Sonny Vaccaro is one of the most influential figures in basketball, without ever coaching or playing at a high level. He signed Michael Jordan for Nike, which is all you need to know about his career and power-brokering as a leader in the sneaker wars.
He is the subject of an ESPN’s “30 for 30” documentary that airs at 8 p.m. Thursday. Vaccaro spent a brief, but important, time as a graduate assistant coach at Wichita State (then the University of Wichita) during the 1962-63 season. He lived in coach Ralph Miller’s guest house, near campus, took classes, worked in the intramural department, coached and recruited.
“Ralph treated me wonderfully,” Vaccaro said. “Ralph Miller was as important to me as any of the people in my youth. He gave me a chance.”
Vaccaro grew up in Pittsburgh, which is where the connection started. The Shockers recruited many athletes, football and basketball, from Pennsylvania in those days. Lanny Van Eman, from McKeesport, Pa., played baseball and basketball and became an assistant coach under Miller, and knew Vaccaro. The paths of the Pittsburgh freelance scout and the coaches crossed often, most notably at a showcase tournament in Sharon, where Vaccaro took teams.
Vaccaro, who attended Youngstown State, was just beginning his career as an evaluator and procurer of talent. In 1965, he would start the Dapper Dan Roundball Classic, the nation’s first high school all-star game, in Pittsburgh.
Vaccaro came to Wichita in the fall of 1962 to work with Miller and Van Eman. He remembers eating at the original Pizza Hut and knew the Carney brothers. He made extra money delivering sandwiches to the press box during football games at Veterans Stadium. He was on the bench for one of the program’s biggest victories — a 65-64 win over No. 1 Cincinnati in 1963. Dave Stallworth scored 46 points and the Shockers snapped the Bearcats’ 37-game win streak.
“I will never forget the thrill of that game,” he said. “I was ecstatic. They used to use a gun to end the game, where they would fire a blank or something into the air. I jumped up when that gun went off and I hurt my leg coming down, I fell backward.”
Vaccaro’s time with the Shockers didn’t last as long as planned. He went home over Easter to recruit and broke his kneecap in an auto accident. He never returned to Wichita.
“I’ve still got a scar and it’s still swollen,” he said.
The Pennsylvania connection provided the Shockers players such as Van Eman, Ron Heller, Larry Nosich, Bob Powers, Ron Harris and others over the years. Vaccaro can’t remember playing a role in any recruits during his short time on the staff. The connection continued to help Miller when he went to Iowa after the 1963-64 season. A 1969 story in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette mentions Miller and Van Eman visiting Vaccaro‘s hotel suite before the Dapper Dan game. Two players from the 1966 game — Chad Calabria and Glen Vidnovic — were already at Iowa.
“Ralph saw something in me, that he would extend this to a virtual stranger,” Vaccaro said. “I had this gift of gab, or whatever the hell it is I have. He made my life much easier by being my mentor, my friend.”