A Meeting With The Godfather: How Youth Basketball's Sausage Gets Made

In the world of grassroots basketball, the sneaker companies are kings, the coaches their vassals, and the players their serfs. However, these links are symbiotic: the companies need the coaches and players for marketing purposes and the coaches and players need the sneaker companies to get exposure that can lead to better jobs and college scholarships.

The following is excerpted from George Dohrmann's Play Their Hearts Out: A Coach, His Star Recruit, And The Youth Basketball Scene, an unflinching look at the world of AAU basketball that follows an elite group of basketball players from middle school until they sign their letters of intent.

Linking these players is Joe Keller, the man who at one point or another brought them all together in his selfish quest to gain riches through shoe deals and his players's future NBA earnings. In the following excerpt, Joe Keller meets the godfather of the AAU scene, Sonny Vaccaro.

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In Fall 2003, Keller drove his Ford Expedition into the Santa Monica Mountains north of Malibu. In the passenger's seat was Wayne Merino, the former coach at Artesia High in Lakewood, who had won three state titles in the 1990s but then lost his job in 1999 after the California Interscholastic Federation determined that foreign players using falsified visas had competed for the school. He had been floating around the youth-basketball scene ever since.

The car approached a manned security gate at the entrance to Mountain View Estates, a lavish neighborhood in Calabasas, a city of less than 30,000 where actor Will Smith, composer James Horner, and other wealthy entertainers lived. Though it is only twenty-two miles from Los Angeles, Calabasas is a world away. Before leaving Fontana, Keller had fretted over what to wear, asking Violet repeatedly if his outfit was appropriate. He had swapped his usual shorts or jeans for tan slacks and a collared shirt.

Once through the security gate, the car wound a mile farther into the mountains before making a left turn onto Collingwood Circle. The houses on this block looked like many in Southern California—stucco, with hints of Spanish architecture—but they were massive. It was a planned community, and the planners had targeted the super-wealthy. Keller parked the car in front of a white house with a wisp of creeping fig bending over the vaulted doorway. He followed Merino up the front walk and took a deep breath as he pressed the bell. The door opened almost immediately, which startled Keller but not as much as what happened next.

"Joe!" Sonny Vaccaro yelled, and then the godfather of grassroots basketball hugged Keller as if he'd known him for years. Keller would say hard work had put him on Sonny Vaccaro's doorstep, but a series of fortuitous events had helped pave the way. After failing to sign LeBron James to a shoe contract—despite offering more than the $90 million LeBron took from Nike—Reebok hired Vaccaro away from Adidas to, in his words, "establish Reebok as a basketball brand." This was a seismic development in the grassroots world. For a decade, Nike and Adidas had been the only players in the youth game. Now Reebok decided to throw its shoe into the ring, and the hiring of Vaccaro announced the seriousness of its intent.

To build Reebok's profile, Vaccaro needed influential grassroots coaches in key areas of the country. Some Adidas-sponsored coaches would follow him to Reebok, but he would need more. This gave the best coaches leverage to get a sweeter deal from Nike or Adidas or to move to Reebok for more money and gear. Reebok's leap into the market also gave small-time coaches out on the competitive fringe hope that they might finally land a deal.

Given the consistent flow of talent from Southern California, Vaccaro needed to establish a presence there. His roots were in the East, and he would sign up established coaches from there, but Nike and Adidas had a grip on the Southern California market. They also paid their coaches handsomely, so Vaccaro scouted for unaffiliated coaches he could build up.

Keller should not have been under consideration. His players were thought to be too young to be effective marketing tools for the shoe companies. But Vaccaro heard from other coaches that Adidas had its eye on Keller and that the company had considered signing him to a shoe deal to gain access to the young phenoms he controlled. Vaccaro wondered if the Inland Stars wouldn't be a good long-term investment for Reebok. Sponsor them now and then wait for the payoff in a few years when Demetrius reached high school. At the very least, he thought it advantageous to establish a relationship with Keller.

Keller was in his car when he received the call from Merino informing him that Vaccaro wanted to meet. He remained composed on the phone, but once off the line his excitement boiled over. "It's all working out, the big plan," he said. He started to call Violet but then stopped, as he was only a few miles from his apartment. He paused, unsure if he should call someone else before he got home. "This is it. This is it," he said. It was like being summoned to meet his king. "I can't believe it. Sonny. I am meeting with Sonny."

A week later, Keller and Merino stood on Vaccaro's doorstep.

Vaccaro, sixty-five, was wearing a black sweat suit and socks but no shoes. He was shorter than Keller had imagined, maybe five foot six, and had raccoon eyes and gray stubble on his cheeks. He looked like an old Italian mobster enjoying his day off.

