Sonny Vaccaro, the man who four decades ago used shoe contract money to control the high school basketball scene and influence players' college choices, said he hired the Adidas executive who was among 10 people arrested Tuesday on federal corruption charges.
Vaccaro was the mastermind behind Nike's first signing of top college basketball coaches to shoe contracts. He later left for Adidas after a falling-out with Nike founder Phil Knight, thus creating an intense rivalry that continues to this day as the companies bid to attract coaches and outfit their programs. Along the way, Vaccaro angered NCAA officials in the 1980s and 1990s by influencing players' college choices.
One of the hires that Vaccaro said he made at Adidas in the 1990s was Jimmy Gatto, who rose to become the company's director of global sports marketing for basketball. Gatto, another Adidas employee, four assistant coaches at prominent collegiate programs and a cast of characters -- including an AAU coach, a financial adviser and a former agent -- were arrested Tuesday on federal corruption charges.
"I know Jimmy Gatto. I hired him," Vaccaro said from his home in Southern California. "An altar boy. I have known him since birth."
Vaccaro said Tuesday's news stunned him.
"This is like Abscam," he said, referring to the FBI sting operation in the late 1970s and early 1980s that ended up in a public corruption investigation that led to dozens of convictions, including seven members of Congress. "They tracked them and they got everybody. They all fell for the old fake money trick. The guy [the FBI's wired informant] was in the room. They had somebody that turned on them.
"I woke up and I got 50 calls or emails. I was absolutely shocked with the breadth of it. You got everybody in one story. You got agents, you got runners [who recruit players for the agents], you got assistant coaches, you got head coaches, you got money transferring, you got the [Adidas executive]."
Federal authorities suggested Tuesday that the arrests could be only the tip of the iceberg from a three-year FBI investigation centered on coaches being paid tens of thousands of dollars to steer NBA-bound players toward sports agents, financial advisers and apparel companies. Adidas reps also are accused of funneling money to players in a bid to get them to attend schools with which they have sponsorship deals, and documents indicated they were in some instances competing with a rival apparel company that was doing the same.
Vaccaro acknowledged the hustle existed back in his day, though the level of sophistication and money has only intensified.
As for how long it has existed, Vaccaro said, "I think forever. I don't think it was as organized as this thing. You have new characters. You and I wouldn't have been talking about financial advisers in the 1990s. And agents really weren't in vogue in the '90s. There were schools involved. You got new players now and they have the money."
Vaccaro started the ball rolling, rising from Pennsylvania steel town roots to become one of the most powerful and influential men in the athletic shoe industry and in basketball. He pioneered summer camps and high school all-star games. He hooked up Michael Jordan with Nike in 1984. With Adidas, he later discovered a young Kobe Bryant and Tracy McGrady -- outfitting his Mount Zion Academy team in Adidas gear and putting his coach on the payroll.
Early on, Vaccaro ruffled feathers when players from his Nike camps ended up playing for college coaches signed to Nike shoe deals.
"Every kid that I knew was probably picking a Nike school," Vaccaro said. "There was Georgetown and Patrick [Ewing]. There were a lot of other reasons that he went there. Going back to the '80s, they were all Nike schools. We had 80 of them. We won seven national championships in 11 years. So I would be cutting my face off [to favor a particular Nike school]. Maybe that kept me out of trouble, but I don't think I ever would have done that.
"Then, you had the '90s and the great players went pro [from high school]. Kobe and those guys didn't go to college. Tracy and Kobe, Kevin [Garnett] and LeBron [James] -- these kids didn't go to college."
The 1980s and 1990s were a different time. Programs were run by a head coach and two or three assistants. There wasn't a designated recruiting coordinator on staff, which was the job description of the assistants charged in the latest federal investigation.
And until Tuesday, almost all college scandals came under the scrutiny of NCAA investigators, who have limited investigative tools and power and who have themselves been minimized through the years.
"This isn't the NCAA and some school turning somebody in and then having the NCAA take five years to investigate," said Vaccaro, a longtime NCAA critic. "This [investigation] is huge."