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Sole Influence: Basketball, Corporate Greed, and the Corruption of America's Youth


Sole Influence, by Dan Wetzel

by Dan Wetzel, Don Yaeger

Unlike Mike

His hair perfect, smile polished, and wardrobe impeccable, Kobe Bryant sprang to his feet with the enthusiasm of the eighteen-year-old kid he was. His name had just been called by National Basketball Association commissioner David Stern as the thirteenth pick of the 1996 draft. The Charlotte Hornets had selected the precocious recent graduate of Lower Merion High School in suburban Philadelphia, who just weeks before had taken recording sensation Brandy Norwood to his prom. Now it was time to celebrate in the recesses of New Jersey's Continental Airlines Arena. Bryant quickly hugged his father, former NBA player Joe "Jellybean" Bryant. Then his mother, Pam, and other assorted family and friends.

With TNT television cameras rolling live, he stepped over and embraced a middle-aged white man named Sonny Vaccaro. It would prove to be a momentous hug, one ignored by the commentators, the fans, and the media assembled to cover the draft that night. The hug, though, wasn't missed by executives at Nike and adidas, shoe companies sitting just miles apart in Beaverton, Oregon. In so many ways, it was a hug that changed the way the business of basketball is conducted in this country.

Vaccaro is the legendary basketball character and marketing guru who during the 1980s and early 1990s helped make Nike synonymous with the game. Now working for adidas after a bitter 1992 breakup with his former employer, Vaccaro needed to deliver a special kind of endorser to his new company, the kind who could establish adidas—a German-based corporation that was big in worldwide soccer but had become a nonfactor in hoops—as a player in the lucrative basketball market. Just as in 1984 when he delivered Michael Jordan, then merely a promising shooting guard from the University of North Carolina, to Nike despite concerns from his superiors and competitors alike. That marriage didn't just make Nike—then a company that was popular in track and field circles but, like adidas in 1996, a sideline player in basketball—competitive with basketball industry leader Converse, it changed nearly everything in sports.

"The marriage of Michael and Nike is the biggest story in the history of sports marketing," says Vaccaro now. "[If it hadn't happened] everyone's lives would have changed. Nike would never have been Nike. I certainly wouldn't have been this person. And maybe Michael's persona and his marketing thing might have taken longer. It was a threefold thing there. Everyone benefited."

And so as Vaccaro and his young star hugged on national television that night in 1996, the similarities were endless: two young and somewhat unproven players—Bryant nothing but a high school kid, Jordan an early defector from college who went third in the draft; two companies both desperately turning to Vaccaro to get them a share of the multibillion-dollar basketball market. Vaccaro, though wiser in 1996, was still the consummate insider, armed with his famed guile, street savvy, and a generation of contacts throughout the game. He was still a gambler years after he bottomed out as a card player in Las Vegas.

Thus it came as no surprise that within weeks, Bryant had signed an exclusive five-year, multimillion-dollar endorsement deal with shoe and apparel manufacturer adidas, the company that employs Vaccaro to run its grassroots basketball operations. Bryant chose adidas after hearing Nike's pitch, but not spending a great deal of time deliberating over the particulars. Vaccaro's loyalty to and history with Bryant was enough. It was Vaccaro who had allowed Bryant to shine on the national stage the previous two summers at his adidas ABCD talent camp, invited him and his parents to his postseason all-star game in Detroit, Magic's Roundball Classic, where Bryant was named MVP, and sponsored his traveling basketball squads for two years. It was Vaccaro who had known his father since 1972, when Joe was the MVP of the Vaccaro-run Dapper Dan All-Star Game, the forerunner to Magic's Roundball Classic. It was Vaccaro who had known Kobe's uncle, Chuckie Cox, the brother of Kobe's mother, Pam, since Cox also played in the 1974 Dapper Dan.

"I knew this family," Vaccaro says. "They knew me. Ever so slightly, but they did. So when we got down to the personal stuff, I was way ahead of the game."

The only difference in how Vaccaro signed Jordan and how he signed Bryant or other young stars such as Tracy McGrady, Antoine Walker, or Tim Thomas is how much more work it took to get it done in 1996. As much as the game of basketball has changed in the twelve years since Jordan invited the world to come fly with him, the game of identifying and signing pitchmen has changed even more.

