Sonny Vaccaro is divisive. Some call him the marketing genius behind Michael Jordan’s Nike shoe line, while others have disputed his involvement in that deal. Some have criticized his role in creating unregulated recruiting systems around young talent, while others note he has been a staunch defender of young college basketball athletes.

Vaccaro, 83, is portrayed by Matt Damon in Air, the Ben Affleck–directed film in theaters now, about the origin of the Air Jordan shoe line that became a cultural icon and put Nike on the map. Although based on the true story of Vaccaro’s greatest success, the movie only covers a small portion of his life. Even after his less-than-amicable departure from Nike, Vaccaro had a colorful and eventful career, from signing Kobe Bryant to taking the NCAA to court.

Forming the Nation’s Premier High School Tournament

two teams play basketball in an indoor court with many people in the stands
The ABCD Camp at Fairleigh Dickinson University in New Jersey in July 2005
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The Air Jordan venture was hugely successful for Nike. The company’s total annual sales were about $150 million when Vaccaro started with the company in the mid-1970s. When Air Jordans hit the market in 1984, the shoe line alone amassed more than $100 million in sales in its first year, according to Sole Man, the ESPN 30 for 30 documentary about Vaccaro.

Shortly after signing Jordan, Vaccaro’s new venture with Nike was the establishment of the ABCD Camp, a youth basketball camp for the nation’s highest-ranked high school players. The camp was created in 1984, and college basketball coaches started attending as part of their recruitment process.

The camp operated until 2006 and became known as one of the top events of high school basketball. Many future NBA stars played there, including LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, Shaquille O’Neal, James Harden, Carmelo Anthony, Derrick Rose, Dwight Howard, Kevin Garnett, Kevin Love, and Joakim Noah.

Getting Fired from Nike

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Michael Jordan says marketing executive George Raveling, not Sonny Vaccaro, sold him on signing with Nike.
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Vaccaro’s storied relationship with Nike ended on a sour note when company chairman and cofounder Phil Knight fired him in 1991 without public explanation. Vaccaro claimed the FBI investigated him for corporate espionage allegations against Nike, but no charges were filed.

Vaccaro started working for Adidas and later Reebok. He continued running the ABCD Camp, with his new employers as sponsors. His relationship with Nike remained acrimonious, and his former partners later disputed how responsible he was for the historic Air Jordan deal.

Jordan said Vaccaro “likes to take credit” but that it was marketing executive and former basketball player George Raveling who sold him on Nike. Knight said Vaccaro helped but “wasn’t the MVP,” instead pointing to Nike employees Rob Strasser and Peter Moore.

As for Vaccaro, he has no hesitation in claiming the credit. “Phil Knight’s lying, Michael’s lying more than Phil, and Raveling is insane,” he told USA Today. “All three of them need to destroy me to live happily ever after. Everyone’s trying to rewrite history. It goes beyond Jordan. I am the savior of Nike.”

Signing Kobe Bryant to Adidas

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Kobe Bryant, seen here during a February 2012 NBA game, signed a deal with Adidas that Sonny Vaccaro orchestrated.
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One of Vaccaro’s biggest successes at Adidas was signing a multimillion-dollar shoe contract with Kobe Bryant in 1996, who had impressed Vaccaro at ABCD Camp. While signing the Air Jordan deal with an NBA rookie was considered risky at the time, the Adidas deal with Bryant was even riskier because Bryant was going straight from high school into the NBA.

“Nike and all the other pretenders did not want to mess with a high school guy,” Vaccaro said in Sole Man. “I (said) ‘I’m going to give him $1 million a year.’ There weren’t million-dollar contracts in the 1990s, and there especially wasn’t one given to a high school kid. As soon as he graduated from that high school, we were signing him, and we did.”

Bryant wanted to play for the Los Angeles Lakers, but the New Jersey Nets planned to draft Bryant at the No. 8 spot. In Sole Man, Vaccaro admitted he helped steer Bryant toward the Lakers by spreading a rumor that Bryant might ditch the NBA and play basketball in Italy if the Nets tried to sign him. As a result, New Jersey did not draft him.

“I wasn’t sure if [the rumor] was going to stick, but it stuck,” Gary Charles, a former Adidas consultant who worked with Vaccaro on the Bryant deal, said in Sole Man. “... The story was really like 99.5 percent bulls––.”

Falling Out with George Raveling

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George Raveling, seen here in 1983, went from Sonny Vaccaro’s close friend to rival.
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Vaccaro and Raveling were close friends during their time at Nike, so much so that Raveling was the best man at Vaccaro’s second wedding. But their relationship turned ugly after Vaccaro left Nike and got even uglier when Raveling criticized the unregulated flow of money and influence around players participating in summer basketball programs.

Raveling made those comments when he was head coach of the men’s basketball team at the University of Southern California and head of the National Association of Basketball Coaches. As the most influential individual in summer basketball, Vaccaro took direct offense at Raveling’s criticism and accused him of hypocrisy when Raveling later became Vaccaro’s direct counterpart at Nike (by this point, Vaccaro was at Adidas).

“I took on a consulting role with Nike, but my position has never changed,” Raveling said in a 1997 interview, which was featured in Sole Man. “I continue to believe that summer basketball is the most unregulated aspect of basketball competition.”

Coordinating a Lawsuit Against the NCAA

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Ed O’Bannon of the UCLA Bruins celebrates after a game against the Connecticut Huskies on March 26, 1995. He became the primary plaintiff in a lawsuit against the NCAA.
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Despite his role in creating the commercialization around summer basketball and college athletes, Vaccaro has been a longtime critic of the NCAA. He became involved in the lawsuit O’Bannon v. NCAA, which challenged the association’s rules restricting compensation for college athletes.

Vaccaro helped persuade former UCLA star Ed O’Bannon to be the primary plaintiff in the case. In 2015, a judge ruled the NCAA’s long-held practice of barring payments to athletes violated antitrust laws and that athletes should be entitled for the commercial use of their image.

“The kids who are going to benefit from this are kids who don’t even know what we did today,” Vaccaro said. “... The future generation will be the benefactor of all this. There are now new ground rules in college sports.”

In 2015, schools and athlete representatives from NCAA’s five wealthiest conferences voted to give more money to students on athletic scholarships for transportation and personal expenses. In Sole Man, Vaccaro praised the result not as a financial issue, but a civil rights victory for the student athletes.

Sonny Vaccaro Today

Vaccaro left Reebok in 2007 and has not worked for another company since, according to Sole Man. He currently lives in California.

See Air in Theaters Now

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Air releases in theaters on April 5. Matt Damon stars as Sonny Vaccaro, with Ben Affleck playing Nike cofounder Phil Knight. The cast also includes: Viola Davis as Deloris Jordan; Jason Bateman as then–Nike Marketing Director Rob Strasser; Marlon Wayans as George Raveling; and Chris Tucker as Howard White, the vice president of Nike’s Jordan Brand.

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Colin McEvoy
Senior News Editor,

Colin McEvoy joined the staff in 2023, and before that had spent 16 years as a journalist, writer, and communications professional. He is the author of two true crime books: Love Me or Else and Fatal Jealousy. He is also an avid film buff, reader, and lover of great stories.