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CBSSports.com Senior Writer

Vaccaro no longer a player, and grassroots hoops misses him


Every Division I coach in America will be at some sort of basketball event Wednesday morning.

Meantime, Sonny Vaccaro will be watching his nephew play golf.

"He's in a tournament in Fort Myers, Fla.," Vaccaro told CBSSports.com by phone. "So that's where I'll be."

Sonny Vaccaro helped LeBron James make his bones with summer basketball. (Getty Images)  
Sonny Vaccaro helped LeBron James make his bones with summer basketball. (Getty Images)  
Those words serve as a reminder that the July evaluation period that begins this week and will ultimately change the futures of individual prospects and college basketball programs isn't the same July evaluation period we used to enjoy.

The excitement and storylines are mostly gone because Vaccaro, widely regarded as the godfather of grassroots basketball, no longer is involved and available to play nemesis to the power structure. He's instead traveling the country with his wife, Pam. He speaks a lot and relaxes often.

At 71, he has no need for the daily grind it took to run his legendary ABCD Camp outside of New York that annually highlighted the beginning of July or the Big Time tournament in Las Vegas that headlined the end.

But the tug-a-war?

Yes, Vaccaro misses that.

He's like a fighter without a fight.

"And I miss the fight," Vaccaro said. "I do miss that."

The fight began in the early 1990s when Vaccaro left Nike for Adidas and began competing against the outfit he very literally helped build into the most influential sports apparel company in the world by, among other things, convincing Phil Knight to tie his brand to a young basketball player named Michael Jordan.

While with Adidas -- and subsequently Reebok -- Vaccaro was able to challenge and, in most cases, beat Nike for summer relevance based on his reputation and relationships he spent decades establishing.

Vaccaro once convinced Derrick Rose to break Nike ties and play in the ABCD Camp against O.J. Mayo in the summer before their senior years of high school. Vaccaro once convinced Kevin Love to break Nike ties and play in the ABCD Camp against Greg Oden in the summer before their senior years of high school, which resulted in Love being cut from his Nike-affiliated summer team. And LeBron James?

"The most monetized athlete of all time, I think, is going to be LeBron James, and he was a product of summer basketball," Vaccaro said. "LeBron never played in another camp besides the ABCD Camp. He never played at Nike Camp. He played at ABCD."

More on Recruiting

Now LeBron James hosts the LeBron James Skills Academy -- a celebrated Nike event happening this week in Akron, Ohio. Because Vaccaro's ABCD Camp no longer exists, most of the nation's best talent will be in attendance because, honestly, there are no great alternatives.

"The power index is off the charts now; Nike has complete control," Vaccaro said. "Nike is the greatest marketing company in the world in terms of athletics. There's no question about it. And what they've done with their athletes is off the radar, and I don't think anyone could ever catch them even if I reinvented myself or came back as a ghost or something. I don't know that it would make any difference because they've done what they always wanted to do -- take control of basketball.

"They've never had total control like this since I left. They're tighter with their colleges and players than ever before. They have total control. And that's what I always feared -- total one-sidedness -- because a lack of competition limits opportunities."

To Vaccaro's point, there are no longer so-called bidding wars between he and Nike to fund certain summer programs led by certain prospects, and that's the part that Vaccaro hates most. Even if he didn't get a certain team, he could almost certainly get Nike to spend more than it otherwise would have spent -- and more than it now, in most cases, spends -- to fund said team. Then Vaccaro would just take his money and fund another team. It was simple. There were always at least two elite camps opening the July evaluation period when Vaccaro was around, which means roughly twice as many prospects had opportunities to highlight themselves on a big stage in front of college coaches and by extension earn scholarships.

There also were negatives to the process, sure. You've read about them.

But Vaccaro would argue -- and I'd agree -- that there are positives and negatives to everything connected to major-college athletics, and he'll never understand why people only want to focus on the negatives when it comes to summer basketball. Either way, those once cherished opportunities now are diminished, the funding doesn't flow the way it used to flow, and the NCAA continues to put rules into place to try to limit the role summer basketball plays in the recruiting process. It'll never work the way the NCAA wants it to work, of course, and I've been over that in great detail before.

But the bottom line is the bottom line. Say what you want about Vaccaro, but summer basketball, most agree, misses him. He made the month more exciting and he helped create opportunities for kids who no longer have them because there are fewer marquee events to showcase those players in front of a crowd of scholarship-toting college coaches.

"The people who make the rules are so blinded by the excess of talent at the top," Vaccaro said. "They think everything is illegal. So they make all these rules because they're blinded by the excess at the top, but they're really just hurting the ones at the bottom. That's what bothers me. That's always been what bothered me."

Gary Parrish is a senior college basketball columnist for CBSSports.com and college basketball insider for the CBS Sports Network. The Mississippi native also hosts an award-winning radio show in Memphis. He lives in that area with his wife, two sons and two dogs.

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