Here’s how it starts: Traveling on a tip to scout a high school sophomore, Adidas’ Sonny Vaccaro boarded a flight for San Francisco, watched the kid out of Akron make a 60-foot bounce pass, turned to his wife, and declared, “LeBron James is going to be one of the most talented people to ever play the game.”
And so, within weeks, James was whisked to the Adidas All-American basketball camp at Fairleigh Dickinson University, where a confluence of basketball corruption, conflict and cash intersect every July in the Rothman Center on Hackensack Avenue in Hackensack.
“It was there that LeBron James’ celebrity was born for the world,” Vaccaro said Monday from his California office. “But just like with Kobe Bryant and Tracy McGrady, I saw it before everyone else.”
It was the Adidas camp that the kid had been brought back to this past summer with a broken wrist and a King James No. 23 jersey, with people rushing to carry his bags to his suite at the Hilton in Hasbrouck Heights. Nike had enlisted Michael Jordan to romance James for the swoosh, inviting the star of Akron’s St. Vincent-St. Mary High School to work out with Jordan, rehab with his personal doctor, and sleep in his suburban Chicago home.
The Adidas and Nike bidding to sign James as an endorsement on his way to the NBA had gone to $20 million to $25 million, but nobody believes those figures anymore. If tennis star Serena Williams just signed for $50 million, the hysteria born out of James’ sudden scholastic ineligibility has spiraled him to martyrdom, exploding his market value beyond even Adidas’ deep pockets.
“I’m not going to get this kid,” Vaccaro said. “But I’m going help make him one of the richest kids in America. Nike has more money than God. If (Nike chairman) Phil Knight wants to sign him, he’ll get him. I know LeBron better, no question, but what does that mean?
“There have been people from Nike living in Akron so long, they’re going to have to pay Ohio taxes.”
The saga of LeBron James isn’t $845 of throwback jerseys, a loaded $50,000 Hummer with three televisions. It isn’t his high school giving his senior season the rock star treatment, a coast-to-coast schedule complete with live ESPN performances, four-star hotels, and limo rides. Before these people turned the hype machine into overdrive, it starts here, in Hackensack – on levels as extraordinary as LeBron James and all the way down to your neighborhood star. As much as anyone, the sneaker companies teach these kids an incredible sense of entitlement: Get your hand out and get yours.
If nothing else, it is time for one small university to make one large statement. Fairleigh Dickinson needs to tell Adidas that it is no longer welcome to use its campus as a brothel for the shoe company’s high-stakes basketball prostitution. Let Adidas rent out the private facilities of the Hoop Zone in Englewood, if it wants, but no serious institution of higher learning should let its good name and reputation be so synonymous with this cesspool of sleaze.
“This is my first day on the job,” FDU athletic director David Langford laughed late Monday afternoon. Just up from the University of Maryland-Baltimore County, Langford said he had actually spent an hour of his first day meeting with staff about the Adidas camp.
He pleaded for time to consider the issue, but allowed: “Are there problems? Absolutely.”
After careful consideration, the chance to set the course for his stewardship should be irresistible to Langford: Get Adidas out and tell everyone the reasons. This camp is a symbol and symptom of a system completely out of control. At the core of college and high school corruption, shoe interests are forever lurking. Everything they’ve touched, they’ve tainted. They bankroll the seedy, dark corners of basketball, breathing relevance into the middlemen and flesh peddlers.
This isn’t just business for Adidas and Nike, but a blood feud born out of best friends – Vaccaro and Nike’s George Raveling – turned into mortal enemies. Today, the young players are just the pawns. “I know both guys very well, and they hate each other like you wouldn’t believe,” Jerry Tarkanian said by phone the other day. “Sonny thinks Rav is the worst human being in the world. I’ve never seen anything like it. The LeBron James thing has only brought more of that out.”
And after these past several days, James has never been a more valuable property to sign. Suddenly, he has been cast as the victim, the teen prodigy oppressed by the old man’s bureaucracy. This is a clarion call to a disconnected generation. They wronged LeBron. They screwed him. What kid can’t identify with that? This transcends the city to the suburbs, black and white. There is a reason Reebok’s Allen Iverson sells the most shoes these days.
“The kids today feel so shackled by the rules, and they hate that one of their own can get picked on this way,” Vaccaro said. “There are things like this (the gifted jerseys) happening every day, everywhere, and kids know it. In their minds, you’ve persecuted one of them for the wrong thing.
“Listen, this isn’t about the perception of how good LeBron James can be. How much better than Bryant and McGrady and Paul Pierce can LeBron be? You need to find something that connects with the masses, and LeBron James has done it. He’s separated himself.
“They’ve turned him into a martyr.”
And now, Vaccaro believes, James has priced himself out of Adidas’ market to the swoosh, leaving this blood war to go on and on. So, here’s how it starts again: Sonny Vaccaro will sit by the telephone in Southern California, wait for a tip on the next LeBron James, and catch the next flight into town.
And across the country, where a new athletic director arrived at work Monday morning, here’s how it eventually ends for Fairleigh Dickinson University: David Langford tells everyone that his is a serious university, devoted to 365 days a year of educating young people. Once and for all, Adidas needs to take its summer sweatshop somewhere else. It will no longer be welcome on Hackensack Avenue in Hackensack.