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Tuesday, November 24, 2009
Sonny Vaccaro: Brandon Jennings broke the mold, part three


By Henry Abbott

Last week, basketball insider Sonny Vaccaro explained why he feels defensive about Brandon Jennings, and told the story of how he came to be so involved in Jennings' life and decision to play professionally in Europe for a year before coming to the NBA.

Vaccaro has played a pivotal role in the careers of may top basketball players, from Kobe Bryant to O.J. Mayo. In this third and final installment of the conversation, Vaccaro discusses the future of basketball development. Will Vaccaro be helping many more high-schoolers skip the NCAA to go to Europe? He says European teams and American players have been expressing increasing interest. Or will Brandon Jennings be the example that encourages the NBA to abolish its ban of players straight from high school?

I noticed Brandon Jennings was on the cover of a Spanish basketball magazine recently. I know he was an Under Armour deal ... but is he a marketable personality in Europe?
Yeah, it's funny. I talked to a couple of people. He is, because they're now taking credit for the development of Brandon Jennings, and they should! Isn't that interesting, in a sense.

And I'll tell you something. When I went over there after the season, I talked to people all over Europe. In two particular situations, they're now asking me.

I think I was on trial.

Now it's like, is there anybody else? They all saw the faults of their own bias. They haven't played young kids at a high level in Europe. They punish you. To sit there and play the guy from Penn [Ibrahim Jaaber], who I'm sure is a very nice kid and heck of a player, was insane. They make you pay your dues. And here he was coming into the NBA and doing this.

So now they're coming to me and saying "if you're telling me they can play, I'll tell you he can play for our team."

Very interesting to hear you say that European teams are now more open than ever to your bringing them American high-schoolers. But what about American high-schoolers, are more of them interested in Europe since Brandon joined the NBA?
I can say this: I keep track of everybody that calls me. There are 11 now that have called me. Eight of them were brand new since Brandon. Two of them on the night of Brandon's 55-point game.

I don't think there'll be a lot of people doing it. Obviously, there's Jeremy [Tyler], who's struggling over there because he's not ready to do a lot of things. But he's growing and he did want to go. That's OK, too. He's young.

But what it's done is it has showed it can be done. It just shows you an alternative, Henry, and maybe it can get the rule changed. That would be the grand thing.

And maybe these people would do the right thing with the training and all that.

'Cause really you're talking about an individual, who really didn't want to go to college in the first place, and who is very very talented ... they should have the opportunity to do this! It always befuddled me, all these years, why they blame the kid when basically the NBA owner is the one writing the check to bring these kids to the NBA. These owners are doing it. ...

The problem with David Stern's system -- and I think David is the smartest, and you can quote me on this because I don't have to kiss anybody's ass -- everybody wants to play in the NBA. If you don't you can't ever reach your acclaim. You can't. But the whole point of this is everybody got caught up in [the brawl in] Detroit. And they never forgot Detroit. And then it became an age limit thing.

Well, Brandon was able to overcome it all. He singularly did it.

Let's go back to John Wall, Lance Stephenson and Renardo Sidney. These are the kids who could have gone to Europe -- who had the ability to be professional. They would have been drafted in last year's draft. They may have gotten cut, but they would have gotten drafted. All three had different situations occur during their freshman years in college. Wall had to pay back $800 to his friend who turned out to be an agent. Stephenson wondered if his professionalism had been violated by starring in some video. And Renardo's situation, whatever it is, to the harm of the kid, he still hasn't been allowed to play and we're going into December.

But that whole demeaning thing. ... What Derrick Rose is going through now with that stupid grade on a test he took or didn't take. It's two years after he went to Memphis! It dehumanizes these young people. The public is then told what: that you're a cheater or a liar or not educated.

What the hell do you need that for?

And that's what this system put on these kids.

Our system, academically, is not for everybody.

How many high-schoolers do you expect we'll see go to Europe?
Hopefully, we'll get rid of that rule and it won't matter. I can definitely tell you that there's interest. There's no question about it.

