IS THIS THE MOST POWERFUL MAN IN SPORTS?
In the NBA, all roads lead to one man, whom you’ve probably never heard of: William Wesley—a.k.a. Worldwide Wes—the most connected, most discreet, most influential man on and off the court
Auburn Hills, Michigan, November 2004. William Wesley, a middle-aged mortgage broker, runs onto the court to shield Ron Artest from a uniformed police officer wielding a can of pepper spray. Artest’s teammates are trading haymakers with fans; coaches and referees are struggling to restore order. The mortgage broker lunges forward and throws his hands in the cop’s face, and in the next instant, Pacers teammates Austin Croshere and Reggie Miller rush to restrain Artest. Through a tempest of tossed soda and popcorn, Wesley moves on to shepherding the Pacers’ Jermaine O’Neal on the court. Once in the tunnel, O’Neal breaks free, but Wesley wraps him in a bear hug and drags him to the locker room.
Two years later, when I ask Reggie Miller about Wesley’s presence on the court, he’ll say: “What the hell is he doing out there in the middle of all that? I mean, what is he doing? He has no business out there! He injects himself into the middle of everything!”
Others weren’t quite so surprised to see William Wesley—or Wes, as he’s known—in the middle of the fray. “At any given time, if you look at any sporting event, there’s a very good chance you’re going to see Wes,” says NBA analyst David Aldridge. Over the years, Wes has been spotted hugging Jerry Jones on the field after a Cowboys Super Bowl win, high-fiving University of Miami football players after a national championship win, and embracing Joe Dumars after the Pistons won the NBA Finals. He’s been spotted sitting next to Jay-Z at the NBA All-Star Game, with Nike czar Phil Knight at the Final Four, and trolling the sidelines of Team USA practices in Las Vegas and Japan. “People who really know Wes,” says superagent David Falk, Wes’s longtime friend, “know that he’s one of the two or three most powerful people in the sport.”
In his March 2005 ESPN “Page 2” column, the well-known basketball writer Scoop Jackson wrote, “I believe Phil Knight is the most powerful man in sports next to Wes Wesley.” Eight months after Jackson’s column, New Jersey-based basketball journalist Henry Abbott mounted an obsessive open-source investigation on his blog, TrueHoop, that brilliantly illustrated how, if you look closely at the various forces at work in basketball at every level of the sport—the AAU programs that funnel players to college programs, the agents looking to land players as early as NBA rules allow, the shoe companies, coaches, franchise owners, front-office executives, players—it eventually dawns on you that they have one thing in common: William Wesley.
So why have you never heard of him? Whenever I told journalists, players, agents, and NBA executives the subject of this article, the common reaction was an amused chuckle and then “Good luck.” Very few people, even Wes’s friends, are able to describe his role. Chicago Sun-Times writer Lacy Banks recalls his confusion upon meeting Wes twenty years ago: “I thought he worked for the Secret Service or the FBI or the CIA. Then I thought he was a pimp, providing players with chicks, or a loan shark or a bodyguard or a vice commissioner to the league.” The few people who know what Wes is really up to aren’t talking. And that’s the way Wes likes it.
Many of the stories circulating about Wes are sensationalistic: He was a guest at Frank Sinatra’s funeral. He worked as an operative for his close friends Bill and Hillary Clinton. Spike Lee is planning a movie about his life. Of all the rumors, the movie seems to make the most sense, because the story of how William Sydney Wesley, the child of a middle-class family from southern New Jersey, turned himself into Worldwide Wes is such a perfect realization of the modern American dream—full of old-fashioned wheel-greasing, hustling, and social climbing—that it feels like it was written for the big screen.
