NBA Vet and CBA Champ Sonny Weems Builds U.S. Youth Programs and Overseas Media Platform
LOS ANGELES -- For most American basketball players, moving from state to state comes with the territory—whether traveling with their AAU teams in high school, competing in college or changing teams in the NBA. Sonny Weems, though, has taken hoops nomadism to the next level.
Since playing for the Denver Nuggets (U.S.) and Toronto Raptors (Canada) in the NBA, with return stints in Phoenix and Philadelphia, the 32-year-old has competed professionally in Lithuania, Russia, Israel, Turkey and China, where he most recently won a CBA championship with the Guangdong Southern Tigers.
To Sonny, the 8,000-mile trek between Dongguan, China, and his hometown of West Memphis, Arkansas, is “temporary,” and doesn’t inhibit him from making a difference in his community on a daily basis. He began giving back seven years ago, with basketball camps and back-to-school giveaways for kids. Last year, he solidified his presence by officially establishing a non-profit organization.
“Sometimes you have to take matters in your own hands, so we started Weems World,” Sonny tells CloseUp360 over lunch in Malibu after returning from China.
The organization provides kids from kindergarten through 12th grade and their families with programs to improve reading skills, overcome obesity and encourage healthy eating habits, and teach financial literacy and the importance of charitable work.
“We’re equipping young leaders with the tools to success—enlightening, enhancing and empowering young kids intellectually,” Sonny says. “Growing up in the community, seeing that kids need that, you can't rely on the school system like you used to.”
This past May, Weems World held its Weems Readers event, which encouraged the importance of reading and donated more than 800 books to three local middle schools in the West Memphis area.
Coming up, Sonny and Weems World will host Family Jump Day for kids to enjoy bounce houses, popcorn and snow cones at a family-focused event. Later in July, he’ll put on Weems Week, a week full of basketball camps, a charity ball and a back-to-school backpack giveaway.
Sonny Weems returned this past spring from Dongguan with his first CBA championship and his fourth overall domestic league title earned over the course of his pro career. (David Chisholm)
Styled by Rocio Doyle, wearing a Stampd tee, hoodie and flannel; Amiri denim jeans; and Nike Air Max sneakers.
Growing up in the South, in a town of fewer than 25,000 people, Sonny learned to appreciate the simple life. As a kid, when he wasn’t playing basketball, he spent his days fishing with his grandfather on Horseshoe Lake—and still does when he goes back to Arkansas.
“I recently got back into it about a year and a half ago. My granddad just bought a new boat,” Sonny says. “It’s pretty dope. Go out there, sit out there all day catching catfish, tilapia, brim. Clean it, fry it and eat it.”
While at the University of Arkansas-Fort Smith, Sonny picked up another Southern pastime: hunting.
“I didn’t start until my freshman year at Fort Smith Arkansas,” he says. “We had a sponsor family that took care of the basketball guys while they were there. They used to hunt, so they kinda got me into hunting.”
With a season that runs from October into early May, the CBA’s schedule allows Sonny almost the same offseason as his NBA counterparts, to spend on the lake and work on his game. And while Dongguan is a long way from his American home, he actually enjoys living in China.
“I miss my family every now and again. But it's a great living over there,” he says. “It’s only for seven or eight months. It’s not bad. It’s temporary.”
Though it’s different from West Memphis, Dongguan has grown on Sonny. He appreciates the city’s efficiency now. Once known for manufacturing shoes, Dongguan has become a tech-focused metropolis between megacities Guangzhou and Shenzhen.
“They are really innovative,” he says. “They make everything convenient for their customers. Customer service is crazy. You do everything from your phone—everything. They make it real convenient.”
With a population of nine million people, Dongguan feels like “a well-oiled machine of organized chaos” to Sonny—so much so that he’s rarely seen so much as a streetlight unlit.
In his free time, Sonny enjoys going out to eat. With restaurants offering everything from Italian to Chinese, he hardly misses American food. In Dongguan, his favorite cuisine, however, is Thai.
“They have great food out there,” he says. “I don't eat that much Chinese food. I eat a lot of Thai food. Chicken basil. A lot of curries. Stuff like that.”