Vaccaro's apparent lack of polish was part of his charm. He was a millionaire, one of the most powerful men in basketball, the guy who'd spotted Michael Jordan's potential as a marketing star before anyone else, yet he lacked pretension of any kind. It didn't matter if you were a waiter, a cabby, a sixteen-year-old basketball star, or Nike founder Phil Knight. He treated everyone the same: as if they were the most important and brilliant person. He often forgot names or became confused during the telling of a story, but his wife, Pam, had a sharp mind for details and would jump in, and this further coated him with a sort of grandfatherly innocence.

Vaccaro led Keller and Merino over a large Victorian carpet in the entry, where a round table topped with white orchids centered the room. To the left was a winding staircase that led to the second level, and Keller noticed paintings there and on other walls of the house—one of a lone cypress tree, another of children playing at the beach. "Those were all done by my mother-in-law," Vaccaro said. "She just took up painting a few years ago. She's gotten pretty good, don't you think?" To the right of the entry was a formal living room with shiny couches that looked untouched, but straight ahead was a more informal sitting area with a large television and deep couches. To the right of that was the kitchen, where Vaccaro and Pam spent most of their time. Beyond two picture windows was a giant pool, and beside that were two flowering trees, around which were more than a dozen hummingbirds, drawn to six feeders hanging from branches. Ducks had recently taken up residence in his pool, Vaccaro said, and he loved feeding them. But then Pam called the Humane Society and learned that if they kept at it, the ducks might stop migrating. "Now we shoo them away with a broom or the pool sweep," Vaccaro said.

Pam joined the three men for lunch at a round table in the kitchen. The focus was entirely on Keller, as Vaccaro and Pam wanted to know his story. He talked about how he'd put the team together, how it was "like a family," and how fortunate he had been to find so many talented kids. To support this, Keller cited the recent Hoop Scoop rankings of the top seventh-graders in the country, eight of whom had played for Keller the previous season: Demetrius (1), Pe'Shon (10), Justin (20), Rome (22), Terran (24), Jordan (31), Xavier (37), and Andrew (59). Vaccaro knew Clark Francis's rankings were mostly unsubstantiated hype (how else to explain seven of the top 37 kids all on the same team?), but it proved that people had taken notice of Keller's work.

Keller came across as assured yet grounded, Vaccaro would say later, and also a little naïve. But naïve was good. Vaccaro loved to mentor young coaches and athletes.

After lunch, Vaccaro took Keller to his office upstairs. On the walls were pictures of him with past and present NBA stars—Alonzo Mourning, Tracy McGrady, Kobe Bryant, Charles Barkley—and some of the coaching fraternity's biggest names. In one corner was a chair from the 2000 NCAA Championship game, signed by the University of Florida basketball team. Vaccaro showed Keller one of his prized possessions: a Nike shoe Michael Jordan wore in a game in 1992.

Once back downstairs, they settled into the comfortable couches in the television room.

"I think we can work together," Vaccaro said. "As Wayne probably told you, I am looking for a team in Southern California. So, tell me, how can I help you?"

Keller had prepared for that question. For days after Merino set up the meeting, Keller turned the numbers over in his head. If Vaccaro wanted to talk money, how much should he ask for? He knew what Barrett got in his deals with Nike and then Adidas, but he wasn't as established as Barrett. He concluded that if he asked for too much—say, $100,000—Vaccaro might just show him the door. "Fifty thousand a year to cover expenses," Keller said, and then he listed his product needs, which included hundreds of pairs of shoes and jerseys and other gear.

"It's done," Vaccaro said, so swiftly that it took Keller a few seconds to realize that all his demands had been met.

As Vaccaro showed Keller and Merino out, he mentioned a delay in signing a contract because Reebok didn't officially employ him yet. It would take a few weeks for him to put together a formal offer. Keller barely heard him, as he was in a kind of giddy shock. No more begging for Pat Barrett's scraps. No more having to take on kids just because they had rich parents.

Finally, he had made it.

Photo of Sonny Vaccaro loungin' like a boss via New York Times

A Meeting With The Godfather: How Youth Basketball's Sausage Gets Made

Reprinted from the book Play Their Hearts Out by George Dohrmann, with permission of Ballantine Books, an imprint of The Random House Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. Copyright © 2010 by George Dohrmann. George Dohrmann is a senior writer at Sports Illustrated and the magazine's investigative reporter. In 2000, while working at the St. Paul Pioneer Press, won a Pulitzer Prize for a series of stories that uncovered academic fraud in a university's basketball program. Dohrmann lives in San Fransisco with his family. This is his first book.