The story begins in the early 1980s at Pro Shoes, a lunchbox-sized store in Cherry Hill, New Jersey, that serviced hoops stars from all over the Delaware River Valley—from local high school stars to 76ers like Darryl Dawkins and Doug Collins. William Wesley, age 16, was the preternaturally suave salesman who knew all about the clientele. He knew the pro players from TV, and he knew the high schoolers from bumping shoulders with them on the court—there was Leon Rose, the crafty point guard from Cherry Hill East, and those two juggernauts from Camden named Billy Thompson and Milt Wagner.
“Wes was my best friend,” Wagner says. “My whole career, he followed me everywhere I went.”
In 1981, Milt headed to Louisville, where he made three trips to the Final Four and won a national championship. In 1987, when Milt went on to the Los Angeles Lakers, Wes was there, too, taking it all in, learning that young men, as they make the transition from college to the NBA, have needs. “If a player needs a custom-clothing designer, Wes can help you with that,” Banks says. “Need a hairstylist who knows how to do complicated cornrows? Wes can do that.”
In 1989, Kenny Payne, one of Milt’s former Louisville teammates, introduced Wes to fellow 76er Rick Mahorn, who in turn gave Wes a job as the doorman at his Cherry Hill nightclub, a favorite bump-and-grind spot for Philly’s pro athletes. It wasn’t long before Wes was running the place.
Recalling that early period, 2 Live Crew frontman Luther Campbell tells me, “My claim to fame is that I took Wes on his first flight on a jet. We went to the NBA All-Star Game, we went to the University of Miami games, we went everywhere. We were at a Mike Tyson fight in Atlantic City, and Wes took me back into the casino vault! With the money! You only get to go back there if you’re an employee or you’re one of the boys. I said, ‘Oh, my God! Who the hell are you, Wes? What’d you do?’ And Wes said, ‘I just know everybody.’ ”
Wes’s big break came in the late 1980s or early 1990s, when Milt Wagner put him in a room with Michael Jordan. Jordan ended up giving Wes a job at his basketball camp. After that, according to Lacy Banks, “Wes just popped up out of nowhere. You’d see him in locker rooms, courtside at games, in the hotels, restaurants, everywhere.” By late 1993, Wes had taken up residence in Chicago. Being close to Jordan and the Bulls was good for business.
Chicago is where Wes became friends with, among others, the Clintons, Phil Knight, and Reebok exec Tom Shine. He made allies in the media, providing inside information and facilitating interviews with difficult-to-reach stars, and he gained a reputation as a trustworthy adviser/fixer for at-risk athletes. “I know of a particular NBA player who got into a staggering gambling situation,” says Shine. “The people this guy lost money to, they were not nice guys. Wes saved him from getting killed.”
In 1997, when Allen Iverson was arrested for possessing marijuana and a concealed weapon, Wes stepped in to clean up the mess. According to Reebok executive Que Gaskins, Iverson’s constant companion during that period, “After Allen got in trouble, Wes called to check in on us and make sure we had the right resources and the right people to get in touch with. He was very close with Billy Hunter [head of the National Basketball Players Association] and wanted to make sure that if Allen wanted his voice heard, he and Billy had a conversation.”
Numerous sources also told me that Wes played a significant role in mediating peace between Iverson and his coach, Larry Brown. One well-circulated anecdote tells of Wes urging A.I. over speakerphone to quit bitching and get his ass to practice. Coaches around the league took notice of the sway Wes had with players. “Put it this way,” says Cleveland Cavaliers coach Mike Brown. “If I have a problem and I need an outside influence, I know I can call him. We talk all the time.”
In 2001, Wes’s godson and Milt’s son, Dajuan Wagner, was the consensus best high school basketball player in the world. If Dajuan had entered the NBA draft after his junior year at Camden High, he might have been the number one pick. But Wes persuaded him to let the NBA wait and spend a year or two playing for John Calipari at the University of Memphis. The deal came with plenty of strings attached: Wes made it clear to Calipari that Dajuan was more inclined to sign with a school that also gave a free ride to his best friend, Arthur Barclay, an all-state player who’d been passed over because of poor test scores. (Done.) Then Milt, despite lacking a college degree, was hired to be Memphis’s head of basketball operations. When news of the deal leaked out, the media crucified Calipari, painting it as nothing more than legalized graft. Wes answered accusations that something shady had gone down, saying, “Man, I’ve heard the second-guessing. It’s simple: Juanny needed to improve his defense and prove that he can play on the next level. Coach Cal can help him do that. What do I have to gain by him going to Memphis?”
