One-man rebellion: Sonny Vaccaro takes on the NCAA
Sneaker magnate from Trafford takes up cause of amateur players with a court case that could cause seismic shift to collegiate sports
June 16, 2013 8:00 AM
Courtesy Vaccaro family
Sonny Vaccaro with Chicago Bulls star Derrick Rose and his father, Reggie Rose, in an undated photo.
Courtesy Vaccaro family
Sonny Vaccaro with the Milwaukee Bucks' Brandon Jennings in Rome. Vaccaro helped Jennings sign with an Italian pro team, Lottomatica Roma, in 2008 instead of playing for an American college team for one season.
Courtesy Vaccaro family
Sonny Vaccaro speaking to Yale law students in 2007 about his life and pursuit of a lawsuit against the NCAA.
Isaac Brekken/Associated Press
Former UCLA basketball player Ed O'Bannon Jr. sits in his office in Henderson, Nev., in this 2010 photo. O'Bannon is part of a lawsuit seeking revenue sharing for NCAA athletes. "There are millions and millions of dollars being made off the sweat and grind of the student athlete," O'Bannon said. "Student athletes see none of that other than their education."
By J. Brady McCollough Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Sonny Vaccaro can get lost in his words, the stories tumbling clumsily from one into the next, and if you aren't careful, the conversation can really end up in the desert. But when he's on point, when he knows exactly what needs to be explained, his thoughts crystallize into a clear stream.
On a recent afternoon, Vaccaro, the 73-year-old former marketing wizard who first connected college sports with basketball shoe companies, found his focus.
"It wasn't an epiphany," he was saying, emphasizing the phrase for effect, because he knows how sudden it all might seem:
Vaccaro and his wife, Pam, selling their immaculate 6,000-square-foot dream home in Southern California for $2 million and moving to a 1,600-square-foot rental property in Northern California; Vaccaro traveling all over the country -- not to peddle sneakers and not to find the next Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant or LeBron James at one of the summer basketball camps he ran -- but to speak with college students and professors about the hypocrisy he sees in the NCAA.
He loves that academic twist in particular. John Paul "Sonny" Vaccaro, the son of an Italian immigrant steel worker from Trafford, Pa., regaling young minds in hallowed halls of learning. Ha!
But it wasn't an epiphany, no, no, no. Vaccaro has despised the NCAA since the 1970s, when the organization began -- in his view -- controlling college athletes with its rule book written in something like hieroglyphics. He has been obsessed for decades with redistributing the wealth he helped to create for the suits in that Indianapolis office building and giving it back to the athletes who wore the shoes and uniforms made by the companies he once championed.
The only change in Sonny Vaccaro is that he finally decided to act.
"It was a one-man rebellion," he says.
It was something like that, until Sonny reconnected with Ed O'Bannon, one of the hundreds of high school basketball phenoms to whom he provided a stage to perform. O'Bannon helped UCLA win the 1995 national championship before going No. 9 overall in the NBA Draft to the New Jersey Nets. Today, O'Bannon sells cars in Las Vegas and questions why the NCAA is still able to make money off of licensing his likeness to be used in video games and classic game replays.
Vaccaro convinced O'Bannon to be the plaintiff in a landmark antitrust lawsuit filed in 2009 against the NCAA. On Thursday, in U.S. District Court in San Francisco, a hearing will take place to decide whether O'Bannon v. NCAA will be a class-action suit. If the judge rules in favor of O'Bannon, the case -- and the impact it could possibly have on the future of college sports -- will become even bigger in scope.
O'Bannon, the face of this lawsuit, views Vaccaro as its heart.
"I wouldn't be here today if it wasn't for him," O'Bannon says. "He's 100 percent engulfed in it. This is his baby. That's why I think this case will succeed. Because he's behind it."
Vaccaro has always been fascinated by human beings who become legendary, those whom "people know who they are without having to see them," he says.
As Vaccaro has worked on this case from his new home, strategically located a few hours from the courthouse where the O'Bannon case will be heard, he can look to the walls of his office and see a connection to his old life.
