Sonny Vaccaro has had a lot of ideas in his 83 years, but none more successful than the day he said, “Give it all to the kid.”
The year was 1984. Vaccaro sat with a few Nike executives in a conference room in Beaverton, Oregon. The company was struggling, and they were deciding on a plan to infiltrate the professional basketball market, as they had done with college basketball. The question was how?
“We had two schools that won National Championships,” Vaccaro said in a recent phone conversation. He was referring to NC State and Georgetown. “At the time, I have nothing to do with the pros. Nike had players like George Gervin and other players, but all they did was make posters. They didn’t market their players. Nobody did.”
Eight years earlier, Nike had nothing to do with college basketball. Vaccaro changed that.
“Here’s how I did it,” Vaccaro said. “I said we will hire the coaches. We will pay each of them $10 thousand and give them free sneakers for their teams and tee shirts for their camp. They will sign because I knew these guys weren’t making much money, and $10 thousand was significant in 1976-77.”
Vaccaro was living in Las Vegas. He went to Jerry Tarkanian, his friend and the head basketball coach at UNLV. Tarkanian listened to his friend’s pitch and got on board. Within three years, Nike had 80 NCAA basketball schools wearing their product. Vaccaro’s idea proved brilliant.
So when he sat in that meeting in ’84 and said, “Give it all to the kid,” people listened, but they also thought he was crazy.
“I had never met Michael Jordan when I made that statement,” Vaccaro explained. “The only time I had seen Jordan was when North Carolina beat Georgetown with that shot.”
The “shot” came with 15 seconds remaining in the 1982 National Championship game. The jump-shooter was an unknown freshman named Michael Jordan. Something about that shot; that moment resonated with Vaccaro. Two years later, he was willing to risk his career betting on a 19-year-old he had never met.
“The best asset you have is not what you think you can do or what somebody else has done, but something no one has done,” he said. “The biggest thing you have is your subconscious. There was always something in my mind that wasn’t supposed to be there.”
Vaccaro called a friend, George Raveling, an assistant coach with USA Basketball. Jordan was a member of the 1984 National team. They were training in Los Angeles in preparation for the Olympic Games, scheduled to be played in that same city later that summer. Raveling came through for his friend. Jordan met Vaccaro at Tony Roma’s, a popular Santa Monica restaurant.
“It was just a personal meeting, but that’s how it all started,” Vaccaro recalled. “I was a big underdog to get it done, but I went through three and a half months of recruiting.”
The underdog succeeded. In September of that year, Michael Jordan was offered $2.5 million over five years with a 25% royalty on every shoe sold by Nike. Jordan had a signature shoe, and with that, Vaccaro would change the sneaker industry forever.
“It’s the most unlikely thing I ever did, but it just came out of my mouth, Vaccaro said. “Give it all to the kid.”
This past spring, the movie Air debuted. A star-studded cast tells the story of those three and a half months Vaccaro spent recruiting Jordan, or better yet, Dolores Jordan, Michael’s mom.
“I have nothing to do with the movie,” Vaccaro said. “I have nothing legally but everything to do with it.
“It is about how we got it done, through to the final meeting with his mom, played by Viola Davis, the greatest actress in the world.”
Matt Damon plays Vaccaro. Ben Affleck directs the movie and plays Phil Knight, co-founder of Nike. Other names you will see in the credits include Chris Tucker, Justin Bateman, and Chris Messina.
One scene in the film rings true to Vaccaro’s core. Remember that “shot” Vaccaro saw in 1982? Affleck and Damon find a way to portray the significance of that real-life moment for Vaccaro perfectly.
“Michael got the ball 18 seconds before the shot,” Vaccaro said. “That scene where Matt Damon watches it made my wife cry. I cry at everything. But it is as close to the truth because it captures the emotion.”
Vaccaro and his wife Pam were invited to the set to watch the filming one day and attended the movie’s premiere. The experience has been a whirlwind.
“Pam deserves to walk down the red carpet, not Sonny Vaccaro, the kid from Trafford, Pennsylvania. But it’s happening. It is getting great reviews. The cast is the best since Ocean 11. Ben (Affleck) knows Michael (Jordan); he blessed the movie. Viola is in it because Michael requested that she be a part of the movie.”
Watching a part of his life portrayed on the silver screen is surreal, but Vaccaro reminds people of the significance of Air.
“People are making millions and millions of dollars, but no one will ever do what Michael Jordan did for this industry,” Vaccaro said. “He cracked the color line. The black athlete was playing, but he wasn’t getting endorsements. He opened up a whole new inventory. Everything started with Michael. Everybody thinks something is crazy until it’s successful.”