Updated: July 22, 5:35 PM ET
Who to blame? Try the sneaker industry
By Adrian Wojnarowski
Special to ESPN.com
Every year, the Converse rep used to visit Jerry Tarkanian, pick up the lunch check and sell UNLV's coach two sets of sneakers for the price of one. This was how the sneaker business was done in the late 1970's, the way amateur basketball lived until Nike's Sonny Vaccaro walked into the Vegas gym bringing with him a checkbook and a proposition that seemed too good to be true.
" 'Wait a minute," Tarkanian remembered saying. " 'You're going to give me all the gear and shoes free for my team and you're gonna pay me $2,500? I mean, what the hell is this? It was about the damndest thing I ever heard."
This didn't just start the selling of America's college coaches souls, but the spiral down into high school basketball where Johnny Jumpshot started to get hustled coast to coast on the summer sleaze circuit, and ultimately, nudged to Nike schools. From the Runnin' Rebs to Hoya Paranoia, Nike was selling shoes from street corner to shopping mall, city to suburbs, selling the colors and controversy of college basketball's counterculture personas, Tark and John Thompson.
Yes, they started to sell shoes, the Runnin' Rebels, the Hoyas. They shared a gift of pushing product, resonating with the masses the way the Dukes and Carolinas couldn't. All these years later, it's happening again with LeBron James, and the Ohio High School Athletic Association did the kid the biggest favor of his life.
"They turned him into a martyr," said Vaccaro, who now pushes Adidas.
LeBron James shouldn't have been suing these old men, as much as he should've been offering to take them for a spin in his Hummer. Free LeBron? The courts did on Wednesday, clearing the way for more SportsCenter highlights, more chances to march into the NBA a bigger phenomenon than Magic and Larry in 1979.
Free LeBron? Do you even know how much he's going to cost now?
"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 free 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 Kobe Bryant and Tracy 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. ... He's bigger than ever now."
So big, Vaccaro confesses he's out of the bidding, out of the race, after spending two years, night and day, kissing the backsides of LeBron and Gloria James both publicly and privately.
"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 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."
Together, everyone has turned King James into a sneaker selling machine, beyond even the original belief in his value that inspired the escalation of the blood-war between Adidas's Vaccaro and Nike's George Raveling. Together, they're the ultimate underbelly of James' saga. LeBron isn't a creation of the greed of St. Vincent-St. Mary, the cameras of ESPN, the words of indignant columnists. He was bred out of the sordid sneaker industry, discovered, marketed and fed into perhaps the biggest bidding war this business had ever witnessed. They fed this monster with coast-to-coast recruitments, endless gifts and whispers of a $25 million endorsement contract awaiting him after high school.
After the way the OHSAA transcended the most celebrated high school star in history into a cult hero, how do these shoe companies sign him for less than Serena Williams' expected $50 million endorsement deal with Nike? How? For the first five years of his career -- even longer, perhaps -- he'll make more as a shoe endorser than the No. 1 pick in the NBA Draft.
King James is the kids' anthem. There is a reason Allen Iverson sells the most shoes in America today: Kids wants an edge, a rage, for the $125 they drop on the counter for sneakers.
They want the Runnin' Rebs and Hoyas Paranoia and King James -- bigger than life, breaking down the bureaucracy, breaking out and winning his freedom to spend Saturday night in Trenton, N.J., the mythical high school phenom chasing that mythical national championship.
All the way back to the beginning, back to Vaccaro discovering James at an AAU practice in San Francisco two and a half years ago, back to Michael Jordan moving James into his suburban Chicago house for workouts the next summer, back to the core of this phenomenon, this was a story starting long ago at Nevada-Las Vegas. Sonny Vaccaro had come down to a UNLV practice, down to the colleges on his way to the high schools.
How else could this have started: Sonny Vaccaro wrote Jerry Tarkanian a check and all hell broke loose in basketball, tumbling all the way down to today, all the way to St. Mary-St. Vincent in Akron, Ohio.
"Damn, I never should've left Nike to go with Sonny to Adidas," Tark said. "I had it so good there."
All these years later, LeBron James takes his turn to chase the money, probably leaving his loyalty to Sonny Vaccaro for Nike. He is the biggest thing to step into sneakers in a long, long time. They turned him into a martyr, a teen idol waiting to take his turn pushing product. All along, this was the plan.
Adrian Wojnarowski is a columnist for The Record (N.J.) and a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPNWoj@aol.com.