About 15 years ago, when he was still working for Adidas, Pam bought him three framed pictures of athletes who were larger than their sport because they fought for what they believed in.
In one photo, Jesse Owens is taking off from the starting line in the 100-meter dash at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, on his way to a gold medal with Nazi Germany looking on. In the second, Cassius Clay looks in the mirror as he prepares for a bout. In the third, Roberto Clemente waits in the batters box for a pitch, ready to swing.
In all of the pictures, the athletes are photographed from behind.
"If you did something," Vaccaro says, "people know who you are."
A life recovered
Sonny Vaccaro did plenty of things in his first 53 years. But, late one night in the summer of 1993, he couldn't remember any of them.
He stood up in a Paris hotel room, looked at his wife in bed and drew nothing but blanks.
"He didn't know who I was," Pam says.
Sonny had just officially rejoined the shoe arms race with Adidas a few years after parting ways with Nike, and his new company had brought him out to the French Open. He and Pam brought along their friends, Dick and Lorraine Vitale. Sonny enjoyed the tennis, but he was consumed by the stress of planning his first ABCD basketball camp to compete with Nike, the company he had helped turn into a giant worth billions.
All of that seemed pretty small as Pam considered what to do about her husband. Now a beautiful stranger, she convinced him to follow her to a hospital, where he was diagnosed with global transient amnesia. Vitale, the former college basketball coach and now broadcaster, couldn't believe what had happened to his friend.
"You don't know who Michael Jordan is?!" Pam remembers Vitale saying.
Sonny's memory loss was far more dire than forgetting Jordan, whom he famously signed to a Nike contract in 1984. Vaccaro's entire journey, the highs and the lows and everything in between, was hidden somewhere in his subconscious.
Missing were the old days in Trafford, the hilly small town populated mostly by immigrant workers at the Westinghouse plant; father Natale and mother Michelline speaking only Italian at home; the fierce games of baseball and football played on Trafford's few level streets; the nighttime poker battles down the hill at the bar district they nicknamed the "Barbary Coast"; the dreams of success he shared with his childhood friend, Pat DiCesare.
Sonny, a star running back, did have some promise. He ended up at Youngstown State, but due to an injury, never played a down of football there. The school honored his scholarship, however, allowing him to get his degree.
Back in Trafford as a high school teacher and coach, Sonny began staging basketball games between local teams outside of the high school season. DiCesare had been working as a promoter in the music business, and he was a part of the group that brought the Beatles to Civic Arena in 1964. DiCesare told Sonny he should start charging admission to his basketball games.
Together they came up with the Roundball Classic, a match between the best players in Pennsylvania and a collection of the best nationwide. They convinced the Post-Gazette's charity arm, Dapper Dan Charities, to sponsor the event, with the guarantee that the promoters would be on the hook for about $10,000 if the event flopped. To them, such a risk was just what Trafford boys had to do.
"We came from nothing," DiCesare says, "and we just always thought about possibilities. We were gamblers. We were not degenerate gamblers, but we were gamblers. That Roundball Classic was the ultimate gamble."
The first Roundball Classic sold out, and the game became a marquee annual event. College coaches converged on Pittsburgh each spring hoping to scout top talent and make key connections. Of course, they'd connect with that Vaccaro guy, who was getting to know everyone.
Vaccaro signed up as a consultant for Nike in 1977. Phil Knight's small Oregon-based shoe company had been selling mostly running shoes. Converse was the basketball powerhouse, but Sonny would be a game-changer.
All of those college basketball coaches that attended the Roundball? They weren't making that much money in those days. Sonny got Nike's permission to sign coaches to contracts that would force their players to wear Nike shoes and, eventually, gear and uniforms. Sonny was cutting checks from his personal checking account to some of the most well-respected coaches in the country, then waiting for Nike to reimburse him. By the early 1980s, "I owned everybody," Vaccaro says.
