Hanging 'em up

Hanging 'em up
By Dan Wetzel, Yahoo Sports
January 22, 2007

Dan Wetzel
Yahoo Sports
Sonny Vaccaro, the pioneering and controversial shoe company executive who created and then fueled amateur summer basketball and signed many of the game's greatest stars – including Michael Jordan – to endorsement contracts, is retiring from the shoe business.

Vaccaro, 67, told Yahoo! Sports that he will not run either of his ABCD All America Camp or Big Time Tournament this summer, both of which were staples on the high school and college recruiting circuit.

While he is not retiring from all business, he is stepping away from summer basketball and the shoe industry.

"It's time for me to break away," said Vaccaro, who has worked for Nike, adidas and Reebok through the years. "There is nothing left for me. It's just time for me to step back."

Vaccaro said he would work on writing a book about his career, speak to various university business schools and be involved in a few other opportunities. He has been working the past few months on the concept of creating a high school "academy" for top NBA prospects in conjunction with the NBA and USA Basketball.

The colorful Vaccaro is considered one of the most influential people in basketball the past 40 years.

He was the first person to stage a national all-star game – the Dapper Dan Roundball Classic in Pittsburgh during the mid 1960s that will continue operating under the name the Roundball Classic in Chicago each April.

He was also the first to stage a national All-America camp and ran the largest independent summer team tournament, the Big Time in Las Vegas, which annually had thousands of entrants.

In 1979, the Trafford, Pa. native designed a radical shoe – a sort of sandal/sneaker – which he tried to pitch to Oregon running shoe maker Phil Knight and his fledgling Nike, Inc. Knight hated the design but loved Vaccaro's gumption and employed him to get the Swoosh involved in the lucrative basketball shoe and apparel market.

Within weeks, Vaccaro began the then-controversial practice of paying college basketball coaches to have their players wear Nikes.

By 1983, he was so convinced Nike should not only sign a rookie-to-be named Michael Jordan out of North Carolina to a deal but also design an entire sneaker line around him that he bet Nike his job it would never regret it.

Later, after parting with Nike, Vaccaro joined adidas and was the first person to sign a high school player, Kobe Bryant, to a shoe contract even before he was drafted.

In the 1990s, Vaccaro and his adidas grassroots system were instrumental in building up the legend of LeBron James, who Vaccaro calls the greatest high school player he ever had in his camps.

"There isn't anyone in second place," he said.

While constantly at odds with the NCAA and media critics, Vaccaro said he was fighting for the rights of amateur athletes. He built close relationships with players, many that remained long after the athletes retired.

"We've helped thousands upon thousands of kids have the opportunity to expand their game and showcase their game in camps that didn't cost them anything," Vaccaro said from his home in Calabasas, Calif. "We went beyond the old pay camp system and opened it up to everyone.

"The perception people or the NCAA have is only because they never witnessed it up close."

Much of what Vaccaro was most criticized for has become an accepted part of high school sports, which now features weekly national television games, media coverage and wide-spread sponsorship deals that would have seemed impossible just a decade ago.

While his ABCD Camp was about to lose Reebok as a prime sponsor due to parent company adidas' decision to get out of the summer basketball game, Vaccaro said he could have kept it running with other backing.

"I had three offers last month," he said.

Vaccaro said his decision was about timing and new opportunities in a segment of sports he created and ruled for decades.

"It's been great, but it's time for me," he said. "I couldn't be more excited about the future."

Dan Wetzel is Yahoo! Sports' national columnist. He is the co-author of the book "Death to the BCS: The Definitive Case Against the Bowl Championship Series," which following five printings of the first edition was re-released in a second, updated edition in October. Follow him on Twitter. Send Dan a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.

Updated on Tuesday, Jan 23, 2007 5:00 am, EST

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