We make the mistake of rooting for the underdog. Pretty soon, our hearts cloud our judgment. That's why I felt so sure the other night that college basketball's upset of the year was about to happen. I'd read the advance stories about Princeton's basketball team in the New York Times. I'd read about them before in Sports Illustrated. There was something mystical about them. The Ivy Leaguers were superbly coached and couldn't be rattled. They understood the concept of team play. They were totally unselfish on offense. They worked slavishly on defense. They were also undefeated and ranked 25th in the country. This was a team of scholar athletes that specializes in frustrating highly recruited powerhouses like Georgetown and Arkansas. Princeton was going into Las Vegas to play the defending national champs before a packed house. It would take more than an appreciation for the literary works of F. Scott Fitzgerald and Albert Einstein's theory of relativity to get through this one unscathed. The Times, while referring to Nevada-Las Vegas as the country's No. 1 team, reminded us that Coach Jerry Tarkanian was an outlaw with a bulging dossier of recruiting and illegal payment problems. Tarkanian is the Prince of Darkness, the Saddam Hussein of the Far West. Pete Carril, Princeton's rumpled coach, who runs a program without athletic scholarships, is the Keeper of the Flame. Pointing up Carril's excellence was the fact that John Thompson III, son of the Georgetown coach, recently completed playing four years for him. I remembered how stunned I'd been by Carril's team two years ago in the national tournament. Princeton led all the way. They went down to the final seconds before finally losing to Georgetown. Last year, they lost to highly rated Arkansas by only four points. These games had been fascinating to watch. Princeton passed the ball around for close to the full 45-second limit on each possession. Then a Princeton player would cut for the basket, catch a smartly thrown pass, and score on a simple layup. Georgetown and Arkansas, vastly superior in size, ability and natural athletic talent, grew more frustrated as the game progressed. Perhaps Princeton could accomplish the same thing against UNLV. Maybe, just maybe, I was about to witness college basketball's version of a morality play. It was not meant to be. UNLV outclassed Princeton, beating them by more than 30 points. The turning point was the opening tip-off. It was never close. Once they started running up and down the court, you realized Princeton had no chance. The final score was 69-35, but it was never even that close. The only upset was that Princeton managed to hold Tarkanian's team to under 100 points for the first time this year. Three of the UNLV players, Larry Johnson, Stacey Augmon, and Anderson Hunt, are already considered talented enough for the National Basketball Association. They did nothing in this game to make anyone think that assessment was overly optimistic. Teams like Nevada-Las Vegas don't just happen. They are the product of a nationwide behind-the-scenes war for talent. Gary Colson, former coach at New Mexico, predicts that the whole thing will end in still another college basketball scandal that will bring the big-money TV contracts down like a house of cards. "It's gonna get worse," Colson says. "It's got to, if you look at the money involved. It's like Sodom and Gomorrah. Eventually, it will destroy itself." A current big read among basketball fans is Raw Recruits by Alexander Wolff and Armen Keteyian. The authors, both of whom have covered college basketball for Sports Illustrated, point out the tremendous influence over the sport that is held by people connected with the sale of basketball sneakers. They profile Sonny Vaccaro, who is the leading field representative for Nike shoes. Vaccaro picks out talented youngsters in high school and makes friends with them by supplying them with all the Nike shoes and warm-up equipment they want. Vaccaro has the power to hire some of the most successful coaches in the country for his company. He gives them six-figure contracts if they agree to order their players to wear Nike shoes. Some of the coaches under such lucrative contracts are John Thompson at Georgetown, Tarkanian at UNLV, Jim Boheim at Syracuse, Lute Olsen at the University of Arizona, and Bill Frieder at Arizona State. Vaccaro has been a close friend of Tarkanian for years. Vaccaro's brother runs a gambling book at The Mirage in that town. Does this look odd to you? Vaccaro has known and nurtured many of today's top college players. Brian Williams, now of the University of Arizona, used to take naps on a couch in Vaccaro's home after practice at Santa Monica High. Chris Mills, the newest Wildcat star, was also a California high school kid who received shoes and equipment from Vaccaro. So was Stacey Augmon of UNLV. Alonzo Mourning of Georgetown is a special friend. You begin to wonder if Vaccaro, who is five feet nine, is capable of making friends with anyone less than six feet seven inches tall. Vaccaro has become the ultimate insider and matchmaker in college basketball. Through his clinics and basketball-camp connections, he is able to find the most talented players. He becomes friends with them. He helps to send them to schools where coaches have Nike contracts. For Vaccaro, it's good business. For the coaches, it's a matter of survival. The reach of his influence is amazing. It was Vaccaro who befriended Alonzo Mourning and helped him make up his mind to attend Georgetown. "Sonny has interests in Alonzo totally different from ours," Thompson says. "Alonzo was important to Nike to keep their programs in the camps and summer leagues going. I don't bother to defend it. You can't." Walt Hazzard, when he was still coaching at UCLA, made the mistake of signing with Reebok for $125,000. His assistants warned him it would cost him top recruits because all the best were already under Vaccaro's spell. The story goes that Vaccaro had approached Hazzard when he first got the UCLA job and offered him a Nike contract. Hazzard turned him down. The offer was lower than the money Vaccaro was known to be paying some other coaches. Vaccaro told Hazzard he'd have to pay his dues first. Hazzard, never one to shortchange himself, pointed out to Vaccaro that he had already paid his dues. "I won an Olympic gold medal. I was college player of the year. I was in the NBA ten years. I'm not paying anymore dues. Fuck you, Sonny." Hazzard is no longer in coaching. But Sonny Vaccaro is flourishing. Does anything seem wrong about this? The collegiate whistle-blowers are always making a scandal out of a coach who gets caught lending $25 from his own pocket to a student-athlete. But they see absolutely nothing wrong with a situation in which most of the successful coaches in the country take a $150,000 or so a year in bribes from the Nike shoe company. Jerry Tarkanian is the Prince of Darkness, the Saddam Hussein of the Far West. You begin to wonder if Vaccaro is capable of making friends with anyone less than six feet seven inches tall. "It's gonna get worse. It's like Sodom and Gomorrah. Eventually it will destroy itself.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Phoenix New Times' biggest stories.