This is fact: Jordan brought Nike to inconceivable levels of popularity and worldwide dominance. This too is fact: The battle to find similarly effective stars to endorse products—to find "The Next Jordan"—has intensified with frightening seriousness. Where once a player, after being drafted or even a few years into his career, reviewed some solid business presentations before choosing a potential endorsement, now a young player can be slotted for a shoe company—particularly either Nike or adidas—as young as twelve years old.

Vaccaro knows if he tried to sign a Kobe Bryant the same way he tried to sign Michael Jordan . . .

"Impossible," he says. "Impossible. Can't happen now. You have to identify them early, you got to talk to all the necessary people. There's got to be a foundation. You have to identify him and say who you want. And you have to have a relationship. You don't go in cold on anybody today."

Which has left basketball in the middle of a major war for the hearts and soles of its young players. Because just as Vaccaro and Bryant's hug flashed back to Beaverton and the headquarters of Nike, the war for allegiances of the nation's young players was officially underway. Nike knew that Vaccaro had found a way to beat the well-heeled industry giant at its own game. By getting in early with young players, he proved loyalty could outmuscle money.

Four months later Nike CEO Phil Knight summoned twenty coaches of Nike-sponsored traveling basketball programs—generally regional all-star teams that play in tournaments around the country during the off-season—to Nike's headquarters to map out a battle plan. On Saturday, October 19, 1996, with thirty or so people sitting in one of the company's posh conference rooms with stadium-style seating, across the stage strolled Knight—decked out in blue jeans, T-shirt, light-colored sport coat, and a pair of Nike running shoes—who told them in no uncertain terms that this was a fight Nike had to win.

"We never want another kid to go pro out of high school again without Nike being involved," Knight said, according to Tom Floco, a Nike summer coach from Philadelphia, and a half dozen other people present that day. Knight, through a spokeswoman, denied having made the statement, but Floco and others were crystal-clear. "There was no doubt what he said and what he meant," Floco said.

When Knight's quote was printed a week later in the Chicago Sun-Times, a chill ran through high school basketball coaches from coast to coast. It was suddenly apparent that if one of the most recognizable and powerful CEOs in America was stating that high school sports was now an important battlefield for business, the future of the game played in every community in America was up for grabs.

Knight's monumental statement, coupled with a broad-based and heavily financed campaign to identify young prospects and feed them into Nike's grassroots basketball program and compete with adidas' similar grassroots system, brought big money, big egos, and hypercompetitive recruiting to the high school and junior high level.

Nike repeated its message to its grassroots coaches scattered around the country over the next year, in teleconferences and letters: Establish relationships early and steer players to the company. All this so a certain company can have the inside track on landing the mythical next Michael Jordan, a player who would not only be considered among the game's greatest talents, but become indisputablythe most powerful and effective endorser of products in American history.

The first company to find that next Jordan would, if Jordan's success was a yardstick, be set for the next decade. By setting an unbelievable standard—at his peak Jordan's annual endorsements earned him $16 million from Nike, $5 million from Gatorade, $5 million from Bijan Cologne, $4 million from MCI, $2 million from Ray-O-vac, $2 million from Hanes, $2 million from Ball Park Franks, $2 million from Wheaties, $2 million from Wilson, $2 million from Oakley, $1 million from AMF Bowling, $1 million from CBS Sportsline, and $1 million from Chicagoland Chevrolet—the greatest endorser of all time made the business of hawking products more lucrative than playing the game.

The irony is how easy it was for Nike to sign the original.

