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THE OLD SOFT SHOE With some fancy footwork, super sneaker salesman Sonny Vaccaro has become a power in college basketball

Nov. 16, 1988
Nov. 16, 1988

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Nov. 16, 1988

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THE OLD SOFT SHOE With some fancy footwork, super sneaker salesman Sonny Vaccaro has become a power in college basketball

''Whaddaya wanna be? Where ya wanna go? How ya gonna get there?
Whaddaya wanna do? What can ya do? What's it all about, Sonny?''
The questions came at him like machine-gun bullets. The time was
1977. The place was Las Vegas. The man, the target, was 38 years old,
lumpy, sluggish, virtually jobless, separated, on the way to a
divorce, the father of four children he saw only on birthdays and
holidays and at convenient sporting events. He was drifting, a
vagabond, a fat shadow hiding in plain sight. And all John Paul
(Sonny) Vaccaro could answer to those questions was ''I don't know.''

This is an article from the Nov. 16, 1988 issue Original Layout

A man named Tark the Shark was asking the questions, but it might
as well have been Gip or Doshie or Zilk or Tootie or Spook or Garf or
Manny or Deuce or Hambone or any one of Vaccaro's friends, all those
guys whom others referred to as ''characters'' or ''questionables''
or even as ''unsavory lowlifes'' but whom Sonny always called ''good
people'' and treated as such.
But what had Sonny done for himself? And what could he do? He had
already tried just about everything, and quit from tedium. He had
succeeded only in demonstrating just how far you could take a
wardrobe consisting entirely of sweatsuits and T-shirts. So how could
anyone have known at that moment -- certainly not Tark, and least of
all Sonny -- that this rumpled mess of a man would one day become a
giant in the world of athletic wear? That he would become the
greatest sneaker salesman in America? And a ubiquitous power broker
in the game of basketball? No, there in Vegas in 1977, sadsack Sonny
couldn't know that. All he could answer was ''I don't know.''

THINGS JUST HADN'T QUITE come together for Sonny, but not for lack
of dabbling. Let's see. . . . He had been a 5 ft. 10 in., 170-pound
running back, a certified high school football star, back home in the
factory town of Trafford, Pa., 17 miles outside Pittsburgh. He had
peddled fruit and vegetables during high school from what he called a
''huckster truck.'' He had been a good enough high school shortstop
that the Pittsburgh Pirates offered him a $3,500 signing bonus in
1957, a good enough son to have turned the money down because he had
promised his immigrant steelworker father that he would be the first
of his family to go to college. After graduating from Youngstown
(Ohio) State, Sonny had been a teacher and coach. He had operated
some of the first sports camps for kids. He had organized the first
national high school all-star basketball game. To top everything off,
he had been a sports agent ((he negotiated George Gervin's first ABA
contract on a napkin)), a gambler and a rock 'n' roll concert
promoter -- but Vaccaro had been full- court pressed into oblivion in
each case.
''I was way ahead of my time in several things, way ahead of
everybody,'' Vaccaro, 49, says. ''People have made millions doing
what I used to do. Business is not my baliwack.''
No, his baliwack is basketball. Hoops and humanity, they're what
make Sonny run. Basketball is the game he has always really loved;
and those who know him well have always raved about his compassion,
his care for others -- a regular Albert Schweitzer in a schweatsuit.
On a recent afternoon in Trafford, Sonny's aunt Irene Mastroianni sat
in her living room, remembering and saying, ''If Sonny saw you were
barefoot, he'd give you the shoes right off his feet.''
Basketball. Shoes. It has a nice beat. And since Vaccaro has
learned to dance to it, it is accurate to say that this shuffling,
pudgy, salt-and- pepper-frizzed fellow with the little-boy name has
tap-danced all over the worlds of basketball and shoes at the same
time.
It wasn't until the end of 1977 that Vaccaro began to pick up the
tune. Nearly at the end of his twine, he had yet one more brain
squall. There was a shoemaker in Trafford named Bobby DiRinaldo, and
Vaccaro went to him one day with some queer ideas about sneakers.