Wes had been managing Dajuan’s career since the boy was 11, and so when it came time for Dajuan to head to Memphis, Wes went along. After only one season—in which Dajuan averaged twenty-one points a game—Calipari called Milt and Dajuan into his office. “I tore up Dajuan’s scholarship in front of him to make sure he understood he wasn’t coming back,” Calipari says. Dajuan was ready for the NBA. The Cavaliers selected him in the ﬁrst round of the 2002 draft, and as Dajuan made his move from college to the pros, Wes was there to ease the transition. In his ﬁrst year, Dajuan was among NBA rookie leaders in scoring, assists, and minutes played.
Injuries and illness derailed Dajuan’s career after a few seasons, but Wes already had another, more lucrative reason to stick around Cleveland: Less than an hour away, in Akron, a teenage phenom named Le-Bron James was capturing imaginations.
My first in-the-flesh glimpse of Wes is through binoculars during halftime of a Cavaliers game at Quicken Loans Arena as he stands on the end line kibitzing with Cavs GM Danny Ferry. With the break winding down, Wes shakes Ferry’s hand and starts walking up the sideline, stopping along the way to man-hug security guards and high-five ball boys. His seat is center court, first row, next to a brunet in a tight pink T-shirt. He sits back, arms folded across his chest, legs extended. Every couple of minutes, he plucks a cell phone from a belt holster; sometimes he has a phone pressed against each ear. When LeBron slashes to the hoop and throws down a two-handed slam, I detect a trace of a grin. Otherwise, he remains expressionless.
Earlier in the week, when the Toronto Raptors were in town, I spotted LeBron’s agent, Leon Rose, a close friend of Wes’s from back in the Pro Shoes days. (Rose also happens to be Wes’s attorney.) Ten years ago, Rose’s client list consisted of the itinerant scrub Rick Brunson and a handful of foreign players. Then, in 2002, seemingly out of nowhere, Rose somehow bagged Dajuan Wagner and Allen Iverson. Soon after, he was hired by Richard Hamilton. And then, in 2005, he landed the most desired client in the world, LeBron James.
Rose is coy about his relationship with Wes, but according to many sources, it’s no coincidence that nearly all of Rose’s clients are Wes’s “nephews.” LeBron James was 15 when Wes started attending games at Akron’s St. Vincent–St. Mary. Wes befriended Eddie Jackson, LeBron’s surrogate father, then became acquainted with LeBron’s family and eventually won over LeBron himself by introducing him to his idol, Jay-Z.
But Leon Rose never formally entered the LeBron sweepstakes. Ultimately, West Coast agent Aaron Goodwin won the right to represent him. His first order of business was structuring more than $120 million in endorsement contracts before LeBron ever set foot on NBA hardwood. Still, Goodwin’s hold on LeBron was tenuous. Wes tells me everybody had a hunch the relationship wouldn’t last. Goodwin has a history of being fired by superstar clients. And although Wes was already acting as LeBron’s adviser, insiders speculate that he was really seeking to pry the young star from Goodwin: In 2003, Wes moved into an apartment just across the hall from LeBron’s downtown-Cleveland digs.
Two years later, in May 2005, LeBron severed ties with Goodwin. (Wes insists that he had nothing to do with the decision.) And two months after that, LeBron hired Leon Rose.
