The Pivot

by Jason Zengerle | July 9, 2008

One evening last fall, Sonny Vaccaro came to the University of Maryland to give a speech. This was not itself unusual, since he is often invited to give speeches on campuses--specifically, locker-room talks to college basketball players. Vaccaro is not a natural orator--he has a high, raspy voice, and his words run together as he rambles from one topic to the next--but young athletes almost invariably listen to what he has to say. As a shoe company executive, an all-star game organizer, and a summer camp and tournament operator, the 68-year-old Vaccaro has been one of the most powerful--and controversial--men in basketball for nearly three decades. He is the sport's ultimate insider, the man who brokered the marriage between Michael Jordan and Nike that gave birth to Air Jordan; plucked a 15-year-old Tracy McGrady from basketball obscurity in rural Florida and put him on the path to NBA stardom; and played godfather to myriad successful college basketball coaches, most notably Ben Howland, who reportedly owes his job at UCLA to Vaccaro's lobbying. "I helped them make millions and millions of dollars," Vaccaro boasts. If that help has led some critics to brand him a "sneaker pimp" who wields undue influence over the game, it's endeared him to others. When the NBA holds its annual draft on June 26 in New York City, Vaccaro will be there as the guest of at least three players expected to be taken in the first round. As one of those players, O.J. Mayo, who began keeping Vaccaro's counsel as a ninth-grader, has put it: "Sonny's kind of a man in the back."

Maryland seemed a logical venue for one of Vaccaro's pep talks. He's an old pal of Maryland's basketball coach, Gary Williams, and the school's team--which won the ncaa championship in 2002--is stocked with the sort of elite players whom Vaccaro makes it his business to have befriended before they even have drivers' licenses. But Vaccaro wasn't at Maryland to give a locker-room speech. He was there to deliver a lecture to a group of students. Vaccaro, who has salt- and-pepper hair and dark eyebrows that frame an open, sallow face, stood at the front of a large classroom. Although he is most comfortable in sweatsuits and sneakers, on this evening he wore a sweater and dress shoes, doing his best to approximate professorial attire. Still, the 200 or so undergrads in attendance weren't the automatically captivated audience he was accustomed to. "How many of you know who I am?" Vaccaro asked as he paced in front of the lectern. About five students raised their hands. "How many of you have an opinion of me?" he continued. Only a couple of students signaled that they did. Vaccaro was incredulous. "That's all? None of you other guys have an opinion of me?" He resolved to make the best of this unusual anonymity. "That's wonderful," he said. "That means tonight I have your minds. Hopefully, tomorrow morning, I have your souls."

Vaccaro had come to Maryland to enlist the students in what he described as his "new venture." He had resolved that he was no longer "going to go speak to the basketball teams or the football teams or give them a ra-ra speech." Instead, he wanted to "go to schools and speak to kids who aren't basketball players and football players"--the kids who line up and camp out in tents for tickets; the kids who pack the arenas and stadiums and scream themselves hoarse rooting for State U; the kids who, even more than the athletes, make college sports the cultural phenomenon that it is today. He had a simple message for them. "The NCAA," he told the students, "is the most fraudulent organization that ever lived."

Last year, Vaccaro quit his job as a top Reebok executive. He shuttered his summer tournament. He turned out the lights on his high school all-star game. He abandoned all of the official positions and institutions that had made him a basketball power broker. "I left for the main reason so I could be free to talk, " Vaccaro told me. "I'm not selling shoes, I'm not working for anybody. If people ask what's in it for me, there's nothing now." Since making his clean break, Vaccaro has waged a single-minded campaign against college athletics' governing body, the NCAA. "I'm going for the jugular," he says. He's visited Harvard, Yale, and Duke, among other schools, to speak to students about the evils of the NCAA. He's gone to Capitol Hill to lobby Congress to investigate the NCAA's tax-exempt status. He's buttonholed NBA players about negotiating a new collective bargaining agreement in such a way that it would hurt the NCAA. And he's searched for young, up-and-coming basketball phenoms who might blaze a new trail to the NBA that doesn't go through the college ranks.

Vaccaro believes the NCAA is fraudulent for two fundamental reasons: The first is that the NCAA is more devoted to business than to education; and the second is that the NCAA makes its money by exploiting the talents of the young men it is supposed to be educating. "They're not good people, the NCAA," Vaccaro told me. "It's a one-sided street; all the money goes to them." Vaccaro is revolted by the hypocrisy that's become engrained in the culture of college athletics--the insistence that the athletes are students, that the coaches are teachers (not "mercenaries" and "hired guns," as he calls them), and that "college sports," as NCAA president Myles Brand has declared, "is not a business." If Vaccaro's life is a testament to anything, it's that college sports is a business. And his new mission is to ensure that the people who contribute most to that business, the athletes, get something in return. "My goal," Vaccaro says, "is to get freedom for these kids."