Let's come up with some gangbusters new stuff in athletic footwear,
he told DiRinaldo. Make me a pair of sneaks with air vents. Make me
another without any backs, sort of like sneaker-sandals. And let's
make one pair that you don't have to tie -- throw some Velcro on the
tongue.
Vaccaro tossed DiRinaldo's designs into a knapsack and, in the
fall of 1978, marched into the headquarters of a fledgling shoe
company in Portland, Ore. ''Sure, all the guys at Nike laughed, and
then they threw my shoes in the back room,'' Vaccaro says. ''They're
probably still there. But look at where air vents are and where
Velcro is today. I was way ahead of my time. Like Tucker with his
car. I think Mister ((Phil)) Knight felt so sorry for me he gave me a
job in the promotions department.''
Knight, the founder and CEO of Nike, also indulged Vaccaro's next
idea. ''The guys at Converse ruled college basketball then, but they
were vulnerable,'' says Vaccaro. ''Nobody took them on. I told Mister
Knight ((Vaccaro always refers to Knight, and only to Knight, as
Mister)) that if Nike really wanted to get into the game, we had to
concentrate East. I knew all the coaches. I thought if we came up
with some money, we could get them and their teams to wear the
product.''
Thus began Vaccaro's quicksilver rise to a position of such
influence and controversy that basketball still doesn't know whether
it's dealing with Horatio Alger or Alger Hiss. This has never
diminished Vaccaro's standing with the Mister of Misters, however.
''I was charmed by Sonny,'' says Knight, whose worth was recently
pegged by Forbes at $400 million. ''We had been beating our brains in
trying to get a foot in the door in this game. Then this little
portly Italian fellow comes around and says he's going to burn down
the walls for us. When we saw his relationships with coaches in
action, that he could produce. . . . And then these massive orders
for shoes began pouring in. We gave him all the room he wanted.''
On Vaccaro's first cross-country coaching raid, his self-described
''kamikaze sweep,'' Sonny signed a dozen college coaches ranging from
the then little-known Jim Valvano at Iona to the lovable renegade,
Jerry Tarkanian -- the same solicitous Tark the Shark of a year
before.
''Picture this,'' Valvano says. ''Two guys named Vaccaro and
Valvano meeting at La Guardia Airport. Vaccaro reaches into his
briefcase. Puts a check on the table. I look at it and say, 'What's
this for?' He pulls a sneaker out and puts it on the table. Like we
were putting a contract out on somebody. He says, 'I would like your
team to wear this shoe.' I say, 'How much?' He says, * 'No, I'll give
you the shoes.' You got to remember, I was at Iona. We wore a lot of
seconds. They didn't even have labels on them. I say, 'This certainly
can't be anything legal.' ''
But it was. And in his second year on the hustings, Vaccaro
continued to sign name upon big name, including the coach of the
school he now calls Nike's ''flagship,'' Georgetown. As the Hoyas
have made their fabulous run through the 1980s, America has wondered,
Who's that little guy with the perpetual five o'clock shadow who's
always so close to John Thompson's ear?
''I never talk strategies or the games with John,'' Vaccaro says,
professing, as he often must, his noninfluence. ''Player evaluations,
yes. He knows I would never have cut Stacey King or Alonzo Mourning
from our Olympic team. He wouldn't listen anyway. But I don't want
anything to threaten a beautiful relationship.''
As national advisory board director for Nike -- Vaccaro claims he
doesn't know his title or even if he has one -- he ''directs'' a
board consisting of college and high school coaches who are paid
between $5,000 and nearly $200,000 annually by Nike and are supplied
to their hearts' content with Nike shoes and clothes (Nike introduced
a line of athletic wear in 1979). This makes Vaccaro the most
influential force in athletic footwear, period. Nike's basketball
shoe sales rocketed to some $300 million last year (from about $7
million in 1978), and Nike has almost double runner-up Reebok's share
of the basketball market. While making the Nike swoosh emblem nearly
as recognizable as the Coca-Cola logo, Vaccaro has moved to the top
of college basketball's clout ratings, alongside Dean Smith, Bob
Knight, Dave Gavitt (commissioner of the Big East) and Dick Schultz
(executive director of the NCAA).