Although they missed out on the millions in commission money that Goodwin pocketed from LeBron’s endorsements, the benefit to Wes and Rose was astounding. (Wes denies any financial quid pro quo with Rose.) Rose recently brought his practice to the Hollywood talent agency CAA, putting at his disposal multifaceted promotional services and nearly unlimited resources. And his sudden clout was showcased during the first round of the 2006 NBA draft, when the New York Knicks selected six-foot-eight-inch swingman Renaldo Balkman, a pick that caused ESPN’s Chad Ford to say, “Renaldo Balkman?… He averaged fewer than ten points per game…. No other team would’ve taken him in the ﬁrst round…. Wow.” Greg Anthony called the selection of Balkman “befuddling” and later hypothesized that Isiah Thomas had selected Balkman and Temple University guard Mardy Collins because both were clients of Leon Rose, and that taking these players in the ﬁrst round might help them in the pursuit of free agent LeBron James.
A month later, LeBron signed a three-year contract with the Cavs. And the Knicks still suck. But the implication was out there: Leon Rose has the power to influence the NBA draft and the larger marketplace.
When I present this theory to David Falk, he stops me and says, “Leon Rose doesn’t have any clout. Wes has clout.”
As I stand outside the locker room last December, a Cavs media liaison grants me five minutes with LeBron for a postpractice chat. “Can you describe your relationship with Wes?” I ask. “Friend? Adviser? Both? What kind of advice does he provide? What services?”
He looks down at me and says softly, “He’s a great guy. I met him a few years back. He’s been a great role model to me. I can only say good things about him.”
“As a role model,” I ask, “what’s he in your ear about?”
He adjusts the giant silver earphones fixed above his temples and says, “That’s kind of personal information, honestly. What’s said, what goes on with, you know, our family, stays with our family. But as far as him being a good person—he’s always been good to me. He’s never asked me for anything. He’s always been trustworthy to me, and I respect him for that.”
He’s never asked me for anything. According to Reebok executive Tom Shine, “Wes doesn’t have a hidden agenda, unlike a lot of other people in the grass roots and the college- basketball business and the agent business and all of the other businesses that attach themselves like barnacles to these players.” Luther Campbell: “He doesn’t come o¬n as no salesman. You know, Wes never asks for nothing.” John Calipari: “Why would a pro player shun everybody else but bring this guy into the fold? Because he never asks for anything.”
He never asks because the players already provide him with what he needs most: access. Wes’s relationships with the NBA’s elite players give him access to the owners and general managers of every team in the league. (Not to mention agents, media, and corporate execs.) In 2004, Reebok sent Wes to Athens with Team USA to manage Allen Iverson. Wes stayed in the players’ quarters on the Queen Mary 2, placing him in close proximity to LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Carmelo Anthony, and other superstars. He was granted access to Team USA practices and functions that were off¬-limits to players’ families and entourages during last summer’s World Championships, landing him alongside twenty-three other players Leon Rose covets. (Wes’s presence caused quite a commotion. As Henry Abbott reported on TrueHoop, “Two independent sources confirm that one, if not more, NBA agent was livid at USA Basketball for letting William Wesley into closed sessions with the young and impressionable stars of Team USA. It’s an agent’s worst nightmare to have someone like that hanging around your player in a closed session.”) Nike also provides Wes with access to the nation’s premier prep players at their summer basketball camps. And access to these kids means access to college coaches. William Wesley’s world is integrated to the max. Working for nobody allows him to work for everybody.
What’s it like to meet William Wesley? What’s it like to be sucked into his vortex of power and connectivity? In January, Henry Abbott sends me the phone number for a man named Gregory Dole. Dole, he says, has a story he wants to share. A story that will tell me what it’s like to meet William Wesley.