At Maryland, he spoke for more than an hour in a headlong rush, at some points literally frothing at the mouth as he tried to persuade the students about the perfidy of the NCAA. One moment he was complaining about the NBA's "one-and-done" rule--which, since being instituted in 2006, prohibits basketball players from entering the league until they're at least 19 and one year removed from high school, and which has been a boon to the NCAA since those athletes now spend that year playing college basketball instead of going straight to the pros. Next, he was railing against the NCAA for selling ESPN the rebroadcast rights to old college basketball games without giving any money to the athletes who played in them. Then he was off on a tangent about college football's Bowl Championship Series. If Vaccaro was at times hard to follow, there was no doubting his passion. "I want you to carry the word," he beseeched the students.

Vaccaro is hardly the first person to criticize the NCAA. For years, would-be reformers have authored reports and issued "calls to action" decrying the corrupt nature of college athletics. But, for all that time, the movement to reform college sports has consisted primarily of academics who are largely outsiders to the world of athletics; perhaps relatedly, the movement has made little progress. As an insider, Vaccaro presents the college sports reform movement with an opportunity that holds both peril and potential. At one level, Vaccaro could harm the cause of reform by sullying it. Is the man who boasts of having "written a check to everyone" really the person best-suited to cleaning up college athletics? At the same time, Vaccaro, more than anyone else in the movement, knows the nature of the enemy--Having once been the enemy. Vaccaro used his undeniable talents to help build college sports into the corrupt behemoth it is today. The question now is whether he can use those same talents to tear the whole thing down.

 

There are people who quite literally hold Sonny Vaccaro responsible for destroying American basketball. According to his critics, Vaccaro created a set of incentives that fundamentally retards the development of young American players. These players practice dunking rather than shooting jumpers, since lucrative shoe contracts go to the flashiest athletes, not the most fundamentally sound ones. They become spoiled and coddled and thus uncoachable, since the shoe companies' desperate search for the next Michael Jordan leads them to shower free merchandise on players as young as ten years old. And then they leave college early to make millions in the NBA, even though they're not yet ready for the rigors of the pro game, as their permanently occupied seats on the bench for the initial years of their pro careers attest. "Vaccaro's empire and influence disrupts development at every level," Brian McCormick, a coach who runs a California basketball academy, has written. "Vaccaro's empire turned basketball up-side down." Indeed, after the U.S. men's basketball team failed to win a gold medal at the 2004 Summer Olympic Games in Athens, "summer basketball"--that is, Vaccaro--received nearly as much blame for the performance as the team's players and coaches.

Vaccaro has a one-word response to the accusation that he ruined American basketball: "Bullshit." But he's willing to cop to the charge that he professionalized--and, in some senses, corrupted--college basketball. In fact, it's something he's quite proud of. That basketball is the sport in which Vaccaro, who has described himself as "this fat little dago," made his living is a bit of a mystery--even to him. "I don't look like it, I don't talk like it, I don't feel like it," he says. "All the things that a young basketball player was then, and is now, I wasn't."

Born John Paul (his mother later dubbed him Sonny for his disposition), he was a baseball and football star growing up in Western Pennsylvania, but a back injury curtailed any dreams he had of playing professionally. After graduating from Youngstown State University, he returned home and took a job teaching special education in his old school district. He also had a number of businesses on the side, from running sports camps to promoting rock concerts. One of the things Vaccaro did in his off-hours in 1964 was found an all-star game for high school basketball players called the Dapper Dan Roundball Classic. Although the Dapper Dan was held in Pittsburgh, it drew players from all over the country, making it the first national high school all-star game. As such, it became a must-see event for college coaches, many of whom became Vaccaro's friends.

