Coach Bernard Wright's talent trap
The team that jogged onto a Fort Lauderdale basketball court for the regional quarterfinal playoff wearing baggy silver and blue jerseys sure didn't look like a high school squad. Their center was 6'8". Four of their guards were over 6'5". The squad had reserves coming off the bench that were 6'6" or 6'7".
To Rick Medvin, head coach of the opposing Fort Lauderdale Christian High boys' squad — on which the tallest player was a 6'3" center — it must have felt like something from the Twilight Zone: "Attack of the Monsters From Miami." "All I remember is they were big," he says, sounding a bit dazed three years after that game in February 2008.
The intimidating team was from Choice Learning Academy, a two-year-old private school for 130 poor kids in grades 3 through 12. CLA was located in a building leased from a homeless shelter. Head coach Bernard Wright, a short, bulky man wearing a pressed dark suit, paced the sidelines and flailed like a miniature Rick Pitino.
In youth ball, height is everything. If you can dominate the boards, block shots, and bully your way to easy hoops, the game can quickly get ugly. That looming center, Joel Gierbolini, a long and lean senior baller freshly transferred from his native Puerto Rico, scored 18 points, dunked with ease, and sent four blocks flying. CLA demolished Lauderdale Christian by a score of 78-26 and moved on to the regional finals. With a win-loss record of 25-3, the Hoyas were used to being on the right side of beatdowns.
The Miami Herald was in love. The paper, which had named Gierbolini to its all-county team, said the 52-point pummeling "proved why [CLA] is the best Class 1A team in Miami-Dade or Broward counties." It published a fawning profile about Bernard Wright and his "disadvantaged" miracle squad.
But rival coaches weren't wearing blinders. In local high school circles, Wright's name has screamed recruiter — an outlawed occupation — for more than a decade. In 1998, this publication exposed him as the designated talent thief for a powerhouse Miami High squad that was stripped of a state championship. Wright trotted out rosters in consecutive years that were almost entirely composed of very tall seniors. That doesn't happen organically, especially when your high school population is about 50.
"Oh, I knew something was going on," Medvin says. "But you can't go to the FHSAA [Florida High School Athletic Association, the sport's governing body] unless you have something concrete."
Boca Raton's Grandview Prep finally eliminated CLA in the regional finals. The team finished one win from a state title game.
Bernard Wright was apparently emboldened. The next season, after the school had abruptly changed its name to Center of Life Academy, he unveiled a roster filled with giants from around the world. It was unlike anything ever seen in local high school sports.
There were three students from the Ivory Coast: center Jacques "Willy" Kouassi (6'10"), power forward Nonma Baru Adjehi (6'9"), and small forward Bernard Morena (6'7"). Center Ismaila Dauda (6'10") and small forward Paul Sati Gombwer (6'7") were from Nigeria.
There were two talented Bahamian natives — guards Brian Delancy and Edvardo Burrows — and a Dominican-born guard, Kelvyn Valdez.
As if by magic, Wright had also snagged Tony Mitchell, a 6'7" junior phenom freshly transferred from a Texas high school. The explosively fast Mitchell, who was already committed to Kansas State University, was on the shortlist of the best high school players in America.
In all, 11 of the 14 players on CLA's 2008-09 basketball roster exceeded 6'3". Eight of them were born, and lived until the year before, in foreign countries.
How Wright pulled it off is a tale of single-minded determination, even as the school he ran solely to achieve his basketball master plan fell into chaos.
He employed international scouts to lure foreign players with the promise of college scholarships, housed them in an Opa-locka home with little or no adult supervision, and had them fed and driven to and from school.
It was all completely against Florida athletic rules, which state that students cannot be poached from other schools — or countries — cannot live with coaches or boosters, and cannot be provided free services or meals. But FHSAA executive director Roger Dearing says this case goes beyond basketball: "To me, this is human smuggling."
