- European Excursion -
A New Trend Threatens
To Alter Hoops Landscape
By Victoria Sun
Special to Recruiters Handbook
December 10, 2008
Sonny Vaccaro won't mention any names, but he already has spoken with the families of 12 elite high school players across the country who have solicited his advice about possibly skipping college and going overseas to collect a paycheck a la former Class of 2008 star Brandon Jennings.
It's not surprising that the former sneaker executive - who signed Michael Jordan to his first Nike contract and revolutionized the amateur hoops scene by starting various shoe camps - is behind what could become a trend among prepsters no longer allowed to head straight to the NBA.
Vaccaro was the one who helped Jennings, a McDonald's All-American originally headed to Arizona, become the first player to bypass college and play professionally in Europe since the NBA implemented an age minimum that first affected the Class of 2007.
But Vaccaro insists that his involvement happened by chance.
"Ironically, it was the most innocent of all the things I've been involved with," said Vaccaro, a longtime friend of Jennings and his mom, Alice Knox. "(Jennings) heard me talk on the radio about kids not being forced to go to college or the NBDL or doing anything they didn't want to do. So then he called me.
"It was the most unique thing that I've ever been involved with, especially with the era that we're now living in. A strange turn right or left and this might not have ever happened.
"It wasn't as complicated as people want to make it to be. I wanted to make sure he had a good deal and he wanted to do it - (that) he had enough guts to do it."
"THERE'S NO GUARANTEE I'M GOING TO COLLEGE"
A week before the NBA Draft that was held in New York's Madison Square Garden on June 26, 2008, Brandon called up Vaccaro to discuss his options.
Though Jennings had signed a National Letter of Intent to attend Arizona, the NCAA still hadn't ruled him academically eligible. Because his SAT score jumped dramatically the second time he took the test, the NCAA flagged the result forcing him to retake the test a third time.
"It's made me mad," Jennings told ESPN.com. "Even if I get the scores this time, there's no guarantee I'm going to college. No one has answers, and the NCAA is a different group."
While Jennings remained in limbo about his standardized test scores, he met Vaccaro the day before the draft at an Italian restaurant in New York where Vaccaro told Jennings all of the pros and cons of playing in Europe.
During the meeting, Jennings showed Vaccaro a "mental toughness" and told him he wanted to play in Europe.
"I don't think he wanted to go to school," Vaccaro said. "I think what happened with the O.J. Mayo situation (in which the former USC guard is accused of accepting money and gifts from an agent), then the whole mix-up at Arizona (where Hall of Fame coach Lute Olson, whom Brandon committed to, stepped down suddenly) probably affected him.
"The irony is, what if he did go to Arizona and did what the NCAA wanted him to do? The coach is no longer there and all of the assistants he knew are gone. The worst part is the NCAA takes years to do anything. To drag this thing out into August and September (without Brandon knowing whether or not he was eligible), that all had to weigh on him."
Once Jennings made up his mind, Sonny set up a workout with trainer Joe Abunassar, who has worked with Kevin Garnett, Dwight Howard and many others, in Las Vegas a week after the draft. Vaccaro wanted Jennings in Sin City because he knew that plenty of executives from European teams trying to sign players would be in town for the NBA summer league that ran from July 11-20.
On the first day of summer league, Vaccaro arranged for Jennings to work out for Lottomatica Virtus Roma general manager Dejan Bodiroga. Vaccaro then spent the rest of the day talking to general managers of seven other teams from countries including Israel, Greece and Russia.
The same night, Bodiroga held a second private workout with Jennings, and Vaccaro "knew he was very impressed."
The next morning, Roma made the 6-2 point guard from Compton, Calif., a lucrative offer that Jennings didn't believe he could afford to pass up. To Vaccaro, the situation was perfect because Rome is an international city, the Roma coach speaks English and former Villanova guard Allan Ray is on the team, so Jennings would have an American beside him to help him acclimate.
"He got a nice six-figure payment immediately," Vaccaro said. "Things happened within a mater of weeks, and the contract was done in a matter of days."
Vaccaro said Jennings' attorney, Jeff Valle, handled the details of the three-year deal with an opt-out clause after one year worth about $1.65 million. The contract includes eight round-trip plane tickets to Los Angeles, an apartment Jennings shares with Knox and his 13-year-old brother, Terrence Phillips, $24,000 in school tuition at the Marymount International School for Terrence and a Volvo.
Though Vaccaro orchestrated the whole deal, he adamantly maintains that he did not receive a penny from Jennings and that he has not become an agent. In other countries the team - not the player - typically pays an agent or conduit 10 percent of the player's salary.
After all of the paperwork was completed, Vaccaro and his wife, Pam, hopped on a plane to Rome with Brandon for his press conference later in July. By mid-August, Jennings, bid arrivederci to the United States and headed to Italy.