In the early '70s, Vaccaro left Pennsylvania behind (save for return trips to Pittsburgh to run the Dapper Dan) for Las Vegas, where he eked out a living as a professional gambler. He was still on the lookout for business opportunities, and, in 1977, he convinced a shoemaker friend to build some prototypes of a sandal-like basketball shoe he wanted to pitch to a then- fledgling Oregon shoe company called Nike. Nike executives weren't interested in Vaccaro's shoes, but they were intrigued by his basketball knowledge. They asked him for his thoughts about how Nike, which was then focused mostly on running shoes, could break into the basketball market, and Vaccaro tossed out the idea that forever changed college hoops: He suggested Nike pay college basketball coaches to put its shoes on their players. Initially, Nike didn't have to pay the coaches much. "In the '70s, college coaches weren't making $2.5 million a year," Vaccaro says. "They were making twenty-five thousand dollars a year and ran a summer camp and maybe got an automobile from the local Dodge dealership." The promise of a few thousand dollars plus free shoes was too good an offer for the coaches to pass up. But Nike execs were reluctant to trust Vaccaro, whom some suspected of being a Mafioso, with even the little sums: When he first began signing up his coaching friends in 1978, he had to write them checks from his personal account, into which Nike then wired money. "I was actually giving an illegal check to these guys, hoping it wouldn't bounce," he recalls. By the mid-'80s, after Vaccaro's strategy helped Nike boost its basketball-shoe sales from $7 million to $400 million each year, the firm had given Vaccaro access to the company checkbook and a budget of $3.5 million. He needed it, since by then some coaches, such as Georgetown's John Thompson, were making hundreds of thousands of dollars a year from their Nike contracts.

Vaccaro extended his influence in other ways. In 1984, he founded the ABCD Summer Basketball Camp. Prior to ABCD, the most prominent summer camps, such as Five Star, consisted of a series of drills and scrimmages, designed to improve the campers' skills. ABCD, by contrast, was intended to be a stage for the nation's top high school players. "I wanted to give them a platform," Vaccaro says. He invited the top 120 to come to ABCD for a week and, after some perfunctory college-prep classes in the morning, scrimmage against one another in the afternoons and evenings. The camp was like catnip for college coaches and, increasingly, NBA scouts, who could see all the top players in the country in one place. Some players used ABCD as the stage on which to make the case that they were worthy of a scholarship from a college basketball powerhouse. Others--such as Kobe Bryant, Tracy McGrady, and LeBron James--used ABCD to prove that they were talented enough to go straight from high school to the NBA. Indeed, by the early '90s, the ABCD camp and national summer tournaments of AAU teams--including one in Las Vegas that Vaccaro put on--had become more important than the high school season when it came to evaluating young basketball players.

Vaccaro had made himself an integral part of the college basketball landscape. But, since his various activities took place at some remove from the actual schools--his shoe contracts were with the coaches; his summer camps took place when school was out--the universities could tell themselves that their tacit partnership with him wasn't corrupting higher education. That changed in 1987, when Vaccaro signed a lucrative contract with the University of Miami to outfit all of its teams in Nike gear. "They finally made a deal with the devil, me being the devil and Nike being the ultimate devil," says Vaccaro. "We wrote the check to Miami, they paid the coaches. ... That's the day they became a commercial entity. That's the day they became a business partner to a business. ... That's the day they sold their soul away."

The soul-selling has only continued. The mother of all business deals in college athletics is the NCAA's eleven-year, $6 billion contract with CBS to broadcast its men's basketball tournament. (About 90 percent of the ncaa's $560 million in annual revenue comes from the CBS contract.) But the ncaa has smaller promotional deals with other corporate entities, from The Hartford financial group to DiGiorno frozen pizza. Even the ladders that the winning players climb to cut down the nets after the national championship basketball game have a sponsor. And it's not just promotions. For the past two men's basketball tournaments, the ncaa has sought to create a new revenue stream by partnering with an online ticket broker, which resells Final Four tickets at hundreds of dollars over their face value. In other words, the NCAA is effectively scalping its own tickets. Meanwhile, NCAA executives pull down salaries that are more befitting of business executives than educators: In 2005- 2006, Myles Brand made more than $895,000.

Of course, Vaccaro has made a small fortune off the game, too. But, even when he was working within the system he helped create, he had his misgivings. "Look, I play by the rules," he told The New York Times' Robert Lipsyte in 1997. "What I am saying is, for God's sake, go change the rules." Yet, despite his qualms, Vaccaro for many years rationalized staying in the game by claiming that his departure wouldn't change anything. After leaving Nike in 1991, he went on to try to do the same thing for Adidas and then for Reebok. Eventually, however, Vaccaro realized that his criticisms of the system would carry far more weight if he wasn't part of it. "I spoke as Sonny Vaccaro the individual, but I also spoke for Nike, Adidas, and Reebok," he says. "So, when they said to me that I wanted to sell shoes, they were right, I did want to sell shoes." Now that he's gone, Vaccaro thinks things have actually gotten worse. "I brought a little bit of organization to the chaos," he told me. "You wouldn't believe some of the shit that's going on now."