But many want to know, should a sneaker pusher be keeping that
kind of company? Vaccaro's defenders would quickly and correctly
point out that neither North Carolina (Smith) nor Indiana (Knight)
nor Providence (where Gavitt was athletic director) nor Virginia
(where Schultz held the same post) outfits its team in Nikes. But
more than 60 other major college coaches are under contract to Nike,
as are more than 25 of the country's most influential high school
coaches. Add to that a grab bag of NBA stars who wear Nikes --
including, as all the world knows, Michael Jordan.
Jordan met Vaccaro during the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles
through then Iowa, now USC, coach George Raveling, who is Vaccaro's
closest friend in the sport and was best man at his wedding. Jordan
(and his North Carolina teammates) wore Converse, Smith's brand, but
Adidas made his favorite shoe. ''I had never worn Nikes, but Sonny
said they could make a shoe that would fit me,'' says Jordan. ''Soon
I trusted Sonny. He didn't use a hard-sell approach. He wasn't trying
to track me down or recruit me. There were no hidden tricks, no
pressure, nothing under the table.''
But plenty above it. When Jordan signed his Nike contract in 1984
for what turned out to be more than $1 million including royalties,
it blew the roof off the industry. But it was merely the latest
triumphant stroke for Vaccaro. His war chest, which includes a $3
million promotional budget and a never- ending supply of free shoes
and sweats and bags, has lubricated his entrance into the verdant but
tangled thickets of summer leagues, all-star games, clinics, camps,
coaches and cable television.
Have Vaccaro and Nike bought themselves a sport? ''Not all of
it,'' Vaccaro says, laughing. But he's hardly joking. Consider how
truly enormous Nike has become in basketball:
-- Nike sponsors summer leagues for college and prep players in 25
cities, including Los Angeles, home of the Nike-funded ARC Mid-Valley
All-Stars, who play some of their games not far from Vaccaro's Santa
Monica condominium.
-- Nike hosts a summer camp in Princeton, N.J., called NIKE/ABCD,
which stands for Academic Betterment and Career Development. The camp
showcases 120 of the country's finest high schoolers, with all
invitees approved by Vaccaro. The brochure begins with ''A Letter
from Sonny.'' And the camp is all his. ''Imagine, me, this fat little
dago from Trafford High, speaking at Princeton, where presidents once
stood,'' says Vaccaro.
-- Nike has more top-name coaches and pays them more money than is
paid to coaches by all other shoe companies combined. And Vaccaro
gives them a free trip each summer to a glorious sanctuary like the
Virgin Islands, where, among other pleasures, they get to observe
Vaccaro's annual solo dance to the Isley Brothers' Shout.
-- Georgetown's Thompson (''I love Sonny dearly,'' he says) is
paid about $200,000 by Nike, probably twice what he's paid by his
employer. Valvano (now of North Carolina State) and Eddie Sutton
(Kentucky) are almost in that price range. Tarkanian (UNLV), Jim
Boeheim (Syracuse), Bill Frieder (Michigan), Lute Olson (Arizona),
Bobby Cremins (Georgia Tech), Tom Davis (Iowa), Hugh Durham
(Georgia), Lou Carnesecca (St. John's). . . . The list goes on.
Additionally, lesser known college mentors are ringing Vaccaro's
phone off the hook just to get in on Nike's 10 yearly clinics, which
afford opportunities to speak, meet high school coaches and make
valuable recruiting contacts.
-- Nike cosponsors the Dapper Dan Roundball Classic -- the
granddaddy of national high school all-star games, which Vaccaro
started in Pittsburgh back in 1965 when he was coaching at Trafford
High. Vaccaro still chooses the players for the Dapper Dan. Nike also
holds exclusive advertising rights to ESPN's college basketball
telecasts (to the tune of $2.5 million).