Wright, age 52, is not fond of New Times, which has run exposés that have cost him two assistant coaching jobs. "Don't you ever fucking call this number again," he seethed over the phone after being contacted for this article. "You're a fucking scumbag, and if I ever fucking catch you near me, you're going to regret it. You better lose this fucking number."
The basketball court inside the Miami Rescue Mission's Community Activity Center was unspectacular but well maintained: hardwood floors, cleanly painted free-throw and three-point lines, and intact nets. The single set of bleachers could hold 200 fans squeezed armpit to armpit. Dust danced in the sunlight streaming from the high windows facing NW First Avenue between 20th and 21st streets, where drifters slouched against the wall outside.
Bernard Wright didn't see a gymnasium in a men's homeless shelter. He saw the stage for his own redemption.
Wright's resumé is that of a consummate hustler. Starting in 1986, he spent 21 years working off and on for various Florida state agencies involving children. He was a protective investigator, a family services counselor, and a juvenile probation officer. He was also the co-owner of an unlicensed nudie club that in 1999 saw him arrested for hiring ladies to dance naked in his Three Fingers Lounge, a slouch-and-sip package store in Liberty City. And he was a soldier, enlisting in the National Guard in July 2001 and serving as a reserve for eight years.
Wright, who wrestled and played football at Miami High, was betrayed by his 5'8" stature. He majored in criminal justice at Grambling State University, where — a bit of foreshadowing here — he failed Marriage and Family 402 and Deviant Behavior 412, according to transcripts he submitted with an application for a state job.
Wright has always been most confident on the sidelines of a playing field, where he commands respect like a drill sergeant. He coached the Bucktown Buccaneers, a semipro football team in Miami; became the assistant boys' basketball coach at Carol City High; and then scored the gig that would vault him to local notoriety. In 1993, Wright became the assistant coach, under Marcos "Shakey" Rodriguez, of the Miami High boys' basketball team, which won eight titles in 16 years but was dogged by rumors of recruiting.
In 1995, Shakey scored the men's basketball head coaching job at Florida International University and left Wright to assist a new coach, Frank Martin. Three years later, the Miami High Stingarees — packed with very tall transfer students and led by current NBA stars Udonis Haslem and Steve Blake — won yet another state championship. Then the ax fell.
New Times published an investigation exposing rampant recruiting violations on the title-winning squad. Haslem and Blake, among others, used fabricated home addresses or lived with coaches in violation of state regulations. Two inside sources claimed Wright had held a very specialized role: recruiter. "That was all he was supposed to do," said one. The other source added that he would make poaching trips to meet promising players within other schools' boundaries.
The FHSAA commissioner called it the most "blatant violation of... rules against recruiting that [he had] ever encountered." His association stripped Miami High of the championship. In the aftermath, Frank Martin was canned. Wright also left Miami High, returning to his old buddy Shakey's side as assistant coach at FIU.
Two years later, another New Times investigation rocked that team as well: Future NBA star Carlos Arroyo had punched a team manager in the face. There were dubious grade changes for student athletes. And Shakey had filled his coaching and playing ranks with old faces from the toxic 1998 Miami High squad. Shakey Rodriguez resigned. Wright was released.
It seems everybody but Wright moved on from the disgrace. Frank Martin rakes in $1.2 million a year coaching the Kansas State Wildcats. Shakey Rodriguez earns $70,000-plus at Krop High, where he's head coach of yet another dubious boys' basketball juggernaut.
But by 2005, when he first saw that basketball court in the Miami Rescue Mission, Wright was still out of coaching. Besides his National Guard money, he was making $28,000 a year keeping tabs on juvenile delinquents' whereabouts. He had been divorced four times. In Richard Burton-esque fashion, three of those failed marriages were with the same woman, named Jacqueline. Wright fathered several children and lived in a small unit in a dingy Hialeah apartment building.
So he must have sensed a coup when he got involved in a new academy being planted in the Miami Rescue Mission by administrators who shared Wright's unique educational vision.