 

After his speech at Maryland, Vaccaro headed to an Italian restaurant in Washington, D.C., for a late dinner. He was joined by a good-sized entourage that included the mother of NBA star Grant Hill and a sportswriter whom he was talking to about ghostwriting his autobiography. (The book would presumably make for a good tie-in with the movie about Vaccaro that HBO is developing, with James Gandolfini starring as Sonny.) But the dining companion on whom Vaccaro lavished most of his attention was a staffer on the House Judiciary Committee; Vaccaro had invited him along for one reason. "I want to testify," he told the staffer in between slurps of soup. "I want to put my left hand down, put my right hand up, and say I'll tell nothing but the truth so help me God. I'm begging you."

The dinner was one of several conversations Vaccaro has had in the past year with people on Capitol Hill about potential congressional hearings into the NCAA's tax-exempt status. Since it was founded in 1906 as a response to an epidemic of injuries and deaths in college football games, the NCAA has been considered an educational institution; as such, it has not had to pay taxes.

But Vaccaro and others question just what sort of education student-athletes are receiving. They point to the number of hours they spend practicing their sport (over 44 per week for football players, according to one recent study) as opposed to doing schoolwork and the low rates at which they graduate (of the four teams in the 2008 men's basketball Final Four, North Carolina was the only one that, in recent years, has graduated more than half of its players). "The tax-exempt status is premised on the idea that the ncaa is about educating athletes and making them better persons," says Michael McCann, a visiting sports law professor at Boston College. "And, according to some critics, there's overwhelming evidence that's not occurring."

Vaccaro believes that the NCAA losing its tax-exempt status and being recognized as a business would force the organization and its members to compensate student-athletes beyond providing them with a scholarship that many of them are effectively unable to use. Even if college athletes in revenue- generating sports aren't paid an outright salary--something that Vaccaro favors but recognizes is a long way off--he envisions other forms of compensation. He points to the revenue generated from the sale of the rebroadcast rights of games. "These kids should get residuals every time one of their old games is shown," he says. And he proposes that if a student-athlete uses all of his eligibility at a school, he be given $20,000 as a "going-away present to help him pay for his first apartment." In short, he hopes a no-longer-tax-exempt NCAA would lay bare what he sees as the fundamental hypocrisy of big-time college sports. "Everyone connected to funding the NCAA is business-oriented," he told me. "But the people who are providing the material for the event that people are paying for the right to see or advertise on or be connected to are not treated as a business. How can that be?"

Vaccaro is optimistic that he'll get his congressional hearing. "They said I'm a person of substance," he reported back after a meeting with congressional staffers earlier this year. "We got two hours. No one gets more than thirty minutes." And one congressional aide recently told me that his committee could hold hearings on the NCAA as early as September.

But, even if Vaccaro doesn't manage to get the NCAA stripped of its taxexempt status, he's pursuing other means to take on the organization. Most notably, he's seeking to end the NBA's "one-and-done" rule, which indirectly benefits the NCAA by forcing high school players who once would have gone straight to the pros to spend at least one year in college. Since the "one-and-done" rule is part of the collective bargaining agreement the league signed with the players' union in 2005 that runs out in 2011, Vaccaro is lobbying the union members to strike a different deal in the next round of negotiations. "The very players who I made multimillionaires with shoe deals and draft position were the same kids who voted against allowing high school kids," Vaccaro says. "I told LeBron and Kobe and Tracy, 'Shame on you, because it was OK for me or others like me to help you get that contract, but you don't want the next group doing it.' And their answer to me was, 'Sonny, the older guys outvoted us.' Well you know what, the older guys are going to be those guys in the next collective bargaining agreement."

In the meantime, Vaccaro is looking for ways to circumvent the "one-and- done" rule. The most promising avenue lies overseas. Two years ago, he was on the verge of brokering a deal for two American high-school stars to play one season for a professional team in Israel, but he scotched the idea because of Israel's conflict with Hezbollah. "The guy from the team was telling me, 'Sonny, the bombs don't come to Jerusalem,' but I couldn't let them go there," Vaccaro recalls. (Both players went to college instead.) Vaccaro is now looking for other young hoops phenoms who'd be interested in playing overseas for the year they'd otherwise be in college before coming back to enter the NBA draft. "I need Jackie Robinson; I need a guy who can stand this," he says. "And I think I'll have one."

