Courting trouble

‘Sonny’ Weems got a loan in college from an ex-CFL star who’s chased him from one town to the next

Clarence “Sonny” Weems is no Chris Bosh. He’s not going to pour in 24 points a game, or have his initials stitched on a pair of Nike basketball sneakers. A face of the franchise he is certainly not. But last season, when the Toronto Raptors were a pitiful bunch to watch, Weems was a welcome dose of hustle and heart. The once-perennial benchwarmer—already traded three times in his two-year NBA career—played with such passion down the stretch that he not only cracked the starting lineup, he earned himself a nice raise. Next season, his salary will top US$850,000.

Which is also great news for Felix Wright, a former Canadian Football League star. Maybe now—after lawsuits on both sides of the border, and a recent judgment from an Ontario court—Weems will finally pay back the $35,000 he owes him.

Until now, the 24-year-old’s rising debt load remained a private matter. But according to court documents obtained by Maclean’s, Sonny Weems finds himself on the wrong end of a lucrative but little-known sports enterprise: companies that dish out loans to hot-shot college athletes. And unless Weems finally coughs up the cash to cover his IOU, his legal problems threaten to drag his employer, Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment (MLSE), into court with him. “Mr. Weems is doing nothing,” said Morton Adelson, Felix Wright’s Toronto lawyer. “I’m now going after the Raptors. They can be liable for everything.”

To the modern-day sports fan, Felix Wright is no more of a household name than Sonny Weems. But in the mid-1980s, when he was a defensive back for the Hamilton Tiger-Cats, the Drake University product was among the CFL’s best players, earning an all-star nod in 1984 and famously intercepting two passes in the Grey Cup game that year. The following season, he signed with the Cleveland Browns, the beginning of a long NFL career as a strong safety that included a league-leading nine interceptions in 1989.

After hanging up his helmet, Wright dabbled in real estate and opened a mortgage firm, but it wasn’t long before he found his niche. Working for Datatex Sports Management, a St. Louis company, he arranged millions of dollars’ worth of car leases and lines of credit—at eight per cent interest—for hundreds of elite college prospects bound for the pros. The business model was simple enough: when an athlete signs his first contract, he pays back the cash. As Wright told Sports Illustrated in 2003: “You’ve got to help these guys before they help you.”

A year later, Wright launched his own financial services company out of his home in Westlake, Ohio, an upscale suburb of Cleveland. He called it Sports Trust. According to the statement of claim filed in Ontario Superior Court, one of his eventual clients would be Sonny Weems, then a six-foot-six standout with the University of Arkansas.

By that point, Weems was already a local legend. After two years at a junior college—where he was repeatedly ranked as the number one player in the nation—he joined the Razorbacks for his final two seasons of eligibility. In his senior year, he averaged 15 points a game, led the squad to a first-round March Madness upset against Indiana, and soared his way to the college slam dunk championship at the Final Four.

An obvious lock for the 2008 NBA entry draft, Weems signed up for the kind of deal that Wright had arranged countless times: a cash loan worth US$23,500 (at the standard eight per cent interest) plus the use of a 2007 Ford Taurus—“all of which,” according to the statement of claim, “was to be repaid and returned respectively when the said defendant was selected as a draft pick on a National Basketball Association team.”

Weems was chosen 39th overall by the Chicago Bulls, and then promptly traded to the Denver Nuggets, where he averaged an underwhelming 1.6 points and 0.3 rebounds per game in his rookie campaign. Equally underwhelming was his debt repayment plan. Weems returned the Ford Taurus, but according to Wright’s lawsuit, the car came back damaged. Later, when Wright filed his first lawsuit in a Colorado court, Weems didn’t even bother mounting a defence

As the 2009 season wound down (with Weems watching from the Denver bench), the court granted a default judgment against him, paving the way for Wright to have his wages garnished by the Nuggets. But by the time his U.S. lawyer filed the necessary paperwork, it was too late. Weems had been traded—first to the Milwaukee Bucks, and then a few weeks later to the Raptors.

So, in February, the legal process started over. Adelson, Wright’s Canadian lawyer, filed a fresh complaint in Toronto, demanding nearly $35,000 in damages ($29,745.16 for the loan, plus interest; $2,250.16 for the car repairs; and $2,500 for legal fees). “The plaintiff states and the fact is that there has been no repayment of the principal sum in the amount of $23,500.00 plus eight per cent interest,” the claim states. “Nor has there been any payment of costs as ordered by the Colorado State Court.”

Yet again, Weems failed to file a defence—leaving the court little choice but to grant another default judgment, this one worth more than $26,000. In the eyes of the law, No. 24 is now officially in arrears.

What happens next is still unclear. Adelson has filed a “notice of garnishment” against MLSE, demanding that the Raptors hand over a portion of Weems’s paycheques. The company, however, has yet to respond. “It’s a personal matter unrelated to his player duties, so we’re not going to comment on it,” said Jamie Deans, a spokesman for MLSE. “He’s a player, and it’s a personal matter.” (Maclean’s left messages with Weems’s lawyer in California and his management company, but neither was returned.)

As for Felix Wright, he isn’t talking, either. But his lawyer’s message is clear: unless MLSE promises to fork over a chunk of Weems’s salary, he will see the company in court, too. “This is pocket change,” Adelson says. “In one or two paycheques, this thing is paid off.”