For the last 30 years, Sonny Vaccaro has been the Pied Piper of basketball, leading the sport down a road paved with money. A marketing genius, he married college athletic departments and sneaker companies and then expanded the relationships to high schools. He turned the sleepy world of extracurricular traveling teams and summer camps—first for players high school, then junior high, then elementary school—into an adjunct of college and pro ball, all funded by those same sneaker companies. But where money goes, disrepute follows, and Vaccaro has also been blamed for every corrupt coach and agent in the game.
I’ve never bought the argument. I’ve interviewed Vaccaro many times and found him to be honest and self-aware to a fault; he has never pretended that his marketing efforts haven't changed the game, and he has never shied (in fact he has almost too-happily accepted) responsibility for the cesspool he helped dig.
I talked to Vaccaro extensively over the winter for my article in the April issue of The Atlantic, "Million Dollar Basketball Babies," about his latest venture. Vaccaro last year helped a high-school senior named Brandon Jennings bypass the NBA’s ban on drafting players until they are a year removed from their high school graduating class. Instead of going to college, Vaccaro steered Jennings to a professional team in Europe, where no such ban exists.
When I asked who might follow Jennings overseas, Vaccaro was cagey. He wouldn't name names but assured me more were on the way. Four other seniors this year were capable of making the move, he said. (I wrote about one of them, Lance Stephenson of Lincoln High School in Brooklyn.) Then he added, "There are eight other underclassmen starting at freshman level who are interested when the time comes. There will be one of those kids before this decade is over. I think by 2010 we'll have a senior in high school do it."
It sounded at once preposterous and also perfectly logical. And today comes news that a 6-foot-11 high-school junior from San Diego named Jeremy Tyler—one of the players Vaccaro had been speaking with—had decided to skip his senior year and turn pro in Europe. Tyler hasn't signed with a team yet, but is said to be considering interest from Spain, Italy, and Israel. He told Pete Thamel of The New York Times that he would simply become a better player competing against grown men in Europe than against the high-schoolers who triple-team and hack him. His goal is to play in the NBA, he said, and this will better prepare him to fulfill that goal. (If he can't cut it initially against adults, Europe's club system will ensure that he still plays, on one of its youth teams. Players turn pro in Europe as young as 14, without any fuss.)
So is this the end of the world as we know it? What next? Shoe deals for 12-year-olds? (Oops. That's already happened.) Save the outrage. Jeremy Tyler's decision should be considered progress. The NCAA and a paternalistic and moralizing media have done a brilliant job of convincing us that college basketball is about college—kids need an education on which to fall back if the dream dies. The reality of sports is far more deterministic. Until NBA Commissioner David Stern banned high-school seniors from his draft in 2005, nearly all of those who attempted to make the move were qualified to do so. (Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, Kevin Garnett, et al.) The tidal wave of badly advised, naïve dreamers declining scholarships to go for the NBA millions that many feared never materialized. And a tidal wave of ninth-graders signing with Panathinaikos of Athens or Maccabi Tel Aviv or Real Madrid won't happen, either.
Basketball has a complex system—some of it is shady or worse, absolutely—that funnels talent into the right places. If Jeremy Tyler weren't ready to play pro basketball in Europe, a pro team wouldn't sign him. If he didn't have talent, a sneaker company wouldn't give him an endorsement deal. If he wasn't as close to a sure thing as a 17-year-old can be, Sonny Vaccaro wouldn't be offering to broker the kid's services.
That's because the people who run the business of amateur (and pro) basketball are nothing if not realists. Sure, millions are paid to players who turn out to be busts. But sports operate in a prospective manner. Promise is what gets you signed. Scouts see it in kids far younger than Jeremy Tyler. Why should Tyler and those who will come after him be barred from attempting to fulfill their promise—and why shouldn't they get paid for it at the same time?