Wade worries about image

MIAMI -- Miami Heat guard Dwyane Wade is embroiled in a multimillion-dollar legal mess with former business partners that could prove costly for the NBA star.

A deal to open a restaurant chain -- D. Wade's Place -- which Wade and a friend, Marcus Andrews, hoped would go nationwide barely got off the ground. And now those former business associates claim Wade walked away from a binding contract.

"He's only hurting himself. It's become something it shouldn't have," said Richard von Houtman, one of Wade's ex-partners in the failed restaurant-and-memorabilia chain venture that once envisioned 40 locations. "It would have been phenomenal."

Wade, the NBA's leading scorer last season, is acutely aware of the impact his legal struggles could have on his future endorsement earnings.

"In my profession, your name and likeness is all people know about you. They don't know just the person," Wade said in a court deposition obtained by The Associated Press. "So, with that being said, with my name and likeness being dragged through everything ... there's already a hit on my brand and a hit to my name. That's not good."

Wade has also filed a $100 million libel lawsuit against von Houtman over e-mails his former partner sent to Heat president Pat Riley. Wade's brand, though, still seems to be strong: Earlier this month, he changed shoe companies, leaving Converse for Nike's Jumpman, the line made ultra-popular by Michael Jordan.

Dozens of people who signed up to work for the restaurant chain -- some abandoning promising careers -- were left out in the cold when it abruptly folded last year. Though Wade claims he is also a victim, many blame him.

"A lot of people got hurt. They believed in him," said Adam Mesmer, who was to be operations director and now runs a restaurant called Miami Prime Grill where a flagship D. Wade's Place had been poised to open. "We worked so hard to put something together."

All this comes as the 27-year-old Wade is going through a messy divorce from his wife, Siohvaughn, and an arbitration proceeding over claims that he improperly walked away from a Miami charter school for at-risk kids that was supposed to bear his name.

The grand restaurant venture began with T-shirts.

In 2007, von Houtman -- a wealthy British expatriate who says he is a German baron -- became acquainted with Wade's friend Andrews.

The original plan to market a line of T-shirts, according to von Houtman and court documents, quickly turned to talk of upscale, sports-themed restaurants that would sell all sorts of Wade memorabilia. Von Houtman brought in Mark Rodberg, who had experience in developing restaurants, and the two of them inked the D. Wade's Place deal with Wade and Andrews on Aug. 6, 2007.

Wade was to be paid $1 million as well as receive 10 percent ownership in the venture, with Andrews getting a 2 percent stake. The rest would go to von Houtman and Rodberg.

Wade's agent Henry Thomas -- who had worked with Wade on his Heat contract and endorsements for T-Mobile, Gatorade, Converse and others -- was not in on the deal.

"He was doing this in connection with Marcus and a group of friends that he had indicated to me that he wanted involved in his life to pursue different things," Thomas said in a court deposition.

As the deal progressed, Wade said in his deposition there was talk among the partners of the "Shaq component," bringing in another high-profile NBA star such as Shaquille O'Neal, who along with Wade had led the Heat to the 2006 NBA championship.

"They just wanted to get him involved, and wanted me to talk to him about getting him involved," Wade said in his deposition.

There was an incentive: Andrews gave Wade a suitcase from von Houtman with $100,000 in cash as a bonus for O'Neal. Wade said von Houtman also promised him another $100,000, so when O'Neal rejected the restaurant overture Wade kept the cash "like a sign-on bonus," Wade testified.

O'Neal's agent did not respond to email inquiries from the AP about this incident.

Two D. Wade's restaurants opened in early 2008 in Boca Raton and Fort Lauderdale, and remodeling work was proceeding on the largest location in North Miami Beach.

Soon however, the lawsuits against Wade claim he balked at making required appearances. Then, court papers say Wade and Andrews demanded their share in the restaurants be increased to 30 percent. The demands included Andrews seeking a salary of $75,000 per location and Wade's father, also named Dwyane, getting a job paying $50,000 a year.

With trouble brewing in the venture, Wade's agent Thomas said in court documents that Riley called him concerned about Wade. Thomas also recalled his own discussions with former Kentucky Gov. John Y. Brown -- who once ran Kentucky Fried Chicken and previously owned the NBA's Boston Celtics and the Kentucky Colonels of the ABA -- about Brown possibly taking a role in D. Wade's Place.

Thomas said Riley told him he had talked with the Browns at the 2008 Kentucky Derby.

In a telephone interview from Kentucky, Brown acknowledged interest in the D. Wade's Place concept but said it never went very far.

"I wasn't directly involved. I had an option to get involved," Brown told the AP. "Dwyane Wade is a fine young man, that's all I can say."

Not long after Thomas wrote to Wade's partners in July 2008 that he wanted nothing more to do with them, the lawsuits began flying.

There are two main lawsuits pending against Wade and Andrews. One claiming breach of contract seeks about $25 million in damages is scheduled to go to trial in January 2010. The other, claiming federal antitrust violations over the proposed Wade merchandise sales, demands about $90 million and is currently set to go to trial in September.

The antitrust case was filed by an entity controlled by Lauren Hollander, the sister of original Wade restaurant partner Rodberg. As relations between Wade and his partners soured, Rodberg and von Houtman in April 2008 transferred their 88 percent interest in D. Wade's Place to Hollander's firm.

Wade has filed a counterclaim seeking up to $50 million against his ex-partners as well as the libel lawsuit against von Houtman. Von Houtman has filed a counterclaim to the libel case, and his lawyer Bruce Fein contends it was Heat officials suggested that von Houtman bring concerns about Wade to Riley.