Sonny Vaccaro floating on 'Air' over new movie
“Surreal,” Sonny Vaccaro said of the whirlwind late-in-life experience in which he has found himself portrayed in a major motion picture by Matt Damon, met Damon and other stars and generally been treated like sports history royalty.
Not bad for an 83-year-old with a long, controversial history in basketball.
For friends, relatives and strangers too young to recall the era depicted in “Air,” which opens on April 5, Vaccaro sees this as the final words on the subject.
“Now they can go to sleep and can rest assured that this is how the sausage was made,” Vaccaro told Newsday.
“My life with Michael [Jordan] was one of the greatest times in my life, and I think it's there for history. I don't think it can be changed now.”
Vaccaro was working for Nike, then an upstart underdog compared to adidas and Converse, when the sneaker companies were battling to sign Jordan in 1984.
As shown in the film, against all odds Vaccaro convinced Jordan to join Nike, largely by convincing Jordan’s mother, Deloris, to come aboard.
Vaccaro said he had no direct input into the script but was asked to consult by producer Peter Guber.
“Obviously, I wanted to do it,” Vaccaro said. “Basically, Mr. Guber told me that it'll be honest. But, he said, ‘It's a film. It's a based-on-a-life story.’”
Still, Vaccaro said despite some narrative liberties the movie accurately depicts the events that led to Nike landing Jordan and introducing the “Air Jordan” line.
“Seeing the movie a few times now, they did a damn good job,” he said.
Vaccaro bonded with Damon, who attended Cambridge (Massachusetts) Rindge and Latin High School, as did Patrick Ewing (and the director of “Air,” Ben Affleck).
“He knew sports and he knows basketball,” Vaccaro said. “He was very easy . . . Last week we spent the whole day together. We did 15 interviews in a row. Matt seemed like my friend for 30 years. I was never uncomfortable with him.”
But Vaccaro knows that for most people, Damon’s version of him is what will live on. “They ain’t going to forget me, because he’s going to be Sonny for a long time,” Vaccaro said.
Viola Davis plays Deloris, whose role in the Jordan pursuit is dead on in the movie, according to Vaccaro.
“If it were not for her, we weren't going to sign Michael ever, if we gave him $10 million or $100 million. I mean it . . . He was going to go to adidas. That’s a fact. He basically told me that. Mrs. Jordan, she was the whole reason this happened.”
Vaccaro was touched by the filmmakers noting in the credits that he went on to play a key role in what now is known as “name, image and likeness," or NIL.
The revolution in paying college athletes evolved from O’Bannon v. NCAA, which resulted in a 2015 federal court ruling that led to where we are today.
Vaccaro recruited O’Bannon to the cause after 15 other players declined.
“The most important thing [the filmmakers] did for me is when they said that my life went on, and it wasn't all about Michael Jordan,” Vaccaro said. “It was about Eddie O’Bannon and the NIL.”
Vaccaro added, “Michael opened the door for me to even get to a point where I could be wise enough or smart enough to understand that they've been [taking advantage of] these kids for all these years.
“That, to me, is the best thing I've ever done in my life, other than my family and marrying Pammy. I mean that with the bottom of my heart.
“On my tombstone, other than my family, ‘name, image and likeness’ is going to be there somewhere, because that's what I'm proud of.”