Thursday, April 21, 2011

The Grassroots Godfather: Sonny Vaccaro

If you can believe it, the players in the National Basketball Association weren’t always walking billboards for sneaker companies. Once upon a time, players didn’t have sneaker contracts. There were no sneaker commercials. And Nike, Reebok, Adidas, Converse and every other footwear company on the planet weren’t shelling out millions of dollars every year to get their logos out into the world. Outside of a couple of signature sneakers, it was, more or less, a completely untapped market.

About 30 years ago, all of that changed thanks to the tireless efforts of marketing executive Sonny Vaccaro, now 71, who helped create a culture around sneakers that turned some superstar athletes—and even just star athletes—into high-profile celebrities with million-dollar endorsement deals. That’s not all that Sonny’s done, though. Over the course of his career, he’s also changed the culture surrounding high school basketball by holding all-star games that have helped put the spotlight on everyone from Shaquille O’Neal to LeBron James and become one of the go-to guys for basketball commentary.

As a result of all of that, a new HBO flick, ABCD Camp, starring The Sopranos actor James Gandolfini as Vaccaro, is scheduled hit the small screen sometime later this year. But before it does, we decided to take a look at the 10 ways Vaccaro has changed the game of basketball. It’s time to pay your respects to the “Grassroots Godfather.”

He signed Michael Jordan to his first sneaker contract.
This list could start and end here and we’re pretty sure you’d understand just how important Vaccaro was to the game of basketball. As a marketing executive at Nike, Vaccaro helped ink His Airness to his first endorsement deal. Safe to say, that turned out pretty well for everyone involved.

He started the first national high school basketball game.
Before the birth of the Internet, there wasn’t a really reliable way to keep tabs on the level of talent that existed in high school basketball. Enter The Dapper Dan Roundball Classic, which Vaccaro created back in 1965. It lasted for more than 40 years and featured players like Shaq, Kobe Bryant, Vince Carter, Patrick Ewing and more. For the first time ever, hoops fans could check out the best of the best in the high school ranks every year. It also helped birth some of today’s high school showcases like the Jordan Classic.

He founded the elite ABCD Camp.
Just about every city in America has a basketball camp in the summer. How then, Vacarro thought back in the early 1980s, could elite players get exposure for themselves, if every Joe, John and Jim across the country was crowding into summer camps? The answer was Vaccaro’s ABCD Camp, which he created in 1984 to help elite players get exposure. And players like LeBron James, Tracy McGrady and Kobe Bryant rushed to his camps in order to get it. Though Vaccaro closed up shop back in 2007, other similar camps like the LeBron James Skill Academy, which—not coincidentally hosted by Nike—has taken its place and continued the mission.

He got all of the major sneaker companies involved with his camp.
Want to know why just about every basketball camp that’s worth a lick these days is sponsored by a major sneaker company? Look no further than the aforementioned ABCD Camp, which was always sponsored by one of the big sneakers companies (see: Nike, Adidas, Converse or Reebok). These companies used their power and influence over the camp to help get their name out and drill their names and logos into the brains of players who could possibly sign endorsement deals with them later. In other words, the ABCD Camp made basketball camps big business.

He made summer leagues count for something.
Many years ago, high school basketball was played from November through March—and then put on the shelf until the following November. Vaccaro and others like him saw the opportunity for summer ball to make a real difference for many players. So while he was busy running his ABCD Camp, others ran similar camps and summer leagues during the offseason. This helped players improve dramatically and also made college and pro ball more popular than ever as well as people started to connect with players long before they reached the NBA.

He has been very vocal about the hypocrisy that exists in the NCAA.
One of the things Vaccaro has been criticized for is the fact that he is so tightly connected to both sneaker companies and young, impressionable athletes. But since he shut down his ABCD Camp—and even while he was running the camp— Vaccaro has been one of the NCAA’s harshest critics. He’s spoken out against the by-laws and policies that they have in place concerning student-athletes and what they can and cannot do. He’s always spoken up for the young, impressionable athletes that he’s been connected to and has given more credibility to the fact that the NCAA does have a certain level of questionable policies.

He also used the NCAA system to build up the Nike brand.
While he’s been critical of the NCAA, he used the schools that play under the NCAA umbrella in order to help build Nike into a powerhouse back in the 1980s and 1990s. He paid coaches and their teams to wear Nike clothing and sneakers and, of course, they agreed to the arrangement. There was nothing illegal or immoral about the arrangement—it was just the first of its kind—and it helped Nike get more publicity than they possibly could have in any other way. All those logos you see on your favorite college teams now? You can thank Sonny for them.

He put the power back in the player’s hands.
For better or worse, Vaccaro has stuck it to the NCAA by giving players the power to control their own destiny. Rather than sit around and wait for colleges to discover them, Vaccaro’s camps have fueled top player lists on the Internet, which means that at this very moment, you can go discover the best fifth grade players in the country. He has also helped countless players get the exposure that they’ve needed to make it back to the next level. So for every parent who’s complained about Vaccaro’s tactics, there’s been another one right next to them giving Vaccaro props for helping their son get ahead.

He encouraged players to get around the NBA’s age-limit requirement by playing in Europe.
In recent years, Vaccaro has stepped away from the world of summer camps and become more influential on big-ticket items involving players and their futures. Most notably, he’s been vocal about encouraging kids to get around the NBA’s age-limit requirement by going to play in Europe for a year or two in order to make some extra cash and advance their skills. He actually went as far as helping current Milwaukee Bucks guard Brandon Jennings get a sneaker deal and a contract offer in Italy when he expressed his desire to skip college to play overseas. It hasn’t worked out for all players that have done it (see: Jeremy Tyler, who struggled mightily while playing in Israel last year) but Vaccaro has made sure that it’s at least an option for players who don’t want to attend college.

He has remained involved in many NBA-related stories.
From the age-limit requirement to LeBron James’ free agency period, Vaccaro has stayed active in the basketball community by offering up his opinion on just about everything related to youth basketball and the players who have come up under him. And while he may be 71, don’t expect him to give it up anytime soon, either. Basketball is in this guy’s blood—and changing the game is just a part of carrying the Vaccaro name.

Via - LifeandTimes.Com

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