AN INDECENT CHOICE
Through eight games, Jennings played a reserve role and averaged only 4.9 points and 3.0 assists in 17.3 minutes for Roma of the Italian League.
Several NBA executives who have not seen him play yet said they have heard that he has shown a lot of maturity in dealing with his new surroundings and accepted his role on the team, but early in the season he was unable to overtake Ray and other Roma guards in the rotation.
Knox initially agreed via e-mail to answer some questions about what life has been like in a foreign country but later refused to reply.
According to Vaccaro, "They have acclimated themselves well." But he still fumes over the thought that Jennings or any other top high school player wouldn't have to make such a drastic move if the NBA hadn't enacted the age restriction.
Based on the rule, a player must turn 19 during the calendar year of the draft and be one year out of high school to be eligible to apply. Jennings, who turned 19 on Sept. 23, plans to make himself eligible for next year's draft.
Vaccaro considers the rule an egregious injustice because players are robbed of the opportunity to earn millions of dollars if they are talented enough to do so immediately out of high school. The rule essentially forces players to attend college, where they help their university and the NCAA make millions of dollars under the guise of amateur athletics, or seek alternatives like Jennings did.
The alleged hypocrisy is why Vaccaro has been one of the rule's most vocal opponents and why he has worked tirelessly to repeal the age limit.
"I am not against college; I'm against college-athlete student fraud," said Vaccaro, who has had speaking engagements at Harvard, Yale, Duke, Wharton and UCLA. "Obviously there are kids who went to college and turned out to be great players and No. 1 draft picks.
"It all pretends to be student-athlete related, and it's not. The rules are depriving a player a chance to earn a living by making him wait.
"How can (Italian native) Danilo Gallinari leave Rome to play for the Knicks and Brandon Jennings has to go to Rome for a year before he can play in the NBA? We're exporting our own goods. The fact that (NBA commissioner) David Stern said it gives NBA scouts more time to evaluate a player by making him wait a year is funny when some of the best players in the NBA from Kobe Bryant to Kevin Garnett to Tracy McGrady didn't even go to college."
ONLY A MATTER OF TIME
Because of stringent NCAA eligibility requirements, the NBA age minimum and the need for some players to earn income as quickly as possible, Tony Ronzone figured it was only a matter of time before an American high school player went overseas instead of going to college.
Ronzone, the director of international player personnel for USA Basketball and the Detroit Pistons' director of basketball operations, spends much of the year scouring the world for players.
If Jennings is successful, Ronzone believes more elite players who are struggling academically will ditch the classroom for a paycheck, as well, while waiting a year to become draft eligible. Besides the money Jennings is receiving from Roma, he has landed several endorsement deals - including one with increasingly formidable American grassroots player Under Armour - and is the star of the company's basketball division.
From a basketball perspective, the move makes sense because every NBA team either has a scout positioned in another country or regularly sends executives overseas to watch games, Ronzone said.
"It's an opportunity to make money right away," said Ronzone, who was an integral part of Team USA that won the gold medal in Beijing. "The basketball part is going to be beneficial because you're a pro, you're practicing a lot more with a coach than you would get to playing in college because the NCAA limits the amount of time a coach spends with his team.
"So you get to develop your game more and work a lot more on fundamentals."
But Ronzone warned that not every player is suited to make such a drastic move. In many other countries, teams are allowed to have just two foreigners on their roster, while others allow four to six foreign players.
"It's very hard," said Ronzone, who played at Long Beach State and Nevada-Reno. "You're going to a foreign country where they speak a different language.
"You have to learn a different system. The style of play is totally different. There are more controlled possessions, and even though you might have been the man in high school, you have to defer to older players. You're playing against grown men, some who are 30 or 35. For an 18-, 19-year-old kid, that's a tough adjustment."
NO GOING ALONE
For Jennings, the transition has been made easier with the support of his mom and younger brother.
Vaccaro stressed the importance of Jennings' family moving with him, and it's a point he makes immediately to other players who have approached him about relocating abroad instead of going to college.
"When I meet them, the first thing I tell them is it's a lot harder than you'll ever expect," says Vaccaro. "You can't go alone, you have to do it with a parent.
"You have to understand you're not going to be the star. They're paying you serious money, and they don't look up to young people as much as we do in America. I give them all the negatives, and I tell them that I can't be part of this unless an adult is involved."
The 12 players Vaccaro has advised since Jennings went to Rome aren't all high school seniors, but he says they are all lottery-pick caliber players or he wouldn't be involved with them, because the venture would fail as international teams are not willing to pay top dollar for an average player.
In January, Vaccaro says they will each get an opportunity to be evaluated by officials from different European teams. He stressed that the kids wouldn't be jeopardizing their amateur status or breaking any rules.
