By ADAM ZAGORIA
NEW YORK – Sonny Vaccaro has a new mission.
Vaccaro, the man who revolutionized grassroots basketball and the marketing of hoops stars by signing Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant to multi-million dollar sneaker deals, has a new passion in life.
Having retired from the sneaker camp business, Vaccaro is busy petitioning for the repeal of the NBA minimum age limit of 19 and fighting what he perceives as the unholy alliance between the NBA and the NCAA.
“I honestly believe (the age limit) is the most un-American thing I’ve ever seen,” Vaccaro, 68, said during an exclusive interview Tuesday at a Manhattan hotel. “The very fact that (NBA Commissioner) David Stern and (NCAA President) Myles Brand can so flippantly suggest that they’ll raise it another year at the expense of individuals’ rights to work is not annoying anymore. It’s arrogance at its peak, and it does not take into consideration the individuals that are involved.”
Vaccaro ran the ABCD Camp at Fairleigh Dickinson University in Hackensack that featured stars like LeBron James, Sebastian Telfair and Lance Stephenson. And he pioneered the practice of paying college coaches to outfit their teams in shoe company apparel while working for Nike and Phil Knight. He then declared war on Nike in 1992 when he joined rival adidas, taking his all-star game, AAU tournament and summer camp with him.
Sopranos star James Gandolfini has signed to play Vaccaro in a forthcoming HBO movie entitled “ABCD Camp.”
But Vaccaro has more pressing concerns on his mind after severing his relationship with Reebok. He will continue his national speaking tour tonight when he appears at the NFL offices in Manhattan, an event sponsored by the Columbia University Graduate Program in Sports Management.
“I’m very happy to say I’ve aligned myself with new people who are not of the sports world, the academicians, the professors and the people who are looking for change in college athletics,” Vaccaro said.
Last year’s college seniors were the first subjected to the age limit, which forces American players to wait one year after their high school class graduates before they can become draft eligible. Now the NBA commissioner, with Brand’s support, is lobbying to extend that age minimum even further, prohibiting players from entering the pros until they’ve spent two years out of high school. Such a change would have to be approved by the NBA Players Association in the next collective bargaining agreement.
Neither Stern nor Brand was available for comment, but both expounded on their views in an interview with CBS during the Final Four.
“Raising the entry age to 19 years was done because the NBA deemed it in its best interest,” Stern said. “The incidental benefit was I think to assist the NCAA game and to see these extraordinarily gifted kids at the end of their first year really treating America to terrific basketball.”
Vaccaro has met with Sen. John Conyers (D-Michigan) and hopes to ultimately petition Congress to repeal the age limit.
“I think you should be able to come out whenever somebody wants to pay you,” Vaccaro said. “It’s no different than the golf girl, the tennis person, the soccer kids. They should have the opportunity to come out when they’re 5 years old.
“If a pro team wants to pay them, then they should be able to come out.”
Vaccaro points to the players likely to be chosen at the top of this year’s NBA Draft – Michael Beasley, O.J. Mayo, Kevin Love, Derrick Rose and Eric Gordon – and asks: What do they all have in common?
They were all college freshmen who likely would have been picked at the top of the 2007 draft straight out of high school had they been allowed.
So, Vaccaro asks, what exactly did these players get out of a year in college? Certainly not a real education, he argues. And what if, conversely, Greg Oden, last year’s No. 1 pick, had been injured before the draft as opposed to after it, as he was?
“The term student-athlete…doesn’t have meaning when you accept somebody knowing all he’s going to do is play 40 basketball games for your team and hopefully get to the Final Four,” Vaccaro said. “It has nothing to do with academics. And some of them won’t even finish this semester. That’s sinful.”
Vaccaro said an age limit serves to keep the top players in college, where they help perpetuate the multi-million dollar “reality series” known as the NCAA tournament, benefiting colleges and CBS, not the players themselves.
Besides the proposed extended age limit, Stern and Brand announced a groundbreaking five-year, $50-million partnership at the Final Four that includes ambitious goals for overhauling youth basketball, which Brand has called “chaotic” and “perverse.”
“If this is a successful initiative, you’ll see better organization on a national basis, better officiating, better coaching, better personal development, including advice,” Brand said. “You’ll see more coordination between the shoe and apparel companies and the major players. It will not be perfect, but it will be far, far better than it is now.”
Brand also reinforced the idea that America’s youth needs to improve its skill development to compete effectively on the world stage.
Vaccaro said the NBA and NCAA’s motives are far more selfish.
“Basically, David Stern wants to have a much better farm team than the National Basketball Development League:
it’s called the NCAA,” Vaccaro said. “And Myles Brand wants to have the benefit of the people who have come through the system of summer basketball to make the NCAA better, which is totally ironic because they keep railing on summer basketball.”