That all helped to fuel a strong season for Sonny, who averaged 23.1 points in 33.2 minutes per game to help the Southern Tigers earn their ninth CBA title—the most of any team in the league.
“It was amazing. Winning on any level is pretty awesome,” he says. “Winning in a different country, different parts of the world makes it even more special. A bunch of guys that have been a part of the basketball world, NBA and overseas, have traveled through that CBA pipeline.”
Tracy McGrady, Stephon Marbury, Gilbert Arenas and Metta World Peace are among the notable American players to have played in the CBA. Since 1995, the CBA has ignited an enormous basketball fanbase in China. Just like NBA enthusiasts in America, Chinese fans keep up with their CBA teams by attending games in person and following along online.
“They love it out there,” Sonny says. “Most of the games bring out a crowd. A lot of them been watching the NBA for a while, so basketball is really important over there.”
Though the language barrier has made it difficult for Sonny to communicate with his Chinese fans, that hasn’t stopped them from accepting him, let alone reaching out and interacting with him.
“They try to speak to me in English,” he says with a laugh. “They know I don't speak the language, so they try to say as much as they can in English.”
When there aren’t interpreters around, Sonny uses Google Translate to get by. With or without that technological assist, he insists he’s transitioned to China smoothly, thanks to his past experiences around the globe.
“The internet makes it easy to get around these days. After a while, you get used to dealing with different cultures, just learning to live abroad,” he says. “Once you get used to that, basketball is a universal language. When you’re around a bunch of guys who speak the language of basketball, it becomes pretty easy.”
Sonny is currently one of three Americans who speaks English on the Southern Tigers—one being his teammate, the other on the coaching staff—though he hopes to break through that barrier soon.
“I'm actually in the works of trying to learn Mandarin,” Sonny says. “I want to be able to communicate with my teammates, and learn their backgrounds and where they're from.”
After eight years of playing basketball abroad, Sonny feels confident living overseas. But that wasn’t always the case. During his first season in Europe, he went through an intense adjustment while playing for Lithuanian powerhouse Zalgiris Kaunas.
“It was culture shock. It’s like a village, but bigger,” he says. “Everything was really centered around basketball because Lithuanians love basketball, too.”
Sonny has lived alone overseas since he was 25 years old. He credits his experiences around the world for helping him mature as not only a basketball player, but also a man.
From food and language to weather and local customs, Sonny has learned to embrace foreign cultures. As long as he wanted to continue playing basketball, he knew he had to get comfortable with being uncomfortable in different environments around the world.
“You grow up a lot faster. You have a lot of time alone over there by yourself,” he says. “That was probably the biggest thing that I've learned versus actually growing up being in the states—living abroad alone. But there's a lot of opportunities over there that present itself to me, so I love it over there.”
Among those opportunities is a longing from basketball fans to share in the experiences of their favorite international players. That recognition led Sonny to his latest venture: Sonny Dayz Media, which is set to launch in September.
“We’re giving guys a platform to tell their story, tell that narrative of their life,” he says, “especially the guys who played over in Europe, overseas or anywhere abroad.”
Sonny will soon launch Sonny Dayz Media to help international players like himself tell stories about their lives abroad. (David Chisholm)
The inspiration behind Sonny Dayz Media came from encounters he’s had with fans and media who want to understand what life is like abroad for him. From general inquiries about what the country is like to questions about the food he eats on a daily basis, Sonny has heard it all.
“Like, even when I lived in Toronto, a guy asked me, 'Do you see polar bears?' In Toronto! People think that's a foreign country,” he says with a laugh. “There are people that just don't know.”
With his company, Sonny hopes to help build a stronger fanbase for basketball overseas and give existing fans a peek into their favorite players’ lives. The platform will launch primarily as a website consisting mostly of video content and still photography, along with commentary.
“Guys abroad have fanbases back home, so we want to let people know what's going on in their lives,” he says.
Sonny looks forward to sharing an inside look at international basketball. While an organization like Weems World is something that he has always wanted to build after growing up in West Memphis, he might never have thought to start a media platform for global hoopers had he not experienced playing abroad for himself.
“Of course, the NBA is the dream growing up,” he says. “But living abroad is a great space for me. It’s a great situation. I love it. It was different, but it all worked out.”