Sonny Vaccaro knows the issues in basketball recruiting perhaps better than anyone else.
He’s the man who created the relationship between big-money shoe companies and grassroots basketball decades ago. Vaccaro’s summer showcase of elite high school basketball stars — the ABCD All-America Camp, which ran from 1984-2007 — included generational talents like LeBron James and Kobe Bryant.
Vaccaro gained so much influence in his four decades of shaping modern-day basketball that he earned the nickname “the Godfather of grassroots basketball.”
His critics dubbed him the “Sneaker Pimp,” and NCAA investigators targeted him — though they could never get anything to stick — and many players who attended his camp over the years.
“I’ve watched it all,” Vaccaro said.
And yet, he’s never seen allegations on the summer basketball circuit as troubling as those involving Iowa grassroots coach Greg Stephen.
“What we have here, in my eyes, is similar to what the people had to handle with (Larry) Nassar,” Vaccaro said, referring to the disgraced former USA Gymnastics team doctor who was convicted of child pornography charges and sexual assault after being accused by 200 girls and women of sexually abusing them under the guise of treating them for injuries.
Stephen, of Monticello, a former coach and co-director for the Iowa Barnstormers basketball club, faces federal charges for possessing what investigators have deemed pornographic videos of his players and sexual images of minors.
Shoe company-supported grassroots basketball is no stranger to scandal. The NCAA has investigated such programs for decades, and the FBI is currently probing the underground economy of basketball recruiting.
But Stephen’s case shines a light where it has rarely gone before in summer basketball: its potential for the sexual exploitation of boys.
“(Grassroots basketball) is an unregulated subculture,” said author George Dohrmann, who immersed himself in elite youth basketball for nearly a decade to write his 2010 bestselling book, “Play Their Hearts Out.”
“You have kids who are chasing a dream and see these (coaches) as the dream-makers,” he said. “So, my goodness, that is a really, really scary combination of factors.
“It creates an environment that is sort of ripe for this kind of thing.”
Stephen’s case has rocked Iowa’s basketball community. His Barnstormers program was the most influential in the state. Major Division I players filled its rosters — its 2018 class alone had three prospects ranked among the country’s top 100 — and it is among the nation’s best grassroots programs.
Since Stephen’s March arrest, the allegations against him have grown. He’s now accused of possessing sexual photos and videos of more than 100 Iowa boys and using phony Snapchat accounts to collect a number of those images. A handful of the program’s top talents have joined other clubs, and calls for reform are growing.
“Do I think this could be happening at other places?” Vaccaro said. “Without a doubt.”