YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio (WKBN) – On April 5, the movie Air will be released with John “Sonny” Vaccaro as the story’s protagonist. Vaccaro was recruited to play on the then-Youngstown University football team, but what did he do after that? Well, he convinced Nike to sign Michael Jordan and then to make and sell Jordan’s most famous sneakers.
Air move script:
“My name’s Sonny Vaccaro. I’m with Nike.”
“Do you typically show up at people’s front door unannounced?”
In the movie Air, Vaccaro is played by actor Matt Damon.
“I can tell them the one thing the other companies can’t compete with — our basketball division is terrible.”
“It is the closest thing to being the most accurate script that I could ever be involved with, that’s for sure,” Vaccaro said.
Vaccaro, who now lives in California, is a Pittsburgh guy — a good athlete — who was recruited to play football by legendary Penguins football coach Dike Beede at what was then Youngstown University.
“I still have the letter that Dike sent me back, and he said in that letter, ‘If you’re anything like the player, we’d love you here at Youngstown State,'” Vaccaro said.
But an injury forced Vaccaro out of football, only to be given a scholarship by legendary Penguins basketball coach Dom Roselli to recruit Pennsylvania boys to play basketball in Youngstown.
“So Dom said to me, ‘Do you think I could get any Pennsylvania kids to play basketball and come to Youngstown State?’ I’m 19 years old. I didn’t play basketball. There was nothing on my resume, but Dom liked my energy,” Vaccaro said.
Among Vaccaro’s most successful Pennsylvania recruits were Fred “Red” Jones and Dave Culliver, both YSU Hall of Famers.
After he graduated, Vaccaro started the Dapper Dan High School Basketball Tournament in Pittsburgh, which highlighted a young LeBron James. Then came his job at Nike.
“What’s the plan?”
“We build a shoe line around just him.”
“I need the greatest basketball shoe that’s ever been made.”
“Who’s the player?”
Vaccaro and Jordan would remain friends, while the movie has allowed him to reflect on his 83 years of life.
“A guy named Dike Beede and Dom Roselli gave me a lifeline. If I don’t get the scholarship, nothing happens. I totally believe it myself,” Vaccaro said. “You know, I’m forever indebted to the University of Youngstown. Forever.”
Another local connection is that Vaccaro married a woman from Boardman, the former Pam Monakee who graduated from Boardman in 1976.
Also, a pair of Nike Air Jordan 13s — worn and signed by Jordan — are being sold at a Soethby’s auction next month. Jordan wore the shoes during Game 2 of the 1998 NBA Finals against the Utah Jazz, which is considered his “last dance” and final season with the Chicago Bulls. They’re expected to sell from between $2-4 million, which would make them the most expensive sneakers ever auctioned.