Q & A with John "Sonny" Vaccaro

The man most responsible for the shape of modern basketball, the man who wields the most influence on the prep game, who signed Michael Jordan to Nike and Kobe Bryant and Tracy McGrady to Adidas, is John "Sonny" Vaccaro. SOR has an exclusive interview with the most powerful man in amateur basketball from this year's ABCD camp.

Sardonic: How do you fill that this year's event has gone so far?

Sonny: Wonderful, all the kids we thought were going to come showed up. You are always nervous until they get here. Kids are saying, "I'm coming, I'm coming", well they're not here until they're here, so. Everyone we thought was coming, plus a couple we thought might not come, are here. I'm ecstatic. I think it's the best group for name and visibility that we've ever had at this camp. I think we beat the hell out of the other two camps, and I keep score.

Sardonic: How did you get started doing this?

Sonny: I've been doing it my whole life, 43 years. 43 years of this, 43 years with the all-star game. I don't know, I don't think anyone explains how they get started. I was 24 years old when I first did it my first year. I love basketball, I love being involved with kids, I've had a wonderful life because of these kids, and I love this kind of stuff.

Sardonic: I remember, you were with the Dapper Dan …

Sonny: No, I am the Dapper Dan. I started it. That was in 1965.

Sardonic: Right, right, that was way back. One thing I've noticed, players in the NBA, indeed it seems like players at virtually all levels of organized basketball, think the world of you, feel extreme loyalty and allegiance to you and would go to war for you, basically, from what I've read. Why is that? What do you attribute that to?

Sonny: Hopefully, it's because we have a relationship, more importantly I hope I've never lied to any of those kids. The trust factor is the most important thing in an individual's life. I think they know they can come to me and I'll give an honest answer. That's what my 43 years have done. I hope … that's who I hope I am.

Sardonic: From what I can see, some of the critics will contend that your influence has changed the game perhaps for the worst. They would say that the constant demands of the AAU schedule and having to play ball all year round, the influence of the AAU coaches on the players, the exposure, kids being tracked at an earlier age, perhaps that in addition to maybe a de-emphasis on the fundamentals – kids feeling that they need to maybe impress or show off more, those kinds of things. Maybe the game has gotten away from the fundamentals, and just the idea of kids being celebrities at an earlier age, being tracked. How do you feel about all of that?

Sonny: They're entitled to their opinion, but I am so proud of what I've been involved in my adult life, and I think they're full of it, personally. I think that they're biased and prejudiced in their assumptions, because I can just repeat to you ad infinitum about every other aspect of our lives, our society, where we reward our young and our youth for excelling in anything that they do – except basketball, and we hold them back.

As far as the fundamentals go, I want somebody in the world to tell me - one of the most entertaining NBA teams I've watched in a long time since Michael played in the league was this season, and why? Because the Phoenix Suns didn't have any damned fundamentals - they shot the damned basketball. There are no pick and roles in Phoenix, there are no pick and rolls in Dallas, who are we kiddin' here? Let's be honest about this. All that BS is not true. Basketball is a game of skills and ability, and if you can compete with your teammate - teammates make the most important thing. Not fouls – teammates. Phoenix revolutionized it. The NBA rules allow you just to not even touch anybody. Well, that means they give freedom to the players, there's no more hand checking and grabbing and tackling. So it's all full of crap, there are no fundamental lapses. Phoenix is the most entertaining team in basketball.

Sardonic: The new rule this year as a result of the NBA collective bargaining agreement that is requiring kids to have to go to school for one year in college - how do you feel about that?

Sonny: It's bunk to me. Nobody requires anybody to do anything in our society except basketball. It's very interesting. No one's ever put an age limit on anything to do with making a living anywhere in the United States. We are a country of freedom – why can't they go to work? That's all I want to know. Don't tell me you think they're too young. It's bullcrap.

Sardonic: It is very interesting, because you can go be a professional tennis player at 16 or 17, there are no rules that say you can't.

Sonny: There are no rules that say you can't be a professional Westinghouse employee or a professional funeral guy – if you want to go to work, you go to work.

Sardonic: In your opinion, your view - the NCAA: what is the biggest problem with it?

Sonny: A bureaucracy that is like Oz in the Wizard of Oz. It's like a mechanism. There's no feeling to it, there's no humanity to it. They put out a rulebook that makes no damned sense, and they hide behind the rule book and tell you they work for the institutions that pay them. It's all BS – they're Oz.

Sardonic: From my observations having seen the organization over so many years, they seem to be a little bit out of touch with the kids quite frequently. Do you concur with that?

Sonny: They have no idea who anybody is. I mean, you cannot police or help anything in the world without knowledge of what it is you are policing. You have to. They don't know who these kids are, they don't know the fundamental difference between these kids trying to better themselves in the abject poverty that most of them go through to get to where they're going … there's no compassion.

Sardonic: Yeah, they sometimes seem to penalize the kids for wanting to do the right thing.

If you were the ruler of all basketball: I mean professionally, college, AAU – if you were in charge of it all – how would you run things? What rules would you implement? How would you make it run?

Sonny: Well, rules are different than guidelines. A moral compass is sometimes better than the written rule. A moral compass is … well I would want to see this game just continue on as it was. You should have the freedom to play when you want to play, high schools, in the summer leagues – there shouldn't be any restrictions in the colleges on coaches working with the kids during college and putting in a self-imposed eight hour a week rule on a guy. Mike Krzyzewski can't work his players, Roy Williams can't work his player. It's self-defeating. I would like to see this. Also, I would like to see an agreement in the NBA that there's no damned ceiling, a guaranteed contract, on a set amount of money for a set amount of years. They basically told me what I can earn and cannot earn in the first year or the first two years by an agreement. What happened to my agreement? Just be free. Go ahead.

Sardonic: How do you feel about basketball in this area these days, the NY/NJ area?

Sonny: Well, there's a rejuvenation. The three Coreys are pretty damned good. And Sylvan Landesberg and a couple of other kids in New York, Melquan Bolding. There was a little down part last year where the kids were good players but not great players. The Corey kids are pretty damned good.

Sardonic: Yeah, we have an interest in one: Corey Chandler. I just interviewed him because he's coming to Rutgers.

Sonny: He's the unsung one, the forgotten Corey. He's very good - very good.

Sardonic: That leads me to my next question: How do feel about what's happening at Rutgers now under Fred Hill?

Sonny: Work. If hard work, determination, and the love of the game get it done … Fred Hill is going to be a big success. If hard work is the answer, there's no need to have that question anymore, because Freddie will work his ass off to make it good. The second part of the equation is whether there is an emotional support system within Rutgers University. They've sort of gravitated to that football team, and they've got to do that with basketball.

Sardonic: You mean get that support system in place so student-athletes can also function and thrive within that environment?

Sonny: That's what I mean by that support system, where everyone is comfortable with everyone together.

Sardonic: Thank you very much, Sonny.

Sonny: Anytime


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