Roland Lazenby Describes "The Facilitator"

January, 19, 2006
1/19/06
8:15
PM ET
Roland Lazenby is a respected journalist, author, teacher, and coach (his AAU team of 11-year-old girls was one of the best in the nation).

He is currently doing the rounds promoting his latest book: The Show. Based on reviews, it sounds like it will end up being a must-read about the off-the-court happenings of the Los Angeles Lakers.

But I interviewed Lazenby this morning for a wholly different reason, which is that among the millions of books he has written are several about Michael Jordan's Bulls. That means Lazenby shared a time and a place with William Wesley: Chicago during the heyday of the Bulls. And he's an interesting guy with a lot to say.

Lazenby said that he believes Wesley is a facilitator, and he talked at length about what facilitators do, in general. He said several times that he doesn't have specific knowledge of Wesley doing this or that particular thing. In his own words, (as edited for length) from my notes of our conversation:
Facilitators: Not a New Thing
There have always been Wes characters. Sid Hartman, for instance. He ran the Lakers behind the scenes, when they were in Minneapolis--even as he was writing about them every day. (NOTE: Hartman still writes about the NBA.)

Marty Blake calls them "ambassadors without portfolios." There have long been figures like Wes. It would be interesting to make a list of them. Another is Jimmy Goldstein, he's a record producer in L.A. (NOTE: I have seen Goldstein at all the biggest NBA games, and even in locker rooms. Why am I not investigating him? In part because he has a website promoting the various things that he does. He's way less of a mystery.)

Now, for Wes, it's very important to him not to spend too much time with people like you and me. It's not hard to get close to NBA players. But it is hard to keep your mouth shut. Reporters, they get close, but they report about it and they become almost like pariahs.

Facilitators are glue men. All sports have needed glue men. In the last year, things with Wes have really kind of gone over the top so that people are now finally starting to say who is this guy? Do you like Woody Allen movies? Have you seen Zelig? He's that kind of guy.

The main thing facilitators do is procurement. People at that level have needs. They need tickets. They need good, safe, well-managed recreation. And you can't go hire a company to get that kind of stuff for you. A facilitator, at that level, knows people and can get things without drawing a lot of attention. But now that the newspapers and people like you are starting to look at his dealings, I'm sure he hates that.

The relationships are so critical. Here's the thing that the public never understands. The sports marketing people are so good at getting everyone to keep their eye on the ball, while avoiding the stuff that's away from the ball. But that's where all the action is.

I remember Chuck Daly said to me "The game is simple. The people are complicated."

What does Wes do? Probably it's a mix of things. The truth lies in some of the details. If he has a $400,000 mortgage and put $80,000 down, maybe he really is a guy who's a facilitator. Or maybe he's making much more than it appears, and he's leading a really exciting life.

It's quite possible that this is not something that makes him fabulously wealthy. I imagine Wes is his own sort of logrolling contest. You're out there on the water, and you have to keep moving if you want to stay afloat.

He may well have "consulting arrangements" with one or more agents and one or more shoe companies. Wes might be a figurehead for a cottage industry that's very interesting. He has any number of confidants, and he has been around the game. He can always help them with tickets. He's always on location.

And guys like that don't want to be quoted, because once they're the story, it's harder for them to accomplish things.

It's no secret that NBA players can't trust many people. They have the same needs and variety of interests of any of us, except they're young, professional athletes with high energy levels, wealth, and lots of free time. That creates a need for sort of an ultimate posse figure.

At times, guys like this have really been a fly in the ointment. It used to be that there was a tight group of players that included Magic Johnson, Isiah Thomas, Herb Williams, Mark Aguirre, and some others. But then Magic and Isiah had their big fallout. But I heard that it was really just about miscommunication between their people.

I would guess that whatever Wes does involves procuring.

Low Profile
Wes doesn't want to be quoted. Remember when he was mentioned in the papers as a possible liaision between Larry Brown and the Cavaliers' ownership? Things like that can anger people. He needs badly to fly below the radar. With official contact SO forbidden, somebody has to conduct the business under the table. There's too much money involved for it to be entirely haphazard.

It's like a lawyer in court--you should never ask a question that you don't know the answer to. A facilitator like Wes can get you some answers.

