No man walking the face of Planet Earth knows more about the complex relationships between talented basketball players and sneaker companies than Sonny Vaccaro.
Vaccaro, now 73 and retired from the world of grassroots basketball, signed Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant to multi-million dollar sneaker deals, and very nearly did the same with LeBron James.
So on the eve of the announcement by Andrew and Aaron Harrison on ESPNU as to whether they will attend Kentucky or Under Armour-funded Maryland, it only seemed wise to check in with the Godfather of Grassroots Basketball for his thoughts.
“If they pick Kentucky it’s a logical move because since [head coach] John [Calipari]’s been at Kentucky the kids have done well,” Vaccaro told SNY.tv from his California home. “His teams have won a national championship. It’s a logical move.
“The surprise would be if they didn’t pick Kentucky. Kentucky almost has to win [the battle for the twins]– no matter what the gain is — to show that they’re not losing it.”
The Harrison twins are widely seen as one-and-done players, and nobody does one-and-done better than Calipari.
In the wake of last year’s NCAA championship alone, Kentucky sent six players, including three freshmen, to the NBA Draft, including the No. 1 and 2 picks in Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist.
“It’s almost like [Kentucky] is a heavy favorite,” Vaccaro said. “If they lose, it really goes against the brand and John.”
Still, the Harrisons will likely be one-and-dones no matter where they go to school — even if they somehow land in Larry Brown’s lap at SMU.
Therefore, from where Vaccaro sits, Maryland — and Under Armour — stand the most to gain if the twins pick the ACC school, the school close to family and friends in Baltimore, the school where they’ve known head coach Mark Turgeon since his days at Texas A&M.
“If Maryland wins this, it will speak volumes in future recruiting also because they [Kentucky] haven’t lost guys like this before,” Vaccaro said.
Well, not exactly.
Shabazz Muhammad picked UCLA, an adidas school, over Kentucky last spring. Adidas’ ties to Muhammad — including his pro tennis-playing sister Asia’s contract with the company — have been well documented. But Muhammad and his family always maintained they picked UCLA because it was the best fit for him.
Muhammad is currently being investigated by the NCAA for improper benefits, and an NCAA source told SNY.tv no matter where the twins end up, “They’ll get a very thorough look from our eligibility folks.”
For Vaccaro, this is now a defining moment for Turgeon — who was slated to have an in-home visit Wednesday with the twins — and for Under Armour.
“This one is like a for me or against me move here,” Vaccaro said. “This is a big one, and it’s bigger for the competitor.
“This is a giant one for Maryland basketball, giant.”
According to a report by USA Today, Chris Hightower, who runs basketball marketing at Under Armour, is one of the few people — along with Calipari and Turgeon — to have the twins’ new cell phone numbers and remains in constant contact with them.
The twins’ AAU team and Maryland are both sponsored by Under Armour.
Vaccaro said that if the twins were to select Maryland, it would be a huge gain for the company.
“If they go there, it’s a big leap for Under Armour and Maryland, obviously,” Vaccaro said.
Vaccaro said such a move would give Under Armour a much-needed “first step” in the basketball world. Until now, Under Armour has mostly made gains with predominantly football schools like Auburn, Boston College, South Carolina, South Florida, Texas Tech and Utah.
“If [Under Armour] get the Harrison twins, it’s very significant but it doesn’t mean that Under Armour [will automatically] succeed,” he said. “It will help them get there quicker. The proof of the pudding will be when basketball schools are involved and more kids go to where the Under Armour product is.
“The kids have to wear the product, that’s the bottom line.”
On Thursday, we’ll find out what jersey they will wear next year.
Either Under Armour and Maryland will secure a major coup by upsetting the heavy favorite, or Kentucky will add more riches to its treasure chest.
Photo: Washington Post