It was the summer of 1984 and Vaccaro was waiting at a Tony Roma's restaurant in Santa Monica, California, for his then best friend George Raveling, the head coach of the University of Iowa and an assistant on the U.S. Olympic men's basketball team, to bring Michael Jordan to lunch. Vaccaro was a marketing guy for Nike, charged with the concept of getting the company involved in the world of basketball. At the time Converse, whose stable of endorsers included Earvin "Magic" Johnson, Larry Bird, Isiah Thomas, and others, was the industry leader. But Nike had decided that what would truly work is developing a signature shoe for an athlete. By creating for a player his very own shoe, named and marketed just for him, Nike was hoping that said player's popularity would spur sales. Vaccaro liked the concept of the signature, just as he had liked the concept of signing college basketball coaches to exclusive endorsement contracts and assuring that the nation's top collegians—all amateur athletes prohibited from signing individual endorsement deals—would have his brand-name shoe on their feet. Converse had almost all of the NBA's top talent locked up, but, Vaccaro figured, wasn't using them as effective pitchmen. In Converse's most popular television commercial, a series of NBA stars, including Johnson, Thomas, and Bird, passed a Converse shoe to each other. Vaccaro wanted to eliminate the clutter and instead focus on one player, with one niche and one message. He needed someone who had the kind of game that everyone could relate to, regardless of what NBA team the player played for.

Big men, including 1984's top two draft picks, the University of Houston's Akeem [later Hakeem] Olajuwon and the University of Kentucky's Sam Bowie, were out because few street players or young kids envisioned themselves as centers. Vaccaro wanted a guard or a small forward. Someone who could shoot from outside, handle the ball, and make the kind of athletic plays—particularly dunks—that were causing the NBA's popularity to surge. He thought he wanted Michael Jordan.

Now he had to meet him. Vaccaro knew almost everyone in basketball but it was easy to see how Jordan eluded him. Vaccaro had run summer instructional camps and his Dapper Dan all-star game in Pittsburgh since the early 1970s and thus met most of the nation's top young talent—both players and coaches. But Jordan had taken a different route to the brink of superstardom. Cut from his high school varsity team as a sophomore at Laney High School in Wilmington, North Carolina, Jordan was hardly a can't-miss prospect.

Instead he became a self-made player, using the disappointment of being cut to rededicate himself to the game. As a junior he made the team and as a senior became a schoolboy star good enough to attract the attention of Dean Smith, the head basketball coach of the North Carolina Tar Heels, an hour-and-a-half drive up the road in Chapel Hill. Smith offered a scholarship, Jordan accepted, and although he went on to an all-state season as a senior, he finished second in the voting for North Carolina Mr. Basketball to future UNC teammate Buzz Peterson.

Regarded as only the second-best player in his own state, Jordan was never invited to the Dapper Dan.

But when, as a freshman, he hit the game-winning jump shot to lead the Tar Heels over the Georgetown Hoyas in the 1982 NCAA Championship Game, Vaccaro couldn't help but notice the thin 6-6 guard. He left college two years later, as the consensus national player of the year in college basketball. And Vaccaro was determined to get to know the young phenom.

"I never had anything to do with Michael," Vaccaro recalls. "He never went to a camp, he never played in the Dapper Dan. My first identity with him—obviously I knew who he was when he started playing college basketball—was when he beat Georgetown in the game in '82. But there was never any personal contact there.

"But the game plan was set in motion from Nike's standpoint in November of 1983 when we were identifying the college players and then solidifying them in January or February of '84. We knew Michael could come out and that was the year of [Charles] Barkley and Olajuwon. That was a pretty good class." It was a class that would go on to win the 1984 Olympic gold medal—although Barkley was cut by U.S. and Indiana University coach Bob Knight and Olajuwon was then a Nigerian citizen (he later became a U.S. citizen and played on the 1996 U.S. National Team)—which was why Jordan was in Southern California. He was practicing for the Olympic team, after being selected number three overall by the Chicago Bulls in the NBA's amateur draft. And on this off-afternoon, he agreed to meet Vaccaro at Tony Roma's.

Vaccaro, Jordan, and Raveling had lunch and talked hoops. Through college Jordan had worn Converse at North Carolina because of the company's endorsement deal with Tar Heel coach Dean Smith. Off the court, Vaccaro says, Jordan wore adidas.

"Michael had never seen nor ever played in a Nike shoe until then," Vaccaro said.