In those early days, the school was called Choice Learning Academy North. Classes were held in a cluster of small rooms on the same floor as the basketball court inside the pastel-colored building. From the beginning, it attracted students from Miami's most hardscrabble neighborhoods, many of them from broken homes. They were kids like 17-year-old Danielle Wooden, who lived with five other children and an aunt not far from the school, until one night she was found dead on a nearby loading dock. Or 16-year-old Byron Curry, who in January 2007 was charged with murder after he and friends pushed a man under the wheels of a county bus during a botched robbery.
The school was an outpost of Choice Preparatory School, a tiny, nomadic academy constantly changing locations in South Miami-Dade and founded by Antron Wright (no relation), a pariah on the local youth sports scene. The former pro football player had been banned from at least one high school campus, the New York Times reported in 2005, for poaching its players for "storefront academies" — fly-by-night "diploma mills" designed to gain playing eligibility for academically struggling athletes.
(Antron, who today runs Choice Prep out of a park recreational building in Goulds, says he's interested only in "educating poor children," distances himself from CLA, and says of Bernard Wright: "I don't like the motherfucker.")
The new school's founder was Christopher Sweeting, an AT&T technician and vice president of local Christian rap label Lockedown Entertainment. Sweeting sometimes liked to roar up to the homeless shelter in his souped-up Chevy Impala, which he outfitted with giant rims. By all accounts, Sweeting soon bequeathed daily operations to his wife Rushae, listed on the school's spare website as its administrative director.
Wright was made head basketball coach. He also scored a couple of new titles: principal and director. Unfettered by background checks, he handpicked old friends for his coaching staff.
Jerome Duane Smith — whom everybody called "J" — was a small, gopher-looking fellow and Wright's twin when it came to lofty basketball aspirations. They cofounded two organizations, neither of which appears to have come to any fruition — Northwest Youth Management and South Florida Hall of Fame — and Smith filed papers for a nonprofit called the CLA Booster Club. "Basketball was J's get-rich-quick scheme," says former CLA athletic director Derrick "Hevy" Williams, an enormous, round-bellied man who wears an Africa pendant. "He had a dream to set up a youth basketball league all around the country."
Wright and Smith's companies were registered to Smith's mother's house in Miami Gardens, unbeknownst to her. Mom's reaction when a reporter showed her the incorporation records: "Oh, hell no!"
The rest of the coaching staff was a motley bunch, all searching for their break. Thaddeus Ambrose was one of the basketball players deemed ineligible from that 1998 Miami High team, when he was a senior. Devell King was a full-time garbage collector with a criminal record including battery and vehicle title fraud, who while employed by CLA in 2008 allegedly assaulted a cop whose squad car was blocking his rubbish truck. Charles Jackson was a 320-pound, down-on-his-luck former Los Angeles Raider who slept at the men's homeless shelter when his mom wouldn't have him.
With his ragtag army assembled, Wright got to work. CLA's yearly win-loss records and rosters indicate a crescendo of ambition. In the 2006-07 season, the team was composed mostly of local students and finished a very respectable 16-5. The next year, Wright picked up a handful of Puerto Rican ringers, including Gierboli, and finished a game out of the state finals.
Puerto Rican students don't require student visas, known as I-20s, to play in the States. Before the 2008-09 season, Wright and Smith — whom Derrick Williams calls "the I-20 man" — decided to no longer be limited by U.S. territories. "They were greedy," Williams says, rubbing his palms together as if in simulation. "After the team did so well in 2008, they were like, 'Let's get it popping with the overseas players.'"
But even before such popping commenced, Sheldon Brown smelled a rat. In August 2007, the then-32-year-old educator was hired as the school's head teacher for $28,000 a year. He also taught night classes and coached track. Brown, who taught previously in Broward and Miami-Dade public schools, is short, trim, and normally soft-spoken. But, as CLA administrators would learn, he's prone to vengeance. "I always told them," he says, "you're going to be hearing from Mr. Brown."