It just befuddles me. If the next collective bargaining agreement does not allow kids to come out, I will then say what I think will happen, which is you're going to get three, four, five a year then. It will happen then. If they say you can't do it. I'm getting up in years and I don't know how many times I can do this crap, but you know that I will be an advocate of getting them over there when they're sophomores. Move the whole families, do it differently, set it up where you can benefit by it.

Brandon Jennings has a chance to be the Spencer Haywood of his generation. To change the rules. Do you have a sense of how likely that is? Any chance they'll abolish the age restriction in collective bargaining?
I have a feeling, a Sonny Vaccaro feeling, that the age limit won't be a factor anymore. I think in collective bargaining, everyone will come to their senses, and allow this to happen.

I have more than just a feeling. I believe totally that something good will happen out of something negative, and we'll go on.

The only way you stop [high-schoolers going professional] is don't draft them. That'll stop it, quick.

But they can play. They're All-Stars.
Yes.

Once they see that these things can happen, that it didn't disrupt the flow of mankind, it'll be accepted. It's fine, there's nothing wrong with it.

The voices of dissent are needed. That's fine. You can't praise everybody for everything. That's good.

I agree that there are people who aren't capable of doing this or have delusions of grandeur. I agree a million percent. But the whole point is, the whole difference, the whole choice is that we're punishing our kids. The Americans. I'm me. I'm American. These are our kids. These are kids we know, and they're being singled out. Everywhere else kids their age can [play professionally].

I love Danilo Gallinari, I know his dad, I was there on draft night.

I saw you stand and clap when all the Knick fans were booing the pick.
Right!

To see him come to the NBA, while an American from Compton was not able to do it ... it just sickened me, and made my resolve stronger.

I don't understand. And I don't understand for the life of me this preoccupation with the NCAA, and the notion that they are the epitome of what you should aspire to be. And there's nothing wrong with it. But when I look at the news and I see coaches doing the most egregious things I have ever seen. They're supposed to be the mentors of young people. It makes me throw up. Their job should be doing the right thing for kids.

I just left Chicago. I just left there! There's a wonderful story about Ben Wilson, the kid who got murdered. He was the #1 player in America in 1984-85, he went to my camp, I got to know him not like I do the kids today, but I knew him. And he got murdered. The story, on the 25th anniversary of his death -- and I talked to him the day before he died -- the story was that nothing has changed academically, in grades or in gangs, in Chicago. Nothing!

That's the point I'm making. To assume, and then to put in print that everybody's qualified academically to go to some of these great universities that they're going to go to is a joke. It's a joke. If the kid doesn't qualify, or if he's put on hold with this clearinghouse s--- ... If he's done all that, who's the one who's put on display? Not the coach or the university that recruited him. Not the high school. Who put him in this position? Do you think kids don't want to be educated today? I mean come on. We weren't born ignorant. We grew to be ignorant.

Brandon Jennings wasn't some anonymous player from Alaska. He was a pretty good player! He was on display. And to hear the people who criticize him ... I don't want to hear about going to skills camp for two days. I don't want to hear about going to play for these great coaches. Don't tell me that's what he needs. Go practice for 12 months a year. Go do that.

Now that you've seen it up close, do you think the European model of basketball development (with players going professional at a young age and training year-round) is better than our university-based system?
I've got a much better understanding. I have my own intellectual understanding of the way they do things, and I believe them! Because there's no bull crap. ... There's no detour in your life. You either are going to be this example, this professional athlete, or you're not and you'll have to find ways to acclimate yourself to other parts of your life.

But it's no different from being a serious student of anything. Preparing yourself to be the best at whatever field they want to go into. So, they do it right.

It's painful. They go running in the mountains. It's much different than going to the island of Hawaii or whatever we do in America for training camp. It's certainly much different than the pitiful way we get kids ready with the twenty hours a week in the NCAA, but I don't even want to get into the college basketball thing.

But basically, I agree with the European model. They're proteges getting ready to be professionals.

This is the third in a series. Click to read all three posts in which Vaccaro discusses Brandon Jennings.