ESPN 30 for 30: Sole Man (2015)

Directed by Jon Weinbach & Dan Marks

I just googled “How much does a pair of Jordan’s cost?” The answer? Well, it’s complicated, you see. There are so many different pairs and variety of the classic basketball sneaker. There are high end and low end, high top and low top. Some of the cheaper ones will run you closer to $100, some of the expensive ones, well, upwards of $200. For sneakers. The Jordan shoe is a cultural thing at this point, part of the fashion lexicon. But where did this all start? Nike of course! Well, no not really, but certainly it had to have been the brilliant marketing idea of Phil Knight! Well, no not really, but everyone knew marketing MJ would be the easiest way to the bank! Well, still no, not really. If it weren’t for Sonny Vaccaro, the Jordan sneaker, and just about everything else in basketball show history, may never have been.

Vaccaro is an interesting character, and one that is hard to really peg. What exactly did he do? Well sure, he revolutionized the shoe industry, bringing about so many things in the industry that are standards today. Take the summer basketball camp sponsored by Nike or Adidas for example. The multi-millionaire dollar endorsement deals that players sign for personalized shoes, or collegiate coaches. Yep, all from the mind of Sonny Vaccaro. Employed by both Nike and Adidas at different points in his career, Vaccaro is enigmatic. He is suave and smooth. It feels like he is probably a shady character, dealing with college and high school athletes and yet being linked to endorsements and profit. But at the same time, Vaccaro is loved by so many who claim he has always had their best interests at heart.

Just ask Ed O’Bannon, who recently made news headlines for winning a case against the NCAA for using his likeness without his permission. Death to collegiate video games. The journey of Vaccaro is unlike anything I’ve seen before. He made Nike, or at least the film suggests it, by transforming it from a running shoe company to the company that changed the game with the Jordan’s. Then Phil Knight, having milked him for what he needed, left him along the side of the road. But Sonny wasn’t out for long, joining up with Adidas to revolutionize the game again, only to lose out to the beast he created when Adidas and Nike were both fighting to sign LeBron James. The shoe game Vaccaro pioneered goes much deeper than I would have ever imagined.

There are a few stories here that really paint Sonny as the guy you can trust, the guy who cares about the player and not just making a buck. Take Ed O’Bannon and George Raveling for instance. Both stories suggest the integrity of Vaccaro. However, not to the film’s fault, Raveling and fellow Nike giants Phil Knight and Michael Jordan all declined to be interviewed for the film, and what a shame that is for the story being told. As a result, we mostly get a one-sided view of Vaccaro, which shows him as a giant in the industry, true pioneer, and wholesome figure to young athletes. But why did Knight throw him to the curb? What caused his friendship with Raveling, who was best man at Sonny’s wedding, to unravel? All these interviews would have enriched the film with a more balanced and full view of the story, but unfortunately, they never happened.

Again though, that is not the fault of the film, and as such it should not be marked against it. What Weinbach and Marks develop with Sole Man is in fact a fascinating portrait of Vaccaro. Even in the episodic nature of the format (the film was originally released as a six part web series on grantland.com), the film manages to flow logically from segment to segment, and really tell the professional life story of Sonny Vaccaro is a mostly complete way. Vaccaro woke the sleeping giant of Nike and the basketball endorsement game, and yet he managed to stay grounded for the better part of three decades in the game keeping the monopoly balanced by helping Adidas, and ultimately helping the players get money and fame, all the while going mostly unnoticed to the casual sports fan like myself.

*** – Very Good

Adam Kuhn

Adam Kuhn was born and raised in Columbus, Ohio, where he attended Saint Charles Preparatory School. He studied History at the University of Cincinnati, where he was a contributor of The News Record, the twice-weekly, independent student news organization. He has been writing film reviews and blogging since 2009.

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