Sonny Vaccaro auctioning off one-of-a-kind Michael Jordan shoes to expose 'the lie'

Jeff Eisenberg

For Sonny Vaccaro, “The Last Dance” was the last straw.

The man who pushed for Nike to sign Michael Jordan coming out of North Carolina remains hurt and bitter over his omission from ESPN’s 10-part documentary last summer.

Hoping to prove that he played an instrumental role in Jordan’s rise from coveted prospect to cultural phenomenon, Vaccaro is putting a one-of-a-kind piece of memorabilia up for auction. He’s selling a pair of autographed black Air Jordan VIs that the Chicago Bulls legend presented him as a gift after wearing them to start Game 4 of the 1991 NBA Finals.

In a Zoom call with reporters on Tuesday, the 81-year-old Vaccaro said that he originally wanted his grandkids to inherit the shoes after he died. When asked what changed his mind, Vaccaro said he wants to push back against Nike’s attempts to erase him from Jordan’s story and described being left out of “The Last Dance” as “the straw that broke the camel’s back.”

“That’s the reason the shoe is being sold,” he said. “I can’t allow these lies to perpetuate and take hold.”

Goldin Auctions and Sotheby’s announced Tuesday that bids for Vaccaro’s sneakers are open and will close on Dec. 7. According to Goldin Auctions founder and CEO Ken Goldin, the shoes are the only game-worn Jordan sneakers on the market from any NBA Finals and could fetch as much as $500,000 to $700,000.

Michael Jordan’s 1991 game-worn, twice-signed Air Jordan high top sneakers from Game 4 of the NBA Finals. (Sotheby's)
Michael Jordan’s 1991 game-worn, twice-signed Air Jordan high top sneakers from Game 4 of the NBA Finals. (Sotheby's)

Vaccaro was vague about how he will use the potential profits, saying only that he and his wife Pam “will do good things with the money.” The way close friend Gary Charles made it seem on Tuesday, the money may not be as important to Vaccaro as fighting back against attempts to diminish his legacy.

"‘The Last Dance’ was revisionist history,” Charles said. “Now you have young kids coming up who think Sonny had nothing to do with the process of Michael Jordan. That's wrong. Regardless of what Phil Knight and other people think, you should not dismiss history.

“This is his opportunity to tell people, 'You're telling people that I didn't know Michael? Well, look at this.'"

Nike meets Michael Jordan, via Sonny

If the pairing of Jordan and Nike is the most significant sports marketing partnership in American history, then Vaccaro has portrayed himself as the visionary behind that alliance. He has said that when he worked for Nike in 1984, he persuaded the shoe-apparel brand to enter the basketball market and bet big on a charismatic guard from North Carolina who wasn’t even projected to be the No. 1 pick in the draft.

The combination of Jordan’s transcendent talent and Nike’s groundbreaking marketing were like a match and kerosene. They both attained levels of fame and fortune that they could never have on their own.

Vaccaro called his friendship with Jordan “the greatest time in my life,” but insisted that not once did he ask the Bulls star for tickets or memorabilia. In fact, Vaccaro even turned down an offer from Jordan to attend a 1991 NBA Finals game in Los Angeles, opting to watch from Palm Springs as Jordan captured his first championship.

The next morning, Vaccaro learned that Jordan had left him a thank you present at the Los Angeles-area hotel where the Bulls had stayed. The box stayed in the hotel’s storage room for a week until Vaccaro came to pick it up and discovered Jordan’s autographed game-worn shoes inside.

“Those shoes have been wrapped up in a closet in my house for 30 years,” Vaccaro said. “We’ve shown them to maybe 3 or 4 people. My kids knew about the shoes, but I don’t think any of them ever saw them.”

JANUARY 15, 2009 – LOS ANGELES, CA: Sonny Vaccaro before the start of the UCLA–Arizona basketball game at Pauley Pavilion on January 15, 2008. He is sitting with wife Pam.  (Photo by Gary Friedman/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)
Sonny Vaccaro sitting with his wife Pam at a UCLA basketball game. (by Gary Friedman/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

To Vaccaro, those shoes represent the pinnacle of his relationship with Nike and Jordan. Nike fired Vaccaro a few months later, driving a wedge between him and Jordan and beginning a cold war that has lasted for decades.

Vaccaro went to rival Adidas, where he built the company’s basketball brand by signing Kobe Bryant, Tracy McGrady and dozens of top high school and grassroots teams. He later worked for Reebok, briefly providing that company credibility in the basketball world.

The pettiness of the Sneaker Wars remains even though Vaccaro has long since retired.

Jordan, Bryant, LeBron James and other Nike-affiliated figures did not participate in the 2015 30-for-30 documentary that ESPN produced about Vaccaro’s influence. Then, despite sitting for a lengthy interview, Vaccaro was absent from “The Last Dance,” aside from the appearance of the back of his head in a photo of a meeting between Jordan and Nike.

For Vaccaro, that snub was a gut punch. It was what caused him to retrieve those one-of-a-kind Jordan sneakers from the closet and put them on the market.

“My point is this happened,” Vaccaro said. “I think this will stop the lie.”

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