And so Nike owned the basketball market. Vaccaro was paying coaches sometimes more than their schools, and he was unapologetic about it, to the point that he was starting to draw some negative attention from sportswriters who worried that Vaccaro's influence was unfair to the coaches who weren't under the ever-growing Nike umbrella.
John Feinstein covered college basketball as Sonny's specter grew and was uncomfortable with how entrenched Vaccaro seemed to be in the game's inner circle.
"Sonny was very good at getting close to star players," Feinstein says. "Obviously there was the fact he was handing them free gear left and right and it wasn't against the rules. He's a very charming guy, a smart guy, and he and I used to have this sort of ongoing debate. I didn't think he should have the power that he had, and his response was always, 'I just want to help kids.' And I would say, 'Why don't you help kids who can't dunk or shoot a jump-shot?' "
Feinstein, who has written for Sports Illustrated and the Washington Post, attempted to report that Vaccaro was steering players to Nike schools. But Feinstein could never get coaches, even the ones not signed by Nike, to go on the record for a story.
All Feinstein could do, in the end, was base a character in a fictional basketball mystery on Vaccaro. In the book, "Winter Games," the character doesn't let coaches get close to prized recruits and keeps saying, "I just want to help kids."
There were always new kids for Vaccaro to help, and, yes, all of them were gifted basketball players. But for Vaccaro to continue helping them, those doctors in Paris would need to break through and summon some memories from his fascinating life.
For four days, Vaccaro was absent, adrift inside his tangled mind. But one memory kept surfacing more often than others, bringing him near consciousness: The image of him as a boy in Trafford, throwing a tennis ball against a wall over and over again to work on his baseball fielding.
When Sonny Vaccaro awoke, his first thought was predictable: They had better make some phone calls about getting kids to that ABCD camp.
Finding the right player
Ed O'Bannon had just finished his sophomore year of high school in the summer of 1988 when he arrived at Princeton University for the annual Nike/ABCD camp. A 16-year-old Los Angeles area native with a bright future, he had heard plenty about the man who ran the camp.
"When someone would talk about Mr. Vaccaro," O'Bannon says, "they built him up, and you would think that he was like this gigantic dude, this real big man. Like he'd walk in the room and it would get darker because he would cover the lights he was so big. He got Jordan the sneakers, the whole deal. It was just like, that person is now here, watching us play."
Then O'Bannon actually met Vaccaro.
"He's this little bitty guy," O'Bannon says. "He wasn't this 8-foot tall, 400-pound giant."
No, as O'Bannon would discover, the only thing huge about Vaccaro was his reputation.
During the next two years, the two would become better acquainted. O'Bannon attended the ABCD camp again before his senior year, and he played in Pittsburgh's Roundball Classic, earning the game's MVP award. He consulted Vaccaro about his college decision, and O'Bannon chose UCLA. Why did he put such trust in Vaccaro?
"Mr. Vaccaro has that Magic Johnson factor, that aura about him," O'Bannon says. "I don't know if you've met Magic Johnson, but when you talk to him and meet him face to face, you feel like you're the one person that he wants to talk to at that moment. Mr. Vaccaro has that same effect. I've always felt like, when I talk to him, I'm the most important person in his life."
Ed O'Bannon was just one of many talented basketball players that Sonny Vaccaro made feel that way. In the coming years, Vaccaro would be instrumental in the decisions of Kevin Garnett, Kobe Bryant and Tracy McGrady to skip college basketball and head straight to the NBA (Vaccaro would eventually sign all three stars to Adidas shoe contracts).
O'Bannon would join Garnett in the 1995 draft. O'Bannon had evolved into the national player of the year, leading the Bruins to the '95 national championship. But O'Bannon's NBA career never took off due to injuries and his thin frame. He'd play seven years overseas before retiring and settling in Las Vegas with his wife and three kids.
O'Bannon didn't become a star, and he also didn't become bitter. He was content being out of basketball and working as an everyman.