Vaccaro touched lightly on Nike's ideas and they agreed to another meeting just before the Olympics with Jordan, his agent, David Falk, Vaccaro, and Nike executive Rob Strausser. That time they met at the exclusive L'Ermitage Hotel in Beverly Hills. Strausser was one of the creative geniuses behind Nike until he left the company in 1988; he later ran adidas America until his death in 1997. He and Vaccaro laid out the plan for the signature shoe—the Air Jordan, a phrase Falk and Strausser coined. Jordan and Falk were intrigued and although Converse was signing most of the game's top talents Jordan seemed uninterested in endorsing the company.

"We presented a plan to him," Vaccaro said. "It was a detailed plan. The whole plan was how we were going to market Air Jordan, how we were going to make it different."

Jordan was interested enough about Nike to come to Portland, Oregon, in the fall with his parents to learn more about the Air Jordan. There the Jordans were given a tour of the city, wined and dined, and showed repeatedly that Nike considered the Air Jordan to be the highest of priorities.

"It was very formal," Vaccaro said of the meetings. "It was a recruiting trip because I think signing him had a lot to do with what we said we were going to do and the relationship I established with him early. He felt comfortable once he came to Oregon." Although, Vaccaro admits, there really wasn't much to show the Jordans. Phil Knight's company was nowhere near the corporate giant it is now, so he couldn't offer much of a tour.

"There was no plant," Vaccaro said. "There was no NikeTown. There was no Nike campus. We were in cubbyholes, a bunch of cubbyholes in leased office space. We didn't have a building. Michael built the Nike buildings." Although Michael sat in on every presentation, it was his parents who did most of the talking, Vaccaro said. "I think they were more in tune with what we were trying to do than even Michael," Vaccaro said. "I think Falk had a lot to do with convincing them this was a landmark thing. I think David did a good job preparing him and getting him ready for this thing." At one meeting the Jordans were shown the Air Jordan logo—then a pair of wings similar to the kind airline pilots wear. They were also shown a prototype of the Air Jordan shoe. "He was excited about havinghis shoe, but it wasn't like we had this prototype thing that was the most innovative shoe in the world," Vaccaro said. "In fact, the first Air Jordan was pathetic."

It didn't matter. Jordan was interested and Nike was more interested than adidas, which was the only other company to make a bid for his services. Vaccaro had convinced Nike officials, including Phil Knight, that Jordan was the complete package: a fundamentally sound player with the kind of breathtaking athleticism that would appeal to all players. His game was street enough to be legit on city playgrounds, yet his personality and speaking ability were polished enough to work in suburban living rooms. In a league that is predominately black but plays to a majority white fan base, he was perfect. He was a gamble, but it was one Vaccaro was willing to take.

Others at Nike weren't so sure. There was a movement to sign Olajuwon or Barkley, a powerful forward from Auburn University. Other players were also mentioned. Vaccaro was so convinced he had the right guy that when Nike executive Howard Schulser asked him if he was willing to bet his job on Jordan, Vaccaro never hesitated.

"I said, 'Yeah.' "

Why?

"Because I wasn't making a lot of money anyway. What difference did it make?" So Nike laid out its plan: a signature shoe, with the athlete sharing in

the profits. Adidas offered $500,000 according to Vaccaro. Nike countered with $250,000 and a percentage of the shoe revenues. Falk wanted a half million guarantee and the percentages. Nike came back with the $500,000 but a smaller cut. They had a deal.

"David Falk elected to take more guaranteed money and less revenue percentage," said Vaccaro. "So out of the chute he lost himself a lot of money. But in retrospect, it really amounted to nothing. It wasn't a big-time bidding war. Probably the most determining thing was adidas wasn't going to offer him a lot of money. It was the first time that the athlete was going to share in the royalties of the shoe. That was the gamble."

To say it paid off wouldn't begin to describe it. In 1985, with total sales slumping at around $900 million and Reebok surging to become the industry leader behind the sale of its aerobics shoes for women, Nike experienced a "belt tightening to bring down general administration costs and reduction in inventory," according to company documents.

In 1986, in his second season as a Chicago Bull, Jordan scored 63 points in a heavily watched playoff game against the Boston Celtics and his popularity began to soar. Sales of his black and red shoes and apparel followed suit.

