CONCORD, N.C. -- A Super Bowl champion hoped for a business victory on the hardwood in Cabarrus County. But in the end, it was a big fumble that left taxpayers footing some of the bill.
Dwayne Woodruff was the celebrity face behind a minor league basketball flop and partly responsible for a debt taxpayers had to suck up.
Basketball in the Cabarrus arena was going to be a big deal with a new minor league team called the “Carolina Thunder” was hoping for a slam dunk opportunity in 2004.
The I-Team asked Cabarrus County Manager Mike Downs if the minor league team was set to be a good thing?
“Oh yeah, everybody was excited about it,” said Downs.
Downs was negotiating with the new “Carolina Thunder” ABA team which was billed as a win-win for everyone. Team owner’s Tony Priscaro and Dwayne Woodruff say they had high hopes and good intentions.
Dwayne Woodruff’s name might ring a bell to you football fans. Number 49 was awesome in the left corner. A sixth round draft pick in 1979, he was a defensive back who played 11 seasons for the Pittsburgh Steelers and helped the “Steel City” win a Super Bowl victory over the Rams in 1980.
But the Carolina Thunder was less than super. The team only played five games in the Cabarrus Arena, and what was a budding basketball business relationship soon turned into a flurry of emails to the team’s owners from Cabarrus County asking both Woodruff and Priscaro to “show me the money”.
“Part of the agreement was that there would be a letter of credit in place to cover so they could accrue some expenses so they could pay them back on a weekly or monthly basis instead of after every game,” said Mike Downs.
The NewsChannel 36 I-Team obtained emails from Cabarrus County to both Woodruff and his partner asking for the money they owed so the team could continue to play in the arena.
Woodruff wrote back saying, “I am working on getting the letter of credit to you ASAP. The holdup thus far is our company being a new entity. I may have to put up some additional collateral personally to get the deal done, something I have been trying to avoid.”
But after months of emails to Thunder partners, Cabarrus called a foul and kicked the Thunder to the curb, forcing them to play in dimly lit gyms with few people watching or caring. The Thunder’s debt for five games in Cabarrus Arena totaled $18,152.00 and still hasn’t been paid.
“We pursued the payment of those first two or three games with a lack of response. It got to five games, and finally with no payment to date, we closed them down and did not allow them back in the facility,” said Downs.
The lights went out on the Carolina Thunder and life went on for the team’s owners. Priscaro got another job in marketing here in the south and told me the Thunder was a “big financial mess.”
Former Steeler Dwayne Woodruff took a different and more public path.
After his career with the Pittsburgh Steelers ended, Dwayne Woodruff stayed in Pittsburgh, where he went to law school and then became Judge Dwayne Woodruff and sits on the bench still today.
Judge Woodruff has his hands in many charitable organizations, but in 1999 records show he ran into trouble with the state of Pennsylvania, when it shut down his golf classic because he didn’t register it as a charity. Two years later in 2001 the state fined him $2,000 for holding it again despite their order to shut it down.
Our news partner in Pittsburgh asked Woodruff about the Thunder’s unpaid debt.
Mike Parsons of WTAE-TV asked “can we talk to you about the Carolina Thunder?”
“Nope, I emailed you all the information and I have nothing else to say,” said Judge Woodruff.
Judge Woodruff sent the I-Team that email saying, “As I understand it was all based on the success of the team. All expenses were paid first out of any proceeds and it should be noted that Tony or I never received any monies at any time, even though I flew there at least twice and covered a lot of other expenses that had to be handled right away such as phones, etc. We were all in this hoping for success as with any business deal. The company did not work out and was closed. We all lost monies which happens from time to time. As for their debt, it is to be handled the same as I, Tony, and a number of other individuals and organizations across the country, that being as a write off as with any other failed venture.”
Woodruff’s partner in the Carolina Thunder, Priscaro, said the team never signed a lease with the County, so they don’t owe anything.
The I-Team asked County Manager Downs if that was standard operating procedure to not sign the lease before game one?
“Typically it’s not, but it was a brand new facility and again, we thought we were working with credible business partners at the time,” said Downs.
The Carolina Thunder went silent. The unpaid debt of $18,152 landed in the lap of the taxpayers in Cabarrus County.
Downs said it just doesn’t make good financial sense to go after the former Carolina Thunder because the cost of litigation wouldn’t be worth it.
The Carolina Thunder was under the corporation “TD-Hoops”. The state of North Carolina officially dissolved “TD-Hoops” on August 25, 2010 because the company didn’t file any annual reports, which is required.