Has Nike gone too far in influence peddling? One opposing shoe
company rep allows that as far as he knows, Vaccaro hasn't done
anything illegal, but he says, ''If there was a rule against it,
Sonny would do it anyway.''
''That's hardly fair,'' Vaccaro says. ''I'd never break rules. Is
there a rule against doing good business? Being smart? Helping
friends? My life has been involved in this sport. I had to have these
relationships established, known people, made contacts, to do
anything in shoes. I don't have to break any rules.''
John Morgan, director of marketing for Reebok, who spent 14 years
with Nike and supervised Vaccaro before switching brands in 1986,
says, ''They know how to spend money at Nike. But you've got to have
scruples and integrity in this business. I think it's unethical to be
giving away so many things to high school players. They've gone
overboard. We're in the business of selling shoes.''
''The nature of the business is that different companies use
different enticements,'' says Converse vice-president of promotion Al
Harden. ''Nike encompasses everything -- it's tough, strong,
hard-nosed, aggressive marketing. Nike has never done anything
blatantly upsetting.''
The dean of subtle enticements was Joe Dean, the former
vice-president at Converse and now the athletic director at LSU, who
used to be the most significant conduit in America for coaching jobs.
If you were an athletic director and needed a coach, or a coach and
needed a job, you called Dean for help. According to Dean, that's
what Arkansas's Eddie Sutton, a Nike man, did at the 1985 Final Four
when he wanted to be interviewed for the Kentucky job. Sutton doesn't
recall seeking help, but Dean says he told him, ''Joe, you get me an
interview, I'll wear your shoes forever.''
After Sutton got the job, Converse came to Lexington to sign him
up. Trouble was, Vaccaro had already been to town and persuaded
Sutton to extend his contract with Nike.

FOR MANY IN THE BASKETBALL community, the unnerving thing about
Vaccaro is the question of whose company he might be keeping when you
run into him. It might be, for example, Jack Franzi, an old buddy
from Pittsburgh and currently the oddsmaker at the Barbary Coast
Hotel in Vegas. Over at the Golden Nugget, the book is run by Jimmy
(Chunce) Vaccaro, Sonny's 43-year-old brother.
You might run into Vaccaro with Alonzo Mourning (the Georgetown
freshman) in a hotel coffee shop or with Brian Williams (the Arizona
transfer from Maryland) in Vaccaro's living room or with some other
high school star Vaccaro is said to be influencing in his choice of
college.
You might run into Vaccaro with Manny Goldstein, a former
assistant coach at New Mexico whom the FBI nailed for fraud against
the University. Vaccaro and Goldstein are still pals.
Such dubious connections have clouded Vaccaro's image and stirred
rumblings about his role in the game.
''I've heard the negatives,'' says Phil Knight. ''But not very
loud. At first we were never sure who this guy was. Then we were
never sure where he was ((Vaccaro moved from Vegas to L.A. soon after
starting work with Nike, though he still does the color on UNLV's
syndicated TV package)). We checked him out thoroughly. No ethical
questions have come up. There's never been one iota of suspicion
about Sonny on our part. As for his influencing kids to go to one
college over another -- how could that be? With all our coaches?
That's a no-winner. Alonzo Mourning? If you told me Sonny had
anything to do with Mourning going to Georgetown, I'd be absolutely
astonished.''
Critics have trashed Vaccaro for supposedly taking part in the
recruitment of Mourning, a 6 ft. 10 in. center (page 6), on behalf of
his old friend Thompson. Vaccaro showed up in Chesapeake, Va., where
Mourning lived, a few days before the national signing date last
fall, when Mourning was thought to be wavering in his choice among
Georgetown, Maryland and Georgia Tech. Given Mourning's idolization
of Patrick Ewing and his close relationship with Thompson, it's
illogical to think he would have gone anywhere else. But Vaccaro's
visit to Chesapeake inevitably raised suspicion.
