Sonny Vaccaro, the “Godfather” of basketball sneaker culture, was involved in some of the most profitable sneaker deals in history, including signing Jordan to Nike in 1984. He has worked for Nike, ADIDAS, and Reebok. But this is not about his impact on sneaker culture, this is about his creation of grassroots basketball and the steady decline that it has been on. 

“Teams play game after game after game, sometimes winning or losing four times in one day. Very rarely do teams ever hold a practice. Some programs fly in top players from out of state for a single weekend to join their team. Certain players play for one team in the morning and another one in the afternoon. If mom and dad aren’t happy with their son’s playing time, they switch club teams and stick him on a different one the following week. The process of growing as a team basketball player — learning how to become part of a whole, how to fit into something bigger than oneself — becomes completely lost within the AAU fabric.”
Steve Kerr
Head Coach, 2015 Western Conference Champion Golden St. Warriors

“AAU basketball.. Horrible, terrible AAU basketball. It’s stupid. It doesn’t teach our kids how to play the game at all so you wind up having players that are big and they bring it up and they do all this fancy crap and they don’t know how to post. They don’t know the fundamentals of the game. It’s stupid.”
Kobe Bryant
5 Time NBA Champion
17 time NBA All-Star

“AAU is the worst thing that ever happened to basketball…”
Charles Barkley
1992-93 NBA MVP
11 time NBA All-Star

“It’s a bad system for developing players… They aren’t learning to handle the ball, they aren’t learning to make plays against pressure. The emphasis with our high-school players is to get exposure and play as many games as you can and show everybody how great you are. If I can win the 11-and-12 year old league and tell all my friends about it, that is a whole lot more important than if my kids actually get any better or learn anything about the game.”
Stan Van Gundy
Head Coach, Detroit Pistons

 

Sonny Vaccaro at ABCD Camp

In the 90’s Sonny created grassroots basketball as we know it and here is how he did it:

After the Jordan signing it was obvious that in order for sneaker companies to create the most profit they would have to find the next superstar.

1. Sonny Vaccaro started investing money into individual programs within major cities. The job of each program was to find the best players for ABCD camp (a basketball camp that he founded) and the Big Time tournament in Las Vegas.

2. Sonny used his basketball political power to get his shoes (ADIDAS shoes in the 90’s) on the best players in the country. This is the beginning of players being identified as a “Nike kid” or an “ADIDAS kid.”

Sonny figured that if he can get the top players in the country to wear a particular sneaker while they were young, it would sway them to sign with that particular sneaker company if they ever developed into a superstar.

 

Sonny Vaccaro and LeBron James

And Sonny’s goal to find the next superstar was successful. In 1996, Sonny signed a 17 year old Kobe Bryant to ADIDAS for a cool six-year $48 million dollar deal.

But the sneaker race did not end there. In 2003, a young LeBron James was planning on signing to ADIDAS but the money was short. This allowed Nike to sign James for $90 million.

Sonny soon left ADIDAS after they did not offer LeBron James the money that he was worth, and Nike began their monopoly. Determined to keep the top spot Nike:

1. Nike created specialized position camps (LeBron James Skills Academy, CP3 Elite Guard Camp, ect.). These camps are invitational camps for the best players in each particular position. This created exclusivity within Nike. It was a privilege to play for Nike. This worked well for Nike early but it began to decline.

2. Nike realized how well exclusivity worked for them and copied Sonny’s idea to focus on team sponsorships. This was the beginning of the EYBL (Elite Youth Basketball League). Similar to Sonny’s programs, the job of Nike teams is to find the most elite players within each city and/or region. They invested millions of dollars in order to dominate the AAU market.

3. Nike created an exclusive tournament for EYBL teams. The Peach Jam is a tournament that is exclusively for EYBL teams, many call it the National Championship of AAU basketball. Nike lures many of the top players in the country to join these EYBL teams with the promise of exposure, nationally televised games, and exclusive sneakers. The resell value of these kicks can value them at well over $900.

eBay sale of EYBL shoe

Unfortunately, what Nike (Not Sonny) has created is killing grassroots basketball and the talent pool. Here is why what Nike has created is not beneficial to AAU basketball:

1. Nike is reaching far too young to find talent. A corporate company should not have that much impact on a players development. Nike is forcing the best young players to play together all the time but this tends to hinder a players development rather than help it.

This is also giving the coaches of the EYBL teams a lot of power in an already corrupt scheme. Who is to say that these players are not getting paid, and that these the coaches are not using this power as leverage?

2. The players who have the potential to become stars aren’t given the opportunity. There can only be at most three stars on one team. By Nike potentially placing 10 of the tops players in a specific city on one team, they are hindering the development of at least seven of those players.

Sonny was a genius because he did the opposite of this. Sonny allowed players to develop into stars, not dictate the teams that they played on. Kobe Bryant is a prime example, he had an opportunity to play for anyone in the Philadelphia area but chose to play for the Sam Rines All-Stars because it gave him a chance to be a star. It gave him a chance to fail.

LeBron James also played for his high school AAU team which allowed him, like Bryant, the opportunity to fail and to become a star.

3. Nike EYBL encourages team play vs. Nike skills camp encourages players to develop their personal skills. Nike’s new focus is not on camps. It is on the EYBL and the Peach Jam.

Basketball is a team sport but scholarships are not. College coaches are looking for the best individual talent, however, scouts are falling in love with the best individual teams. Coaches are losing their jobs because players are hiding amongst other good players and when said player is asked to step up they fall short. A skills camp allows coaches to evaluate a players skill level, this then encourages a player to improve upon that.

4. Nike EYBL is NOT getting the best players in each city/region. Smart players know to play where they will be put in the best position to succeed. This is why many mid-level basketball players are choosing to play for an Under Armour or an ADIDAS team. A highly talented player on an Under Armour/ADIDAS team is forced to step up and be a star. Whereas if that same player were on a Nike EYBL team he has a high possibility of being a role player.

This is creating a pyramid system of players. On the top is Nike EYBL players, the second tier is Under Armour/ADIDAS players, and the third tier is non sponsored players.

But the sneaker company’s have a goal, to find the next super star. This means that just because a team is not sponsored does not mean that they are not good or that they do not have elite talent. An example of this is the Jersey Shore Warriors out of Philadelphia, PA. The Jersey Shore Warriors could potentially have eight division one players on their team but they lost their Under Armour sponsorship due to a lack of “talent.” This is the grassroots world that we live in.

5. What happens to everyone else? What happens to the players who do not play on a Nike, Under Armour, and/or ADIDAS team? These three sneaker sponsored circuits are killing camps and individual talent levels. In a way, they are being counter productive and creating role players. Now low level Division I schools have to make a choice. Do they take a kid who is a star on a non sponsored team or do they take a role player who is hiding among other good players on an EYBL, Under Armour, or ADIDAS team? If these teams supposedly have the best talent why aren’t they playing for them? Is this a smart decision or a dumb decision?

 

There are two ways to view Sonny Vaccaro; Sonny is either a marketing genius, or Frankenstein and grassroots basketball is his monster. However, since his creation Sonny has spoken out against grassroots basketball and the NCAA. He believes that what the sneaker companies are doing is corrupt. But what do you think? And if you do not agree with what the sneaker companies are doing, let me ask you, what is the solution? 

Wes Rines / Sam Rines