"So the seniors when their last high school game is over, they'll have an idea if any teams were interested in them," Vaccaro explained. "None of these kids have agents.
"I've never seen these kids play. But their parents have trusted me and said, explain to me what my options might be. I'm doing this pro bono because of my ill feelings towards the rules."
FOLLOWING THE LEADER?
Despite hearing that Vaccaro has spoken with a dozen other players and most likely more to follow, West Virginia head coach Bob Huggins doesn't anticipate the move to Europe becoming an actual trend.
"I think it depends. Let's say there are 12 kids who want to go. I would think there would be a pretty high percentage that they couldn't survive it," Huggins said. "Are they going to have an interpreter for all of them? You're not going to understand anything your teammates are telling you, you can't read the menu.
"It's more complicated than saying I'm going to go somewhere else to play. The officiating is different. Then there is how well you're going to be accepted. You could be a 19-year-old kid who took some veteran's job."
Huggins, who is in his 27th season as a head coach, raises a valid point when he asks, "If that's such a good option, why are all of these Europeans coming over here to play high school and college instead of playing on pro teams there?"
More specifically, basketball players from all over the world have flocked to the United States and ended up at prep schools and high schools before landing at a Division I college.
Purdue senior center Nemanja Calasan is from Srbinje, Bosnia & Herzegovina, while Stanford freshman center Matei Daian is from Bucharest, Romania.
At Maryland, freshman forward Jin Soo Kim is from Suwon, South Korea, and junior guard Greivis Vasquez is from Caracas, Venezuela. About 12 miles down the road in Georgetown, sophomore wing forward Nikita Mescheriakov is from Minsk, Belarus.
UConn has sophomore center Hasheem Thabeet, a projected lottery pick from Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania, and Husky sophomore center Charles Okwandu is from Lagos, Nigeria.
Texas has two imports, sophomore big man Alexis Wangmene from Maroua, Cameroon, and sophomore guard Dogus Balbay from Istanbul, Turkey. The Longhorns already hold a verbal commitment from the No. 1 rated player in the Class of 2010, Canada native Tristan Thompson.
And that's just a small and random example of foreigners who are playing at American colleges.
"Most kids want to play in the NBA, and they think the greatest preparation they can get is to come to the U.S. and play college basketball or they would have stayed over there professionally," Huggins said. "There's a huge difference in the European game and the U.S. game in terms of how they use big people.
"When you talk about a trapezoid lane vs. NBA lane, it makes a huge difference. I think it would stand to reason that the college game is closer to the NBA game than the European game, which is why most players want to come here instead of leaving."
Huggins believes the only way a trend would emerge is if the NBA decided that players would have to be three years removed from high school before applying for the draft, thus adopting a rule similar to that followed by MLB that state a high school player who opts to attend college won't be draft-eligible until after his junior year. In the baseball rule, however, players are allowed to enter the league directly out of high school.
"If the rules stay the way they are, it's not an issue," Huggins said. "There may be a few guys who go, but a few is not going to really affect college basketball."
For his part, Commissioner Stern doesn't perceive any danger for the NBA if a few high school players ship out to Europe, either.
"We are not concerned," he told The Washington Times. "We are confident that the world's top young players will continue to choose to play in the NBA because of both the level of competition and because they can make more money in the NBA."
Reggie Minton, deputy executive director of the National Association of Basketball Coaches, doesn't fault Jennings for going overseas, but he hopes that his situation is just an aberration instead of a signal of things to come.
Minton, the former head coach at Air Force and Dartmouth, sees great value in having a young man attend college - even if for only one year, so that he can develop social skills and enjoy the unique experience of college life.
"There is a process of maturation, and it takes time and years and the more you're exposed to things, I think the more it helps you to become an adult," Minton said. "I think going to college, being involved with other young people and being away from home is a good thing.
"When I went off to college, I didn't know who (writer Henry David) Throreau was and all of that I got hit with the first year. I look back on it now, and I thought that was great. I've got friends I met at college who I'm still friends with today, and I remember quotes from Michael Beasley last year saying that he loved it (being in college)."
Like Thoreau, a lifelong abolitionist who penned "Civil Disobedience," Jennings inadvertently has become a trailblazer. His decision already has prompted others to examine the possibility of following in his footsteps, but the possibility would only be available to the best high school players in the country.
Vaccaro scoffs at the notion that the college game will be affected even if more kids go abroad. He pointed out the fact that when Bryant, Garnett, McGrady and LeBron James got drafted out of high school, the college game still thrived.
"It's only four or five kids, and there are thousands of kids playing NCAA basketball," Vaccaro said. "Kids are going to go to school and fans are still going to watch games.
"That's the dumbest thing I ever heard. This is not going to affect the college game."