"Then [sales] went off the wall," said Vaccaro. "It was the popularity of the kid that carried everything. It got so popular that, I'll never forget [Nike executive] Jack Joyce, he was in charge of production at that time of the Jordan line, said, 'Let's just make everything black and red and sell it. T-shirts, everything. Just paint bricks black and red and sell them.' That's how popular it became."

Two years later, after Spike Lee's ad campaign featuring Jordan and Lee himself (playing Mars Blackmon) hit the airwaves, declaring "It's gotta be the shoes," stores couldn't keep Air Jordans on the shelves. Nike sales soared past the $1 billion mark and the company assumed its spot as number one in the industry, a mantle it has yet to give up.

By 1997, Nike's worldwide sales hit a record high of $9.19 billion, more than a 1,000 percent increase from sales of $877 million in 1987. Although 1998 sales stalled—causing some layoffs and a reduction in stock prices—its hold on number one in the shoe and apparel industry is still considerable. During fiscal year 1998, according to Nike, gross sales hit $9.89 billion, highest in industry history.

Meanwhile Jordan went on to win five NBA Most Valuable Player Awards, six NBA Championships for the Chicago Bulls, and established himself as the greatest basketball player of all time. He has also become a pitchman without peer, proving he could be both Everyman and Superman at the same time. Despite links (described in the 1997 book Money Players) to heavy illegal gambling losses—both in card games and golf matches—and associations with some less than reputable people, his public persona has not wavered. Even an eighteen-month retirement stint where he played minor league baseball didn't affect his Q rating.

He is, and will likely remain even in retirement, the most popular athlete in the world.

All this is only part of the reason the search for the next Michael Jordan is so cutthroat. For a contending company such as adidas, Converse, Fila, or Reebok or an upstart such as And One, executives need only look at the Nike story to realize that finding the perfect athlete could change everything.

Nike's numbers explain why others are looking so hard today and why Vaccaro says the rules of the game have changed so drastically. While targeting the athlete is still a key to the business, no longer can a shoe company wait until the player is a junior in college. Now waiting until a player is a junior in high school can be too late.

As a fifteen-year-old freshman at Benton Harbor (Michigan) High School, 6-9 Robert Whaley made an immediate impact on the local high school scene. With extraordinarily long arms, big broad shoulders, and tremendous agility, Whaley cut an imposing figure on the court despite his tender age. An accomplished shot blocker with polished post moves and an unstoppable hook shot, he became one of Michigan's most dynamic high school players as a mere freshman.

Midwest talent scout Vincent Baldwin—who owns the college scouting service Prep Spotlight—began hearing whispers about this western Michigan man-child in December 1997. When he decided to check up on the rumors later that winter, he was shocked at how good Whaley was.

"His talent level was incredible," Baldwin said. "He could do everything on the court. I couldn't believe he was fifteen years old. The next day I called both Sonny [Vaccaro] and Nike's George Raveling and left messages saying, 'There's a fifteen-year-old in Michigan named Robert Whaley that you guys need to check out.' I called them both to be fair."

Within a week Whaley had heard from Vaccaro and received a package full of complimentary adidas gear and shoes. He was also contacted by Christopher Grier, the coach of the Michigan Mustangs, an adidas-sponsored traveling basketball team from Southfield, Michigan, some two hundred miles away. Whaley began playing for the Mustangs after his high school season and was quickly signed up for the 1998 adidas ABCD Camp, which Vaccaro oversees. "Adidas has been good to me," said Whaley. "They started sending me stuff and everyone around me was wearing adidas. I just got used to it. I know Sonny will be good for me."

How good is the question. In the cutthroat competition to lock up young Robert Whaleys—in hopes they become a Jordan, or at least a Kobe Bryant—it is clear that shoe companies and the high school coaches, scouts, and summer ball organizers that they sponsor or employ will do just about anything to be good enough.

Raveling, by the way, didn't return the call, leaving Vaccaro with an open lane into Whaley's heart. Vaccaro jumped because he knows if he is ever going to sign another MJ, he'll lay the groundwork when the player is fourteen, not twenty-one. And if he's right, Vaccaro might be smiling again for the cameras on draft night.

Copyright © 2000 by Dan Wetzel and Don Yaeger

Excerpt posted with permission from http://www.twbookmark.com



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