A different kind of full-court press

Facing lawsuits on both sides of the border, a Toronto hoopster finally pays up

A different kind of full-court press

Rocky Widner/NBA/Getty Images

After yet another dismal season on the basketball court (22-60, third-worst in the NBA), the Toronto Raptors have a long list of decisions to make. What to do with Clarence “Sonny” Weems is one of them. Although the high-flying forward struggled on defence and eventually lost his starting job, he still reached career highs in points (9.2 per game) and assists (1.8). Now a free agent in search of a new contract, the 24-year-old will soon find out whether the Raps want him back.

One thing, though, is already certain: wherever Weems plays next season, his entire salary will belong to him. Three years and three court judgments later, he finally paid back the thousands of dollars he borrowed from a former Canadian Football League all-star.

As Maclean’s reported last year, Weems quietly took advantage of a lucrative but little-known enterprise: companies that loan wads of cash to elite college athletes, on the condition that the money be repaid (with interest) as soon as the client inks a pro contract. In his case, the lender was Felix Wright, a one-time Hamilton Tiger-Cat who went on to play nine seasons in the NFL before dabbling in the financial services industry. Back in 2008, after a standout senior season at the University of Arkansas, Weems and Wright signed a contract of their own: a cash loan worth US$23,500 (at eight per cent interest) plus the use of a Ford Taurus—“all of which,” according to court documents, “was to be repaid and returned respectively when the said defendant was selected as a draft pick on a National Basketball Association team.”

That didn’t happen. After draft day, Weems reneged, forcing Felix Wright to file lawsuits on both sides of the border to recoup his dough. Only now, three full seasons into his NBA career, has Weems settled the account. “He made $900,000 last year,” says Morton Adelson, Wright’s Toronto lawyer. “Why he didn’t deal with this sooner, I don’t know.”

Weems spent his rookie campaign with the Denver Nuggets, and his stats (1.6 points per game, 0.3 rebounds) were as unimpressive as his debt repayment plan. He did return the Taurus—dented and scratched—but not the loan. In 2009, when Wright asked a Colorado judge to intervene, Weems didn’t even bother sending a lawyer to court.

Wright won a default judgment, including an order that compelled the Nuggets to garnishee Weems’s wages. But by the time the paperwork was filed, he had been traded again—first to Milwaukee, then to Toronto. Wright, who lives in Ohio, had no choice but to hire a Canadian lawyer and file a fresh lawsuit, this one demanding nearly US$35,000 in damages ($29,745 for the loan, plus interest; $2,250 for the car repairs; and $2,500 in legal fees). Again, Weems didn’t bother mounting a defence—and again, a default judgment was registered against him (the court settled on a figure close to US$26,000).

Shortly after the ruling, Weems was signed to a one-year US$854,000 contract with the Raptors, but he didn’t exactly jump at the chance to abide by the court’s decision. Wright’s lawyer had to secure a separate order that forced Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment (MLSE) to hand over 20 per cent of his paycheques until the loan was reimbursed. The first instalment arrived in June 2010.

That wasn’t the end of the court battle, however. In August, a lawyer for MLSE wrote to Wright’s attorney, saying the company “will take steps to ensure that Mr. Weems pays the full amount owing forthwith”—approximately $24,000—and if that wasn’t possible, “MLSE will itself make the payment and make its own arrangements with Mr. Weems.” Wright’s lawyer wrote back, pointing out that with interest, legal fees and the unpaid car repairs, the actual amount owing was nearly $37,000, not $24,000.

MLSE balked at the calculation, calling it “baseless and vexatious” and “far in excess of the amount actually owing under the judgment.” Both sides eventually settled on an acceptable figure (the exact amount isn’t disclosed in court documents), but yet again, the case wasn’t quite finished. In December, with the season now under way, Wright’s lawyers won a third default judgment, this one for $6,000 to cover the remaining legal fees and the still unpaid auto repair bill.

After another application to garnishee Weems’s wages, the final payment was recently forwarded to the Toronto sheriff’s office—the last stop on its way to Wright’s bank account. “They made me jump through hoops,” says Adelson, his lawyer. “But it’s almost over.”

Roger Montgomery, Weems’s agent, did not return a phone call from Maclean’s. His client, according to his Twitter account, is back home in Arkansas—“Chilling in West Memphis with the squad!!!!” and waiting for his next offer.

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