Dole lives in Brazil, where he works as a basketball coach and scout. In the winter of 2003, he tells me, he accompanied a then unknown Brazilian guard named Leandro Barbosa to the States. Barbosa, who spoke not one word of English, was determined to play in the NBA, so Dole arranged showcases with a number of NBA teams. Their tour passed through Cleveland, where they met Ron Harper—a fifteen-year NBA veteran and longtime friend of Wes’s. After seeing Barbosa’s highlight tape and declaring that the 20-year-old Brazilian was good enough to play in the NBA, Harper invited Barbosa and Dole to watch the Cavaliers take on the Knicks. When the game was over, according to Dole, “We were chatting with Ron and LeBron and his crew, when this guy makes a beeline for Leandro. Wes knew everybody else in the group, so he made a point of getting to know who we were. He peppered us with questions: Who was Leandro? Where did he play? He found out we were visiting from Brazil and joked, ‘I’m going to come to Brazil, and I want you to organize for me to have sex with a di¬fferent woman every day.’ ” Then Wes said, I want you to meet my close friend Allan. Allan was former Knicks star Allan Houston. Barbosa’s knowledge of the NBA was limited. He knew about Michael, Magic, and Larry. But Allan Houston? Dole leaned in and told him about Houston’s seven-year, $100 million contract. Barbosa, who was making $3,000 a month in Brazil, was awestruck. Before long, Barbosa and Dole were sitting in the back of Wes’s Mercedes.
Wes asked Barbosa who his favorite player was.
“Michael Jordan,” Barbosa said.
Wes activated the keypad on his steering wheel. And in an instant, the car’s speakers filled up with the sound of a ringing phone. No answer. But then a voice: Michael Jordan asking the caller to leave a message. Dole had no clue who Wes was, but he and Leandro were blown away. The show was on.
What kind of music do you like?
Wes pounded away at the keypad, there was the sound of a phone ringing, and this time there was an answer. Jay-Z. He and Beyoncé were working late in the studio. There were a few moments of conversation, and Leandro attempted to sing Jay-Z’s hit song “Hard Knock Life.” Beyoncé laughed. Jay-Z laughed.
Wes called Nike’s global director of basketball, Lynn Merritt. He called Scott Perry, director of player personnel for the Detroit Pistons. “Barbosa’s going to be a big star,” Perry said.
Then Wes drove them to Blue Point Grille, one of Cleveland’s finer restaurants, where, according to Dole, he boasted about how he’d arranged Dajuan Wagner’s contract with Nike and pressed Barbosa on his business dealings.
Which sneaker companies are courting you?
Reebok, Adidas, And-1.”
And-1 is no good, and stay away from that three-stripe shit. Nike and Reebok are the best. Who’s your agent?
Dole said he’d set Leandro up with a small-time guy named Michael Coyne. Wes just scoff¬ed.
“On our way out of the restaurant,” Dole told me, “Wes said, ‘See that man over there? He’s the president of the Cleveland Browns. He just paid for our dinner. Let’s go say hello.’ ”
William Wesley is the best MySpace page in the NBA’s universe. Get on his friends list and just like that you’ll be introduced to Le-Bron, D-Wade, Carmelo, Jay-Z, Phil Knight, Michael Jordan. You’ll be connected to heads of industry, politics, and entertainment. You’ll be given a key to the club. You’ll be taken care of. But mainly, if you’re a middling agent from New Jersey or a 15-year-old kid from Akron or a 20-year-old unknown from Brazil, what William Wesley off¬ers is pretty simple: He can pluck you from obscurity and turn you into a (very, very wealthy) somebody.
I know what it’s like to meet William Wesley. In Cleveland I had attempted to dive headlong into his world, but he spit me out. So I fly to Detroit the day after Christmas to try to talk to Wes again. When he struts through the security door of the Palace, home of the Pistons, I nod at him, trying to get his attention. He stops. “How you doin’?”
“All right. All right.”
“Where you from, again?”
“I’ve been hearing about you. That you’ve been misleading people. Asking a lot of questions about me. I’m not a story. I’m just a nice guy. I’m not powerful; that’s a myth.”
“I think you are—”
“Telling people that you’re writing a story about one thing and then asking a lot of questions about me.” He’s angry that I’ve been looking into his association with high school players. “That’s a land mine you sittin’ on, boss.”