Roughly 85 percent of the students at CLA, including his niece, were there on state learning-disability grants known as McKay and Florida PRIDE Scholarships, Brown says. The teacher knew the school was receiving as much as $3,000 per month for each kid's tuition and, with 130 students enrolled, had more than enough cash for proper supplies. But the school had taken to purchasing outdated textbooks from a book depot for as little as a dollar each.
Brown approached Rushae Sweeting. "The state's giving us money to buy these kids' new books," he told her. "Why don't we use it?" But, says Brown, "she didn't want to hear it."
Within two months of his hiring, a schoolhouse Bay of Pigs broke out between Brown and Sweeting, full of lobbed insults, questionable court filings, and eventually a bombshell.
The battle featured publicly recorded accusations from both of them: She called him "gay" in front of students and colleagues and said he went to a "gay nightclub" and "acted like a girl." Brown responded by showing up at her office with his wife and telling Sweeting: "I got something for you." After asserting his heterosexuality, he filed a discrimination complaint with the EEOC, arguing he was being treated badly for being male. Sweeting fired him a week later, on November 5. (Her reason: "ineffective job performance.") He stalked her at work and on the phone, at one point vowing, "Bitch, you're going to get yours, and I promise you that."
Brown filed a lawsuit, which was confidentially settled, for violating his one-year teaching contract and slandering him on the public record. And on November 9, he sent a tip to the Florida Department of Education (DOE) containing detailed information about how the school was fleecing the state: When students on learning-disability scholarships dropped out or transferred, CLA's administrators simply doctored attendance records in order to continue receiving state cash.
The agency eventually substantiated the claims of fraud, pinpointing three students for whom tuition was collected from the state long after they were gone. The school had raked in $2,800 a month for several months after one student dropped out. Another was enrolled at CLA for exactly a day before enrolling in a public school, yet the academy still pocketed $2,959 for the entire month.
The caper was accomplished through forgery. The DOE investigator found eight cases in which guardians claimed they hadn't seen scholarship documents or attendance cards where their signatures appeared. The signatures were often scrawled in three different handwriting styles over the months, the investigator discovered, implying that several administrators were in on the scheme.
Because many of the parents and students with "questionable attendance and payment records" couldn't be reached by the DOE, the agency was able to prove only that the school swindled $14,415. CLA's lawyer, German Morales, wrote that the school was "appalled" and denied any wrongdoing, but offered to return that amount in six monthly installments. The DOE accepted.
Meanwhile, Christopher Sweeting had quietly incorporated a new name with the same initials: the Center of Life Academy.
Though no administrator was implicated as orchestrating the fraud, Bernard Wright was the only person named directly in the DOE's investigative report.
In June 2007, he and athletic director Derrick Williams founded a nonprofit together. It shared an address — 2025 NW First Ave. — with CLA. The Urban Youth Foundation, Williams says, was supposed to "provide boxing, fishing trips, tutoring — all that good stuff" for local hard-knocks kids, many of them from the school.
Before the 2008 Marlins baseball season, Wright and Williams struck a deal with the Boston Culinary Group, the company handling concessions for what was then known as Dolphin Stadium: Urban Youth's kids would help sell food at baseball games, and their wages would go toward "camping trips," Williams says. That didn't work out so well.
On June 17, Boston Culinary's nonprofit manager, Andre Beneses, wrote a formal letter to Williams, citing "well over $8,000 in shortages since mid-April." Wright had been supervising the kids at the stadium. "The shortages are a result [of] either individual cash register members taking money or the group leader himself taking money." Beneses spread the word about the theft. The Urban Youth Foundation "would never be able to fundraise in stadiums or arenas in Dade, Broward, and Palm Beach."
(Reached by phone, Beneses told New Times: "I'm not permitted to comment on that.")
Williams says he doesn't know whether Wright took the money. But he's pissed. "He fucked up my nonprofit," he mutters matter-of-factly, shoveling mustard with a piece of chicken at a North Miami Beach Pollo Tropical and then chewing it. "The taste of shit don't sit easy in my mouth."
