Smaller tournament, smaller ego easier to manage

The narrow walkway that separates bleachers from court is less congested now, which goes to the fact those billboard-clad college coaches no longer must stop and genuflect. It must make this recruiting business much easier when you can disregard the part about paying homage to the man who built summer prep basketball here into a massive industry.

Kissing the godfather's ring is a thing of the past. Now all coaches have to worry about is continuing to kiss the behinds of teenagers with egos far bigger than their games.

That part, mind you, never will change.

So this is what the monster looks like without its head. It's smaller. Less ferocious. Not as imposing.

Which side of the fence you sat on when discussing Sonny Vaccaro didn't matter. The man always had this way of supplying a certain buzz. He attracted attention like the letters AAU do horrible shot selection.

High school basketball and Las Vegas in July routinely has been applauded for its size and often demeaned for its bottom line. You either concur with the theory amateur basketball supports players or that it exploits them. For the last 12 years, Vaccaro and his Big Time Tournament often existed squarely in the eye of such a stormy debate.

That's over for now. Vaccaro retired from the business -- taking the Big Time name with him -- and left Reebok to chart a new summer course by trying to discover if one proven formula could succeed without its inventor, if the event was truly bigger than he who created it.

"Sonny was at this 40 years," said Chris Rivers, executive director of the Reebok Summer Championships. "He was the lead singer, the guy who was at his best when the lights came on."

Rivers worked under Vaccaro since 1999, traveling and making contacts and scouting potential teams for the summer. He was the one often plodding through thick pasture known as grass-roots basketball, hoping to find the next superstar hidden among the brush. Rivers pushed the product to a certain point. Vaccaro then closed the deals.

It was bound to be different, and in the case of Reebok this week, that meant smaller. The tournament went from being played at 12 schools and offering 304 teams and 755 games last year to eight schools and 224 teams for 555 games this one. Vaccaro walked away, and the company momentarily fell behind in the incredibly competitive summer basketball craze.

"I don't regret leaving at all," Vaccaro said by telephone Thursday. "I made the decision about this and never looked back. I was in Las Vegas for the (Team USA) minicamp, and that was it. I haven't seen one summer league game. I do miss the kids, though."

They are, after all, the ones who create excitement. Belmont Shore (Calif.) beat Team Breakdown (Fla.) 78-73 in overtime of this year's Open final at Foothill High on Thursday, and watching Arizona recruit Brandon Jennings force two minutes of extra time by making a 3-pointer for Belmont at the buzzer of regulation was no less thrilling than anything Kevin Love and O.J. Mayo generated last year.

It probably will stay this way for Reebok, a cutoff of 224 entries. Makes it a cleaner bracket. Makes it a smoother tournament. Makes it possible for staff to get home before midnight.

"The other two summer tournaments in town (Nike and adidas) do a great job," said Rivers, 39. "There are plenty of ways for teams that want to come here and participate. Sonny spearheaded a mission of our event getting the best kids every year, and we did that. But when he left, we had to figure out what our direction would be.

"I really haven't earned the right within the industry to be a front person. I represent Reebok and the kids. This isn't about me."

Issues surfaced with coaches erupting at officials this week, taken to the pathetic extreme of security escorting officials out of gymnasiums, hardly a surprise when you consider some who direct these AAU programs are ridiculously delusional about their ability to properly instruct.

When these moments arose, Rivers handled them as he thought someone else might.

"The one thing Sonny and (his wife) Pam did was always treat people the right way, not as tournament directors or as a corporation, but on a personal level," Rivers said. "I want people to feel good about being here."

There is no ring to kiss now. There is no logjam along the narrow walkway.

But that doesn't mean AS -- after Sonny -- should be followed by RIP.

Ed Graney can be reached at 383-4618 or