“You going to be around this week?”
“Nah. I’m out of here.”
“We should talk.”
And then his tone changes. From slightly annoyed to confrontational. “Why should I talk to you? You should have come to me first.”
“I wanted to do my homework first.”
“If you’ve done your homework, then you’ll know that there’s a lot of sensational stuff¬ out there. I’m not going to talk to you now.” He turns and begins walking away, then he stops, spins on a heel to face me. He extends a finger in my direction and says, “Because the moment you write one wrong thing…”
The Nike Super 6, a mid-January extravaganza of high school hoops staged at the World’s Most Famous Arena, is exactly the type of event that Wes marks on his calendar. It’s a chance for the next generation of superstars to put their talent on display in front of a crowd of thousands. Rick Pitino is here. Rumor is that John Calipari is in attendance. And Wes is here, too, seated courtside between a man named Reggie Evans and Eric Goodwin, the muscle-bound brother of LeBron’s former agent, Aaron Goodwin. It’s surreal to see Wes sitting next to Goodwin; by all accounts he loathes Wes. Between games, Wes mockingly waves to me.
This afternoon’s main attraction is one Derrick Rose, a six-foot-three-inch blisteringly fast point guard from Chicago’s Simeon Career Academy. Journalists and insiders who have followed Rose’s career also noted Wes’s presence on the sideline of Derrick’s AAU games last summer. Rose’s college choices came down to Memphis, Illinois, and Indiana. One journalist told me, “When I saw the list, I knew Derrick was going to Memphis.” The prediction was correct.
When I talk to John Calipari, he says it makes sense that Wes would recommend Memphis to Derrick Rose. “It’s the right fit,” he tells me, and then adds, “Wes is a goodwill ambassador to our program.”
In addition to Rose, another of Wes’s “nephews” is showcasing his talents this afternoon: Tyreke Evans, Reggie Evans’s brother. Scouting service Rivals.com ranks Evans among the best juniors in the country. It’s easy to see why: Even when he’s warming up, Tyreke has a stunning array of pull-up jumpers and fallaway jumpers and leaners and floaters. At one point, Tyreke stops to show Wes some love. By the fall, Tyreke will decide on a college, maybe UNC, U Conn, Louisville, Villanova, or Memphis.
Tyreke was 12 when Que Gaskins took notice of him at a basketball tournament. His coach hardly let him play, so Que and Allen Iverson started an AAU team called the Raiders. And Tyreke was the star. When his brother Reggie started believing the hype that Tyreke was NBA material, Que reached out to Wes: “They had so many people coming at them, and they were so green. They needed somebody who had the wisdom, a surrogate uncle who wouldn’t have any vested interest in seeing Tyreke succeed or fail—would just do it out of love.” Wes said to Que, “Send him to me. You know Uncle Wes got it.”
“I like to call Wes a school without walls,” Que says. He describes Wes connecting young players with their role models, guys like A.I. and LeBron. “They’ve already gone down that path. They’ve already made a lot of the mistakes that a kid like Tyreke is going to make. He gets the truth directly from their mouth. What kid wouldn’t be motivated? What kid wouldn’t want to work hard?”
Tyreke dominates the second half of the game, finishing with thirty-three points and six assists. It’s a good day for Wes’s nephews, and there are better days to come. Chances are good that a year from now, after one season at Memphis, Derrick Rose will be an NBA lottery pick. And a year after that, Tyreke Evans will follow suit. For now, though, Tyreke stands at center court, gripping his MVP plaque, trying not to blink at the flashbulbs. Wes stands five feet out on the court in a circle of people. A few feet away, Reggie Evans stands on the Garden floor, too, with his hands in his pockets, taking in the moment. Wes drapes an arm over Reggie’s shoulder and pulls him closer. I think I can read Wes’s lips: “Come here. There’s somebody I want you to meet.”
Alex French is a GQ researcher.