''I never went near Alonzo that week,'' says Vaccaro. ''His coach
told me it wouldn't look good. Anyway, the other two schools in it
were ours ((Maryland's Bob Wade had a Nike contract at the time;
Georgia Tech's Cremins joined Nike seven months later)). I'm closer
with John, but don't you think we would have loved Alonzo in the
Atlanta market too?''
Because of his connections to high school and college coaches,
Vaccaro has long been accused of steering top prospects to favored
Nike colleges. Raveling, who calls Vaccaro ''Pear'' because of his
shape, has been a confidant since the 1960s. Raveling says that
Vaccaro's emergence was a matter of good timing: Nike needed a front
man, and Sonny knew the people. ''When you talk power, that means
someone who can manipulate,'' says Raveling. ''But that's not Sonny.
This guy is a sucker for a sob story. He operates with his heart, not
his head. That's why he gets so close to these kids. But directing
them to schools? I was Sonny's best man. I've known him longer than
anyone. Do I need some help? ((USC's record over the past two seasons
is 16-40.)) If Sonny was steering players, he'd be steering them to
the guy he's known the longest and needs them the most -- me.''
Apart from Mourning, the player with whom Vaccaro has been most
closely linked is Williams. Vaccaro's detractors say that he guided
Williams to another coaching friend, Wade, at Maryland. There were
indeed many afternoons in the summer of 1986 when Williams, who lived
barely a mile from the Vaccaro home in Santa Monica, took naps there.
The suspicions about Vaccaro's influence might have ended when
Williams left College Park last spring -- except that Williams's next
rendezvous was at Arizona, with Olson, yet another Nike coach.
But there are also players close to Vaccaro who are outside the
Nike fold. Ewing, a good friend of Vaccaro's, did not sign with Nike
upon leaving Georgetown for the Knicks. Of three other youngsters
Vaccaro has been especially close to -- Scott Williams (North
Carolina), Don MacLean (UCLA) and Darrick Martin (UCLA) -- none
attends a Nike school.
''Look, I have my own ground rules,'' Vaccaro says. ''I won't get
involved with recruiting. I leave that to the coaches and parents. I
confine my advice to kids to information about the schools, not the
coaches. What if I say something negative about a guy and the kid
goes to his school anyway and tells him? I'm done in this business.
Dead. The game is over.''
The NCAA enforcement division is forever calling Vaccaro, asking
what he knows about recruiting violations. What about those, Sonny?
You must know where the bodies are buried.
''I will never report a school,'' Vaccaro says. ''Or tell
everything the kids and coaches tell me. If I gave up everything I
knew, the sport would come crashing down. Anyway, I don't necessarily
agree with the rules and regulations of the NCAA. And I've told them
that. Silence is tough. My conscience bothers me a lot, knowing about
the abuses. But I don't figure I have the right to destroy anybody.''

IT'S RATHER REMARKABLE that Vaccaro is even in the position to
make that kind of choice, considering his own history of professional
self-destruction. His days as a rock promoter serve as a suitable
example. In 1969, Vaccaro was on a chartered plane with Edgar Winter,
the rhythm-and-blues musician, when Winter pulled out a picture of a
young guy he had discovered in England. He told Vaccaro to sign him
up immediately. ''This four-eyed wimp?'' Vaccaro said. The wimp was
Elton John.
On another, much earlier, occasion, Vaccaro was sitting in his
office with his partner and boyhood pal, Pat DiCesare, when a pair of
musicians who called themselves Tom and Jerry asked for an audition.
''We kicked their butts out,'' Sonny says. Tom and Jerry became Simon
and Garfunkel. Until Nike, it was much the same at every stop in
Vaccaro's itinerant career.
If there has been an anchor in Vaccaro's life, oddly enough it has
been Las Vegas. At 22, Vaccaro, having spent his youth in Trafford
playing the football sheets and the numbers, drove cross-country with
a friend and pulled onto the Strip. Rushing into the casino at the
Sahara Hotel, gazing wild-eyed at the slot machines and the tables,
the spinning wheels and rolling dice, Vaccaro raised his arms and
screamed, ''I'm heeeeeere!''
