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‘Sole Man’ Sonny Vaccaro reflects on 30 for 30 film

Sonny Vaccaro is the controversial figure at the center of the most recent 30 for 30 film “Sole Man”. The documentary will re-air on Saturday (8:30 a.m. ET, ESPN2) and May 16 (1:30 a.m. ET, ESPN2) and explores the role Vaccaro played in building the sneaker industry by signing players like Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant and (almost) LeBron James to multimillion-dollar shoe deals.

Front Row talked to Vaccaro to get his take on the project.

The integrity of 30 for 30 is what made me want to do it. It is like “60 Minutes.” I trusted them and was honored to do it.
– Sonny Vaccaro

You have been quoted as saying you’ve been waiting your whole life to tell your story. How did this 30 for 30 come about?
By accident, actually. There was a feature movie being discussed about me that fell through but those producers went to [the film’s executive producer] Jamie Patricof and [a producer and co-director] Jon Weinbach, who then brought the story to ESPN Films. I am a big fan of 30 for 30 and I thought this would be the best vehicle to tell the story of my life in the shoe industry. The integrity of 30 for 30 is what made me want to do it. It is like “60 Minutes.” I trusted them and was honored to do it.

Is there a particular aspect of the film that you felt was important to get right to explain your role in creating the sneaker industry?
I don’t think people understood how my career evolved. I wanted the public to know how sneaker marketing started. For better or worse, this is who I am. I had to be able to say “this is how it started” and I knew that 30 for 30 would talk to various people and get different opinions. I don’t think people understood how my relationships with coaches evolved and how I got involved with Nike. This is how Jordan happened, this is how Kobe happened.

What do you think about the current state of the “student athlete”? Is the situation evolving in a positive direction?
I think the [Ed] O’Bannon case gave freedom to all athletes going forward to have a voice. I think things are moving in a very positive way. This suit spoke directly to the players’ rights and allows the public to look at the NCAA with the athlete’s view.

If you were in charge of making a 30 for 30 film, would you do one on LeBron or Jordan?
The one you’d have to do it on is LeBron. Michael started everything but the rest of marketing is based on LeBron going forward, he’s the face of the youth of America. Someday there will eventually be another LeBron, but for now – all stories going forward will compare to him.

Dan Wetzel brings unique perspective to 'Sole Man'
Yahoo Sports columnist Dan Wetzel appears in "Sole Man."
Yahoo! Sports columnist Dan Wetzel appears frequently in “Sole Man.”

Among the experts interviewed for “Sole Man,” one above all the others had a unique, inside perspective on both Sonny Vaccaro and the sneaker wars he engaged in. Yahoo! Sports columnist and best-selling author Dan Wetzel has been immersed in Vaccaro’s world for over two decades.

“In the mid-1990s I realized the best way to cover college basketball was to actually do it from the ground up by focusing on grassroots basketball, i.e. recruiting, shoe companies, AAU, etc.,” said Wetzel, who co-authored [with Don Yaeger] the revelatory 2000 book, “Sole Influence.” “It was ripe with so many incredible stories, characters, scandals, sabotage and so on. College recruiting was wild enough, but that stretch from Kobe Bryant to LeBron James brought in everyone else [agents, financial planners, NBA executives, runners and, of course, shoe companies] trying to get at teenagers who were soon going to be worth eight or even nine figures. There was no comparable situation like it in the entire world.”

Wetzel explained that especially at the beginning there was almost no other media there, usually just talent scouts.

“It was an absolute goldmine for a reporter and Sonny Vaccaro was the de facto commissioner of it all,” he said. “The first time I met him was at a summer tournament he was running. He was sitting in the back row of the bleachers at Green Valley High School in Henderson, Nev. I introduced myself, asked if he had a moment to talk and he stood up and gave me a kiss on each cheek. It wasn’t what I expected. Nothing with Sonny ever was.”

“Sole Influence” focused on the Adidas-Nike battle and, of course, Sonny and former coach George Raveling. Wetzel knew Sonny wasn’t exactly thrilled with the book, but it didn’t affect their relationship and the mutual respect.

“We talk often, sometimes daily for long stretches,” he said. “He’s obviously a fascinating and brilliant guy.”

Early in the process, “Sole Man” co-director Jon Weinbach reached out to interview Wetzel for the film. The interview lasted for close to three hours and was conducted in a room at a library near Wetzel’s home outside of Detroit.

“Sonny Vaccaro has been a very complex, controversial and larger than life figure for about 45 years,” Wetzel said. “To fit all of that into a 90-minute documentary is an enormous challenge. This isn’t just an easy white hat/black hat story. It’s nuanced and twisting. So I think they did a great job here, a really great job, conveying all of that in a way someone could follow.

“This movie was Sonny,” he said.

– David Scott

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