Vaccaro has so many brainstorms about how to beat the NCAA that he has trouble keeping his focus. In one conversation, he told me that he had the organization "by the balls" because he was on the verge of launching a basketball academy for hoops phenoms that will obviate the need for them to play in college. A few months later, he told me that he was no longer interested in the academy because now he had the NCAA "by the nuts" on its tax- exempt status. Once, when I asked him about his plan to send players to Europe, he replied, "My quote is, it can never work," before, in the next breath, telling me that he had discovered his Jackie Robinson--a talented high school sophomore with a strong family situation and sufficient smarts that "he'd be able to do it because of his background." At times, I found myself reminding Vaccaro of ideas he had tossed out but evidently forgotten. Still, the mere fact that he's churning through so many ideas should have the NCAA worried. After all, Vaccaro's genius doesn't lie in careful planning or even rationality. His success stems from spur-of-the-moment improvisation-- from pitching Nike on a shoe but winding up selling the company on a promotional strategy. "This is how my mind works, this is what I do," he explains. "Everything I did, I didn't know what I was doing until the minute that I did it."

Perhaps the most important quality Vaccaro lends to the movement to reform college sports--other than his insider status--is his energy. In April, he traveled to the University of Memphis to speak at a three-day conference being held by the College Sports Research Institute (CSRI). The academics who study-- and advocate for reform in--college sports tend to be a beleaguered bunch, disrespected both by their colleagues (who view their field as modish at best and frivolous at worst) and by their research subjects (who view them as pointy-heads). Indeed, the CSRI itself was on the verge of leaving the University of Memphis for the University of North Carolina because its director feared that it wasn't being taken seriously due to the "nonacademic image" of the school's basketball team. The night before Vaccaro's talk, the speaker delivering the conference's opening address began his remarks with a fictional wire service article about the 2058 CSRI conference whose theme would be "Looking back at 50 years of failed reform of college sports."

Although Vaccaro was once the scourge of the sports-reform movement, he's now a member in good standing. "I've got a whole new line of friends," he boasts, "people who've written dissertations and books." Meanwhile, the coaches who make up Vaccaro's old line of friends are keeping their distance. "Only two or three of them have ever called me and commended me for what I'm trying to do, " he says. "I don't think if I ever get to Congress, any of them will be on my right-hand side or my left-hand side saying, 'Give freedom to these kids.'"

But Vaccaro is more like a coach, and less like so many of his new academic (or, as he calls them, "academician") friends, in that he's not yet resigned to defeat. When it was his turn to address the conference, Vaccaro essentially delivered a locker-room talk. "You've got to stand up," he shouted from the well of a massive lecture hall as some of the conference attendees shifted uncomfortably in their seats. "You can't damn win by just having a damn meeting and then forgetting about it tomorrow morning. The only way you win is to step out. Step out! What, are you afraid of your presidents? Are you afraid of your athletic directors? Are you afraid of the media? ... Why are you afraid of these people?" Vaccaro didn't just question his new friends' courage; he questioned their commitment and even blamed them for the problem they wanted to fix. "You people let it happen because you people are the ones who are conscious that there's something wrong. There's nothing wrong. The only thing wrong is you don't fight. You're satisfied. You're as bad as they are. You know what? I know who they are. I don't know who you are. ... This happened right in front of your eyes. C'mon people! I mentioned all the accolades and the honors you've got, the degrees you have. You've got doctorates for everything from your toenails to your mind. Then do something with it!"

 

Vaccaro calls his crusade against the NCAA a "mom-and-pop" operation, and he means it literally. He runs it with his wife and business partner, Pam, from their home in a gated community in Calabasas, California, just north of Malibu. Vaccaro's office is decorated with mementos from his 40 years in the business of basketball: the pair of sneakers Michael Jordan wore on the night he won one of his NBA championships; a Dick Vitale bobblehead doll; glossy color photos of himself with seemingly every major basketball star of the last few decades. But just behind Vaccaro's desk hang some more recent additions to his wall of fame: arty black-and-white pictures of Roberto Clemente, Muhammad Ali, and Jesse Owens. They were gifts from Pam who gave them to him, he explained when I visited him at his home not long ago, "because they all stood for a cause."