But Bernard Wright seems at home in such chaos. Sheldon Brown claims he went to Principal Wright several times with concerns about state scholarship money and his escalating feud with Rushae Sweeting. Wright seemed uninterested, Brown says. "He was always, 'I really don't have time for that; you handle it.'"
But when Brown failed a basketball player who was "selling drugs and coming to class high," the teacher says, he saw Wright come alive. "That made Bernard very upset."
Brown claims that more than once, he discovered grades had been changed to fit the school's needs — presumably to keep tuition coming in and sports talent passing. "He had no discipline," Brown says of Wright. "But when it came to basketball, he was a different person. He demanded respect. That's why the school had so many problems. The only thing he cared about was basketball."
In fall 2008, a Serbian high school senior took the long flight to Miami. He was headed, he believed, to a prestigious upstart academy where he would play basketball and get a scholarship to a top American college like Kansas State or Duke. Though the kid's parents paid for the plane ticket, his tuition in Miami was comped. "There was a scholarship or something," Serbian basketball scout Mihailo "Mike" Vidovic recalls. Vidovic had arranged for the transfer after Jerome Smith and Bernard Wright emailed him.
If Lubomir "LJ" Rustic expected ivy-covered school buildings and a clean dorm room, he was rudely awakened. He was shuttled to a house "in a really tough neighborhood," Vidovic recalls over the phone from Serbia. There he met his ceiling-scraping roommates, who greeted him in halting English. Says Vidovic: "There were so many kids and no adults."
One of those roomies was Kelvyn Valdez, who had just flown from his native Dominican Republic. Valdez was playing ball in Santo Domingo when a man approached "and said [he] could get a scholarship" to college, he explains on the phone from Iowa City, where he now attends Indian Hills Community College. Valdez claims the man, named Julio Subero, boasted of connections to the University of Miami and North Carolina University.
That's a surprisingly boldface name. At the time, Dominican-born Julio Subero was president of the International Basketball Federation (FIBA), a global governing body for basketball. He resigned in 2009. Subero did not respond to multiple messages requesting comment.
Valdez recalls the house was a three-bedroom in Opa-locka. Though neither Valdez nor Vidovic names the other roommates, they were presumably of the crop of basketball players Wright and Smith imported that fall: Ivory Coast natives Jacques "Willy" Kouassi, Bernard Morena, and Ismaila Dauda, and Nigerian Paul Sati Gombwer.
Coaches brought them food, Valdez says. There was an adult living with them, but Valdez can't remember the man's name.
The living situation freaked out the Serbian kid, says Vidovic. LJ complained to his parents, who set him up with compatriots living in South Beach. Once there, he claimed he was injured and refused to go to school.
On October 6, Smith sent a testy email to the Serbian scout. He copied Bernard Wright, Derrick Williams, and Christopher Sweeting on the typo-laden message. "Mike, LJ is my responsibility and if he doesn't show the effort that needed for school I will have no choice but to suspend his I-20 visa," Smith wrote. "LJ needs to come to school, attend practices, and let us prepare him for the next level. To make matters worst I don't have a way of getting in touch with the people he is staying with or him. I have no problem releasing him from the I-20 status, but as you know if anything happen to him it would be your responsibility not mind."
LJ returned to Serbia within a month of arriving in Miami. "It was a disaster," Vidovic says. "The thing that surprises me the most is that somehow these guys were allowed to run a school."
That the international ballplayers lived in a house together was an open secret. Charles Jackson — the semihomeless ex-Raider — says he recalls Jerome Smith shuttling the kids to and from school. Sheldon Brown remembers they had a "special van" for the purpose. Derrick Williams says he heard about the house but was willfully ignorant: "I didn't want nothing to do with any of that."
Before his international dream team hit the court in fall 2008, Bernard Wright took CLA "independent." While the squad would still be under FHSAA rule, it couldn't participate in the playoffs. This might have signaled Wright's shifting priorities: Cleaning up in profile-building regional and national tournaments was more important than making the local playoffs. CLA had become a big-time talent funnel to Division 1 colleges.
