, he did it as a friend. Sonny never approached Kobe directly, but he moved to New York for six months so he could have Kobe's parents up from Philly every week for Sunday brunch.

Even though Sonny doesn't expect his newest star acquaintance, LeBron James, to sign with either adidas or Arn Tellem (Sonny's favorite agent), Vaccaro is as valued as ever. Reebok made a run at Sonny last July, and adidas subsequently re-upped him as director of sports development for as long as he wants to work. The NBA generations whose hoop livelihoods were boosted by Sonny now extend from Stu Jackson to Wally Walker to Byron Scott to T-Mac. "It's 20-plus years since I played in his game," says Walker, Sonics CEO and part owner. "But if he's on the phone, you pick it up."

His contacts go even beyond basketball -- Ulice Payne, the Milwaukee Brewers' new president, played in Sonny's game too.

Sonny's critics, though, believe that greed-driven adulation of young talent with NBA potential has undermined the game's quality and integrity, and that Sonny opened the door to no-holds-barred recruiting of AAU and college players. Sonny's stock reply: Providing talented players with perks went on long before he had anything to offer. Besides, the players' best interests have always come first for him. "You can't find a kid I've hurt," he says.

Neither the NCAA nor Nike, which charged him with corporate espionage, has been able to make anything stick. The only gripe from players is that Sonny plays favorites. But that's tempered by the acknowledgment that he'll help anyone. During his all-star game in Chicago last March, a scrawny fan came out of the stands and walked away with Sonny's home phone number.

"I was nobody coming out of high school," says Shaquille O'Neal. "But he always treated me nice. The better-known players got everything -- jackets and bags. But I was in a mismatched pair of raggedy shoes, and he made a phone call to get me a pair of size 17s."

The NCAA creates new restrictions every year for Vaccaro's ABCD Camp -- and only loses more ground by doing so. In a camp Q&A session with NCAA representatives this summer, Sonny challenged the byzantine edicts on how and when phone contact may be made between a player's family and a school's basketball staff. The players, who were mainly upset that new rules prohibited them from keeping their camp gear, chanted, "Son-ny! Son-ny!" and piped down only when Vaccaro asked that they show respect for the officials.

"I can't think of anyone who is more out of place in their vocation than me," Sonny says. "But I thank all these kids for my life. They validate me by playing in things I've been involved in."

He fully admits to endorsing Tellem and certain college coaches, but he balks at any inference that he offers enticements. He's quick to note that Kobe got his initial shoe deal even though he selected the William Morris Agency to represent him instead of Tellem. Same with Antoine Walker, who got a fat adidas contract and is not a Tellem client. Sonny's responsibility, as he sees it, is to accurately assess a kid's talent, then help him maximize his value in the basketball marketplace. His power is derived from an uncanny accuracy. For decades now, both players and coaches have sought and trusted his advice because he's told them the truth, sometimes at his own expense.

"Highly recruited players develop a keen sense real early about who is trying to help them and who is trying to get in their pocket," Walker says. "And Sonny has always come off as only wanting to help."

Vaccaro suffered a onetime, three-day memory loss at the French Open eight years ago, a form of amnesia that he now takes medicine to prevent. But he forgets neither favors nor slights. He routinely sends out dozens of birthday, anniversary and wedding presents. Yet he no longer speaks to George Raveling, once his friend and the best man at his second wedding, because Raveling suggested that Sonny's business wasn't good for basketball -- a position Vaccaro found particularly galling after Raveling, the ex-USC coach, became his Nike counterpart.

Everyone, though, is a friend until proven otherwise. "There's no prejudging on Sonny's part," says Clippers forward Lamar Odom, who signed with Nike even though Sonny got in trouble for buying him clothes while he was in high school. "If you're a C student, he doesn't assume you're dumb. If you need help, he's willing to give it. He treated me like family, and Pam is like a mother to everyone."

That may be the most precious enticement Sonny has in a world of single-parent and broken-home players. All are welcome to eat one of Pam Vaccaro's meals, talk to her about girlfriends or hang on Sonny's couch watching TV. "It's like you're going to see your aunt and uncle," says former Nuggets guard Darrick Martin. "Wherever he goes, I'll follow him until the day I stop playing."

Photos of Kobe and MJ and T-Mac share space on his home office walls with a framed photo of the Rat Pack that includes gambling chips and poker cards from the Sands Casino, as well as a canceled check to a Little League team from Dean Martin. He defiantly embraces his Italian heritage and Las Vegas ties -- his brother is a "consultant to the gaming industry" (i.e., casino oddsmaker) -- despite the innuendo they've fostered. His heroes -- Mario Andretti, Muhammad Ali and Roberto Clemente -- are represented as well, though the photos of Ali and Clemente are different from the rest. Both photos are taken from behind, offering glimpses of the world from a great but misunderstood athlete's perspective.

That's why Sonny is so powerful: No one in basketball has devoted more time to appreciating that view than him.

This article appears in the November 11 issue of ESPN The Magazine.

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