Vaccaro's cause is, in part, about leaving a legacy larger than that of a sneaker pimp. "I've got a nice life," he told me as he sat on a couch in his office, attired in his customary sweatsuit and slippers. "I'm sixty-eight, I've got a beautiful wife, I've got good friends. No one's paying me now. But that's the beauty of it, because what are they going to say now? I'm not trying to sell Nike shoes now." But his bigger cause is the players. "Everything I have, they gave me," he said, "all these kids." As he told the academics in Memphis, "On a personal level, I owe it to them, you don't."

Vaccaro has four children from a previous marriage, but he left them and their mother when he moved from Pittsburgh to Las Vegas. "I was more a wandering person than I was a family person," he says. He and Pam have no children, but it doesn't take Freud to recognize that they view the kids who've gone to their camps and played in their tournaments and worn their shoes as their own. The pool in the Vaccaros' backyard isn't for Sonny or Pam (neither swims) but for the basketball players who visit. "It's so neat to see the city kids get a chance to get in the water," Pam told me. Even kids who don't play basketball interest Vaccaro. When he goes to universities, he gives out his unlisted phone number to any student who approaches him with a question about breaking into the industry. I actually benefited from Vaccaro's kindness myself when, as a 17-year-old whose basketball ambitions had topped out at the JV level but who had dreams of being a writer, I penned a letter to Vaccaro asking if I could cover his ABCD camp for my high school paper. He wrote back and offered me total access to the entire weeklong camp. "Take Care And Always Be Fair," he signed the letter, "Sonny."

Of course, Vaccaro has a somewhat reductionist view of parenting--and of life. "Other than your health, the only thing that differentiates ourselves from anyone is the capitalistic game, the ability to earn money," he told me, "because money dictates the way the world is." Which is why Vaccaro has been so unsentimental about the advice he's offered to all of the young players he's counseled over the years: to make money off their talents as soon as they can. Even the players he advised to turn pro before they were ready and whose careers bottomed out, he insists, didn't make a mistake. "The worst thing that could happen here, you're going to have about twelve million dollars in the bank before they find out you can't play," Vaccaro says. "You can't logically sit here and tell me, the people that I was talking to, that they could have expected to earn, legally, ten to twelve million dollars in their lifetimes."

Vaccaro's take-the-money-and-run attitude has made him privy to many, if not most, of college basketball's dirty secrets. Perhaps more than any person in the sport, he knows which players get paid how much and by whom, which players go to class, and which players are functionally illiterate. Indeed, the surest way Vaccaro could bring down the NCAA would be for him to reveal what he knows. But it's a step he refuses to take. "The story will be the kid can't read or write. It won't be that the university perpetuated the myth that he was a student," he says. "The kid'll get screwed."

But just because Vaccaro won't say what he knows publicly doesn't mean he isn't pained by it privately. In fact, Vaccaro is no longer even much of a basketball fan. Once upon a time, he watched all the games and traveled with the teams whose coaches and players he was particularly close to. Sometimes, he'd retreat to the bathroom if the game was tight to throw up and flush the toilets to drown out the noise from the crowd. These days, Vaccaro hardly watches any games at all. On the night I visited him, the NCAA tournament was going on and my favorite team, the University of North Carolina, was playing. I'd just assumed that I'd watch the game with Vaccaro during my visit. But he refused. The game he once loved now almost disgusted him. "No one gives a shit when the nine o'clock game starts how these kids got on the court," he told me. "They just care who wins or loses." As he complained to the academics in Memphis, "I'm tired of my good friend Dickie V. telling me about Diaper Dandies. I'm tired of everyone telling me about the Chrysler player of the day twenty-five times. I'm tired of it. They just keep selling these kids and their achievements, minute after minute, day after day, month after month, year after year."

And, yet, Vaccaro can't totally separate himself. Indeed, he intends to spend his last days enmeshed in the game so that he can change it. "You ever see The Outlaw Josey Wales?" he asked as we spoke in his office. While I itched to find out the score of the Carolina game, he began to reenact the scene in which a bounty hunter, after initially agreeing to stop his pursuit of Wales in exchange for his life, changes his mind and returns to try to capture Wales. "Here's the line," Vaccaro said, as he stood in the center of his office, bouncing up and down on his toes. "He looks at Josey and he says, 'I had to come back.' And then they draw and Josey kills him." He seemed momentarily deflated, as if he realized he was analogizing himself to a dead man. But he continued. "The point is, I had to do this," he said. "I've lived that life. I've chased these people, I've been belittled and berated for forty-five years, and that's fine, because I ended up OK. But I'm saying to you, I had to come back, I had to do this. I have to do it."

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