The team won the prestigious A-Rod Basketball Classic that December and the 20-team South Florida MLK Classic the next month. CLA finished with a 12-8 record that year.
But that summer, Wright's reign finally succumbed to CLA's signature anarchy. In August 2009, Christopher Sweeting filed suit against Derrick Williams and registrar Sophia Roberts. He claimed the pair was sabotaging the school, making strategic "derogatory comments" about the Sweetings, and stealing information in order to start their own outfit, called Global Academy.
The suit was eventually settled out of court. Williams admits they were planning on opening a school in the Little Haiti Cultural Center. He says Wright was in on the idea, which fell through when a principal investor, who "it turns out was a crackhead," didn't come through with start-up cash.
Wright wasn't named in the lawsuit. But the Sweetings terminated him in early August 2009 as the suit was filed. "Ey Coach B really messed up," star guard Tony Mitchell wrote on his Facebook page August 3. "He got fired from CLA."
In the aftermath, Wright's former phenoms have fanned out to top high school and college programs across the nation, where they've been haunted by dubious transcripts and eligibility concerns. Bahamian native Brian Delancy ended up playing for Krop High under Shakey Rodriguez. The team — subsequently discovered by this publication to have several students, including Delancy, registered at bogus addresses — was ranked first in the state but disqualified due to problems with Delancy's immigration paperwork.
NBA hopeful Mitchell, committed to Kansas State and then the University of Missouri, was deemed ineligible by the NCAA due to problems stemming from his CLA transcripts. He's a member of the University of North Texas Mean Green, which plays in a more lenient conference. Mitchell, who ignored an interview request, has made his feelings clear on Facebook: "CLA messed all us up for real."
African big men Willy Kouassi and Bernard Morena ended up at Central Park Christian High in Birmingham, Alabama, and both plan to play for Auburn University next year. According to a July 2010 Birmingham News article, they now live with a youth basketball coach named Darien Knox.
A News reporter attempted to reach Wright for that story. Wright, via text message, claimed he was in Afghanistan with the National Guard and declined to comment.
But if Wright was in the Middle East, he bought his own plane ticket. According to his Army personnel file, he received an honorable discharge in July 2009, a full year earlier.
On a recent visit to Center of Life Academy, New Times is greeted by Rushae Sweeting, who giggles vacantly when asked about Bernard Wright. "You've done your research!" she says several times and deflects questions to current athletic director Caryl Buchannan.
"The school's changed a lot," Buchannan says. "They are now students first and athletes second."
Christopher Sweeting, who is now listed on the school's website as executive director, ignored emails and calls to his cell phone for comment. He also didn't respond to a note left on the door of the Sweetings' Miami Gardens home.
In December 2010, Wright and a Goulds pastor, Mark Coats, filed papers incorporating Grace Christian Preparatory Inc. The address given — 11000 SW 216th St. — is that of Coats's church, Grace of God Baptist Church. One of the few pages set up on the school's website ("Home of the Lions," one banner announces) tells parents how to apply for a McKay Scholarship.
On a recent weekday, small children wearing loose-fitting neckties mill about the tiny church building with little supervision while munching sandwiches. In a back office, Sophia Roberts — formerly of CLA — says Wright isn't there and she doesn't know when he'll be back. Wide-eyed and narrow-faced, she seems miserably eager to return to her microwaved lunch.
Pastor Coats later explains Grace Christian has 50 kids in grades one through 12, but he hopes that number will expand. He's unconcerned with Wright's past. "I find him to be a reputable young man," the 48-year-old Coats says. "He's a product of the inner city who went off to college and made something of himself."
The school doesn't have sports yet, says Coats. "I'm sure we'll get to that down the line."
But basketball hoop posts stand in the church parking lot, with backboards stashed near the door for quick access. It appears Wright has been getting his games in.
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