One day, he was visiting a friend whose son mentioned that O'Bannon was featured in an EA Sports college basketball video game. O'Bannon had to see this. Yes, it was true. The game featured the '95 Bruins, and there was O'Bannon, referred to only as "No. 31," shooting left-handed and everything.
"My friend says, 'You know we paid X amount of dollars for this video game. You know how much you got for it? Nothing,' " O'Bannon says. "When he said that, I was like, 'Wow.' I went from flattery to a bit of anger."
O'Bannon didn't know it then, but his old friend Sonny Vaccaro held a similar grudge with the NCAA. O'Bannon hadn't spoken with Vaccaro since his UCLA days. Around the summer of 2006, O'Bannon attended Reebok's Big Time Tournament in Vegas to catch up with a friend, and there was Vaccaro, who was now working for Reebok. O'Bannon and Vaccaro embraced, talked briefly and exchanged contact information.
In 2007, Vaccaro decided to leave the shoe business to devote his time to getting out his message about NCAA. His distaste for the organization began in the early 1970s when the NCAA changed the four-year scholarship to a one-year renewable scholarship.
"If something went wrong, they just got rid of you," says Vaccaro, who has a college degree thanks to Youngstown State keeping its promise to him.
As the decades passed, Vaccaro became obsessed. He couldn't stomach the NCAA's transfer rules, forcing players to sit out for a year after transferring. He railed against the NBA's age limit of 19, which forced players to play one year of college basketball. The NCAA was glad to have the most talented players on campus, even for just a season.
Vaccaro's tipping point came one day when he was watching ESPN Classic and he realized that the NCAA, by licensing the rights of the games to be re-aired on the network, was able to continue making money off the players into eternity. Vaccaro felt that players should be paid residuals anytime their likenesses were used after their careers were over.
He searched for the right former player to lead his charge, exhausting his contacts. Vaccaro got nothing until he dialed Ed O'Bannon's number.
"I've also had that idea," O'Bannon told Vaccaro, thinking about that video game.
O'Bannon took some time to consider the ramifications of putting his name on a lawsuit of this magnitude. What about his wife and kids? Ultimately, the chance to right what he felt was a decades-old wrong was too hard to pass up. He called Vaccaro back and told him the good news:
Vaccaro was right. They had to do something.
Building the case
Michael Hausfeld has learned during the last four years how to get a word in with Sonny Vaccaro.
"You just have to, when there's a pause, jump right in and get back to what you need to find out," says Hausfeld, a civil litigator based in Washington, D.C., who took on the O'Bannon case. "He's a veritable nonstop chatterbox who's got the best interest and welfare of the athletes principal in his heart."
A look at Hausfeld's resume shows just how serious this case is for the NCAA. He has represented Native Alaskans whose lives were affected by the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill and a class of Holocaust victims whose assets were wrongfully retained by private Swiss banks during and after World War II. Most of the cases he takes on revolve around social reform, and O'Bannon v. NCAA fits right in.
Hausfeld appreciates Vaccaro's role in the fight.
"Every cause starts with and needs a catalyst," Hausfeld says. "Sonny has performed that function most admirably and necessarily."
The NCAA, which declined to comment for this story, is expected to use the defense that each Division I student-athlete must sign an agreement called the Student-Athlete Statement to be cleared to play. The agreement specifies, among other issues, that the player is authorizing the NCAA to use his or her name and picture to promote NCAA events or programs by signing it.
If O'Bannon prevails in a class-action suit, the NCAA would likely have to repay hundreds of former athletes and pay current and future players for use of their likenesses well into the future. It's been theorized that the lawsuit could force outright change to the structure of college sports.
"I think it's probably the first thing Sonny's ever done in his life that isn't about money, to some degree," Feinstein says. "This is about his belief that kids ought to be paid. He got to the point where he said, 'Enough. How do I bring these people down off their high horse?' "
Vaccaro has given everything to this. It was a calling that took him down this road.
"Whatever the result is," Vaccaro says, "I had to do it. I just had to do it."