Spiritually he has never left. His mother, Margaret, and father,
Natale, stay in Vegas part of the year. Sonny's children (by his
first wife, Nancy Schiffauer, from whom he was divorced in 1979 after
18 years of marriage) are all now reconciled with their old man and
live in Vegas year-round. Reading from north to south down the
Strip, they are: Barry, 26 (who used to be Tarkanian's team manager
at UNLV, the one who carried Tark's chewing towels), a management
trainee at the Sahara; Kristen, 23, a front-desk clerk at the Hilton;
Jay, 24, a shift supervisor at the sports book at the Barbary Coast;
and Dina, 18, a busgirl at the Barbary Coast. ''Spread 'em around,''
Sonny says. ''Don't ever abuse your favors in Vegas.''
Vaccaro's dilemma is that he professes to be as clean as Caesar's
wife while retaining an image as glitzy as Caesars Palace. Despite
the protestations of those who know him well -- ''He's loving, he's
honest,'' says Michael Jordan. ''Sonny wouldn't do anything to harm
anybody'' -- Vaccaro can't shake other people's suspicions that he
has a darker side. The rumors of dubious dealings continue to fly,
leaving him right up there with the Emery overnight mail folks in the
college basketball controversy rankings.
Last year Vaccaro went to the doctor for an irregular heartbeat
and was ordered to change his diet, to get more exercise and to
reduce the stress in his life. He took a sabbatical from Nike from
June 1987 through February '88, cut down on cholesterol and ordered
a state-of-the-art exercise bike. Just the other day, however, he
packed up the cycle and sent it off to Jordan's sister. ''I hate to
exercise,'' he says.
Alone, Sonny would never have survived the strain even this long.
He might never have stabilized his life at all were it not for Pam.
Back in the mid- 1970s, Pamela Monakee was just another high school
girl helping out with odd jobs during Dapper Dan Roundball week in
Pittsburgh. A few years later Vaccaro persuaded Pam, a beautiful girl
with aspirations of becoming an actress, to leave her job as a
brakeman for the railroad and come to Las Vegas to search for her
star.
In Vegas they lived together for a while as ''best friends,'' says
Pam. Then one day Sonny told Pam he was considering another marriage.
''It wasn't me and I was crushed,'' says Pam. ''So I just said, 'Hey,
have you ever thought how great it would be to spend the rest of your
life with your best friend?' I still can't believe I actually
proposed to him.''
A shocked Vaccaro took several seconds to make up his mind and the
rest has been bliss-tory. Pam and Sonny. The gorgeous model and the
roly-poly sneaker man. ''The biggest matrimonial upset of the
century,'' says their softspoken friend Dick Vitale. ''Cybill
Shepherd nabs Pee-wee Herman.'' Adds Tarkanian, ''All the coaches
agreed for once: Pam marrying Sonny was like Occidental beating
Georgetown at Georgetown.''
It's called love. Sonny makes sure Pam gets her beauty sleep if
she has an early-morning shoot for her Procter & Gamble commercials.
Pam reminds Sonny to take his glasses along so he can read the
restaurant menus. ''Long before we % were married, Pam believed in
me,'' he says. ''She always supported my harebrained ideas. I never
had anybody with me before.''
On their wedding day, May 5, 1984, the incredibly happy couple
received their friends in the Nero Room at Caesars. Did they dance
the first dance to Edgar Winter or to Elton John or to Tom and Jerry
or even to Sonny's favorite, Shout? They did not.
As the guests gathered around -- those many disparate guests from
Sonny's many conflicting worlds -- Sonny, with a sly nod to his own
enigmatic reputation, requested the band play the theme from The
Godfather. As the newlyweds whirled around and around, college
basketball didn't know whether to be falling down laughing or shaking
in its collective hightops.
The sport still wonders.