Lessons from William Wesley

In many ways, the most imporant things I have learned from the William Wesley investigation so far are not about Wesley at all. They are about the nature of celebrity and power in the NBA. Here's an attempt to explain.

You can see it in pictures for yourself online. There he is: arriving late at night at a hotel in Shanghai with Allen Iverson, helping to break up the famous Piston-Pacer squabble in Auburn Hills, and in snappy formalwear arm in arm with the birthday boy at LeBron James’ 21st.

He has a clean-shaven head, a ready smile, and an appearance that has been compared to a grown-up Urkel.

His name is William Wesley, and for more than a decade it has been something of an open secret in the NBA that he is about as connected an NBA insider as there has ever been.

But, as far as I know, no one really knows all that much about what the man does. As in, what his job is, and how he gets all that locker room access, courtside seating, private jet travel, and the like. How he supports himself.

On New Year’s Eve, I was walking my dog, thinking I ought to have some kind of resolution. Then it struck me: in 2006, let’s find out what William Wesley’s deal is.

Several months, dozens of interviews, and close to 100 posts on TrueHoop later, I'm hardly done, but I could not have learned more. I have been covering the NBA since 1998. I have visited dozens of locker rooms after hundreds of games. I have been to All-Star game parties, several NBA Finals, and players’ houses. I have criss-crossed Manhattan in the back of a taxi with a slam-dunk champion. But if you took everything I learned about how the NBA from all previous work, it would represent about a millionth of what I have learned from poking around the William Wesley story.

Here’s the deal: There is a power vacuum in the NBA, and probably in all of professional sports. The players are at the top of the mountain, but many are not sophisticated at wielding that power as businessmen. For obvious reasons, most are focused on basketball, eager to delegate many of the intricate responsibilities that come with the position of international media superstar. There is work to be done managing myriad relationships (with coaches, teammates, agents, owners, trainers, lawyers, endorsers, marketing people, the public); somehow keeping in touch with the values of a typically humble upbringing while adjusting to the realities of the decadent present; maximizing earning before the playing days are over; establishing a brand that has multicultural appeal; constantly improving as a basketball player; and organizing lots of fun while staying out of the kind of trouble that can bring the house tumbling down.

And remember, many of the NBA’s best young players step into this role with two, one, or zero years of college education, often from households that are short on high-level professional experience in anything. There is no one around who even has good perspective on business decision number one: which NBA agent to hire. Yet there are millions on the line.

Players need someone who knows the ropes, a mentor, an advisor, an uncle. Enter William Wesley. How’s this for a résumé? He was right there in Michael Jordan’s ear. The whole time. “Wes” helped pull off one of the great feats of modern legend-making. He held the hand of one of the NBA’s less likable characters—an angry, cussing, yelling, gambling, adrenaline addict with some sort of over-competitive personality disorder—as he became the most successful pitchman in sports history, complete with his own animated children’s movie.

One person told me about Wesley’s “bedtime stories” that inevitably star Jordan. Is a young player concerned about going to China for the first time? Uncle Wesley can tell you all about the first time he went to China with Jordan.

What’s more, Wesley can get Jordan, or pretty much anyone else, on the phone. His rolodex is digital and vast. It includes names like Bill Clinton, Phil Knight, and Spike Lee. Wesley got his hooks into LeBron James by connecting him to James’ childhood idol, Jay-Z. If that’s not good enough, he can pick impressionable young players up in limos and take them to, say, a skybox at the Super Bowl. Basically, if connections can get it done (and what can’t connections get done?) Wesley can get it done.

Once a player becomes one of his “nephews,” an informal group that is sometimes estimated to include the majority of NBA players, Wesley starts in with advice. People love, respect, and trust William Wesley. It’s hard to find people who know him well and don’t like him. His advice tends to be sensible. He goes on outings with players and their realtors, choosing houses. A friend of his tells me he overheard Wesley barking at Allen Iverson to quit bitching and go to practice, not long before Iverson famously patched things up with Larry Brown and led the team to the 2001 NBA Finals. During the heyday of the Bulls, Wesley was often the designated Dennis Rodman babysitter, and went to great lengths to keep Rodman out of trouble. If you’re a celebrity with voracious appetites for all kinds of stuff, it can be extremely handy to have someone around who is capable, sensible, and discreet.

It’s an insane amount of work. Especially when you consider that Wesley has cutthroat competition. Everyone wants a piece of those players.

So, why does he go to so much trouble? Why toil so doggedly? What’s in it for William Wesley?

As many different things as you can possibly imagine. There is an entire informal economy available to those few with the power to boss celebrities around. All indications are that dozens of the best basketball players in the world, players like LeBron James, Allen Iverson, and Richard Hamilton, take Wesley’s advice very seriously. Players like that are essentially corporations—with the potential to make those around them very wealthy.

I have heard a hundred different examples of how it works at the micro level: if you’re tight with, say, many of the Chicago Bulls in their heyday, you can tell a club owner that, for a cut of the evening’s bar bill, you can promise several big names like Ron Harper and Michael Jordan will swing by and party after their road game. Then you tell your player buddies where the party is, sit quietly at the bar surrounded by celebrity-starved free-spenders, and sip free drinks as your famous friends mingle until it’s time for you to collect your cash and go home.

There are similar deals to be made with autograph signings, All-Star weekend parties at $100 a head, and the various tickets and gear you can get from your friends. Fashion executives might call you and say if you can bring these players to this event, all of you can take home whatever clothes you want.

But all indications are that William Wesley has, in recent years, ascended to a much higher level of the game. Those little player decisions—like, say, where to party—they might have implications in the thousands of dollars. But the millions we all hear about in professional sports? Those come and go from NBA team owners, player agents, and corporate sponsorships. Increasingly, evidence points to Wesley influencing decisions at those levels.

For instance, Wesley’s rise as a behind-the-scenes operator has coincided with one of his longtime confidants—Leon Rose—coming out of nowhere to become an NBA super agent, with clients like LeBron James, Allen Iverson, Richard Hamilton, and several other big-dollar players. I asked one of Rose’s clients, Knick center Eddy Curry, how he chose his agent, and he told me a friend advised him. I asked him if that friend was Wes. Curry said yes.

And then there’s the matter of sponsorships. Wesley could, in theory, encourage the players who trust him to sign with one company or another. That could be worth millions to the company. If an important player is deciding between, say, Reebok and Nike, and Wes can get in his head, that could shake up the whole shoe industry. Would a shoe company pay a guy like Wesley to deliver players? Nike executives have been asked if Wesley is on the payroll, and their answers were evasive. But those courtside seats Wesley sits in when he watches his beloved LeBron James play in Cleveland? They belong to Nike.