Sonny Vaccaro might be the ultimate guy when it comes to trafficking in relationships. He has done amazing things. But he probably got too much publicity. I remember writing a piece for the Sporting News that got at all the guys spreading the money around. People got very upset and they all had to change the way they did business. That was something of a lesson for facilitators to watch your profile and stay below the radar. Sonny made the higher profile work for him, but it would have certainly been easier to stay below the radar.

The Amateur Athletic Union (AAU)
There's a saying that amateur status is highly prized in America. But like virginity, it's difficult to ascertain.

I've coached AAU basketball, and I have a sense of how the game works. One of the things is that it's almost impossible to lock a player to one team. So players are constantly being recruited from one team to the next.

Perhaps one of the biggest revenue streams for facilitators is in AAU basketball. Wes has his strong connections to AAU basketball. AAU basketball is a big factor in this.

The competition in this game is just amazing. But a part of the game, at a certain level, is just amazingly cynical.

An AAU coach is a connection for funding. AAU teams are non-profit, but the coach can get paid nicely. There is relentless recruiting for the top players. There is shoe money. There is equipment.

Wes has supported The Family. I'm under the impression he was also involved with AAU in Camden, although I'd have to check that out.

One of the girls on my team, her parents were very aggressive in wondering things like what AAU scholarships are available, what college coaches might be able to see her, what equipment... You have families in need and there's a lot of "what's in it for me." This is the game you play to get noticed. It's like the payola of the music industry years ago. You need someone to help you shop around for the best offer: which team, which location, which freebies, which coach, which connections does that coach have... There's a whole structure there that has evolved for basketball.

Nightlife
I do know that he's male. That's why boys want to be boys. I don't think he's going to be a facilitator without being wise in those arts.

When Michael was in his world--that's the stress reliever. Soon after he got the label of a deity, Jordan began to look for that.

Kobe ventured out on his own without a facilitator. It was extremely naive of him. He's such a solitary figure. What happens to athletes who don't have facilitators to help them with procurement of these kinds of things?

The entourage around Dennis [Rodman] was a classic. A lot of people tend to look at what Wes is doing as some kind of negative thing. I don't necessarily see it that way. The capacity for pro athletes to put themselves in destructive situations is extraordinary. The effort that Wes and other people around Dennis, including some of the Bulls' training staff, went to to keep Dennis from doing the worst possible things was significant. They try to find some way to let Dennis be Dennis without having things go bad at every turn.

It's bad enough for you and me to hang out and do the things that people do in bars. It's nuclear for athletes. For a while, Charles Barkley's life was a running tale of that tape.

Tickets
Some of it is just outsourcing harmless stuff. For instance, the other night Ron Artest was sitting in Jeanie Buss's courtside seats at a nationally televised NBA game. It's incredible exposure. How do you get that ticket? You think Ron Artest just calls Jeanie Buss? It doesn't work that way. There's a communication function. It's product placement. Someone has to scout the good seats, and the camera locations. There's a logic to all of it, and it works. By having that ticket, sitting on the floor, at a game on TNT, Ron Artest gets to make a seemingly innocent appearance on national TV to make a statement.

Now, I'm not sure it was a great appearance for him, in this particular case. But if you're Ron Artest, and you go sit in that seat for a TNT game, you know you'll be asked for an interview.

Informal Networks
That's not the kind of communications you'll find in the textbooks. And it's not something you'll find in the official communications. But when you get right down to it, the textbooks are so far out of the loop they're practically worthless. The real work is done by Wes and other "ambassadors without portfolios."

I used to cover local politics, and there would always be "the show," the public meeting. But the whole thing was rehearsed in the back room. This is another form of that.

At this level of the game, surprises are right at the top of the list of things that can't happen. A guy like Wes, he eliminates some of the surprises. And if it's not secretive, it's not effective.

The Bill Clinton Connection
Hillary Clinton is an insane Bulls fan. If the Clinton White House and William Wesley had some connection, the Bulls were at the center of it. The Bulls would remain apolitical, so it would fall to people like Wes to make the connection.

If ever there was a guy in need of a facilitator, it was Bill Clinton. The whole Lewinsky thing struck me as a sad, lonely guy reaching out for what's available. People with wealth and fame are prisoners of a different sort. They are extremely vulnerable when they try to get out of their prisons. Facilitators can make that happen.

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