Tuesday, June 22, 2010
William Wesley in the spotlight
By Henry Abbott
We had friends over for New Year's, the night of December 31, 2005.
As midnight approached, I had a little anxiety: I needed a good resolution. I wasn't about to announce, half-drunk, some promise I'd never keep, like running a marathon or whatever. I wanted to think of something I'd actually do.
I was in the kitchen when it struck me. William Wesley. Find out that guy's deal.
TrueHoop was a little more than six months old. I had been writing freelance about the NBA for seven years. I had heard about Wesley a dozen or so times, and he had been written about -- Brian Windhorst in the Akron Beacon-Journal, John Canzano in the Oregonian, Fred Girard in the Detroit News and Scoop Jackson on ESPN.com had all touched on him. But nobody really told us what the guy did. Shame on us, as journalists, right? It's our job to explain things that matter in this sport. So that became my resolution, as I announced on TrueHoop a couple of days later.
Things quickly got pretty crazy. I learned so much so fast about basketball. Wesley seemed to be involved in everything, with every player, with every coach, with every agent ... it was wild.
Four-and-a-half years later, everything I learned then matters more than ever. Thanks to his influence over LeBron James; his emerging public profile as a representative to coaches; and his positioning at the eye of the perfect storm that sees the agency he now works for, C.A.A., representing James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh, coach John Calipari and others, Wesley has gone from being a curio among insiders to a full-fledged NBA celebrity, complete with his own mythology, reputation and influence. He's even on SportsCenter.
Launching the investigation
Immediately after I announced I was looking into Wesley, I was flooded with facts and people leading, or in some cases misleading me, through the central theories of Wesley -- that he worked for Nike, for Leon Rose, for a mortgage company or for somebody else. I got calls from executives. I got calls from prison. I got calls from Japan, Germany and Brazil. I got public records.
The basic trend was clear: There was a small knot of people -- mostly agents who felt Wesley had cost them NBA clients, as well as rivals of Calipari's college programs -- who had sensational tales of what a bad man he was. But then there was just a never-ending cavalcade of players, AAU coaches, sneaker executives, celebrities, trainers and others who swore by the guy, and particularly praised him for doing them all kinds of favors without ever asking for anything.
A huge frustration: You know who would speak about Wesley on the record? Just about nobody. As the investigation rolled along on TrueHoop, behind the scenes I was collecting a mountain of insight that I couldn't publish.
While I have a regret or two about how I covered things, I did my best to muddle through it all in as fair a manner as possible. William Wesley became a defining aspect of TrueHoop. Wesley was the main topic on the blog at the time ESPN started noticing.
GQ's Alex French called, wanting to pick my brain for a Wesley feature. We met at a high-end Philadelphia restaurant. They had a seven-course chef's menu. They mentioned that a special variety of white truffles -- the mushrooms, not the dessert -- could be added to any dish for an extra charge. Alex said we wanted truffles on every dish, and wine pairing with each course. (Magazine expense accounts don't work like that anymore.) Seven glasses of wine is a lot. Alex took notes as I rambled, did a ton of reporting, and eventually cranked out a great Wesley article.
I had reached out to Wesley himself various ways, but Alex gave me yet another phone number to try, and about a year after the investigation had begun that paid off, as Wesley called back.
That first conversation was intense. Wesley said he had often considered showing up in my office unannounced, to confront me about this or that. He was incensed about one or two things, but I explained and in some cases he conceded I was right, in others he explained how he thought I had been spun by this or that source.
Mainly, however, he thanked me. He has told me several times through the years that he knows I could have sensationalized the story to drive more traffic, but I stuck to the facts, and he admired that.
That opened a channel to Wesley that remains open, although always (except once) off-the-record.
I don't know if we really trusted each other at all in 2007. But through the years, I have had countless opportunities to get a better sense of Wesley -- through things he has told me, and things people all over basketball have told me -- and the picture that develops is consistent.
The basic goal of the investigation was to find out what he did for a living. While I feel I have enough information about Wesley to theoretically write a book or two, I still don't really have an ironclad sense of all that he does for a living, although I can sketch out a lot of his life story and influences.
When the basketball sneaker industry was in its infancy, one of the most important retail outlets in the world was Cherry Hill, New Jersey's Pro Shoes. That tiny store across from the Cherry Hill mall, in suburban Philadelphia, moved enough sneakers to catch the attention of executives at Nike, Adidas, Reebok and Converse, who were still in the early stages of creating a new industry. It also became the "it" place for elite athletes of the day to get the latest in cutting edge shoes. Wesley was the employee who built those relationships. He'd get one superstar to sign a pair of shoes and leave them for another. He advised people on the shoes that were coming next. Everyone from Herman Edwards to Maurice Cheeks came through. Although he's known as "Worldwide" Wes back then it was "Fresh" Wes, because he'd put a fresh pair of sneakers on your feet.
One of the customers in that store was local high school hoops star Milt Wagner, who left New Jersey in 1982 to play five years at Louisville. A lot of Wesley's most important early connections came through his exposure to that team, which made it to the Final Four three times. Wesley was in Louisville, and around players like Wagner, Kenny Payne and Pervis Ellison constantly. Wagner's NBA career was also instrumental in helping Wesley establish connections with NBA players, including Michael Jordan.
Another key early connection came through a local football player named Greg Mark. Wesley connected Mark and then-Miami coach Jimmy Johnson, as Pete Thamel tells nicely in The New York Times, and built strong ties to Johnson which persisted when Johnson went to the Cowboys. As much as we like to talk about Wesley's role in the NBA, he's also a force in the NFL, as well as in entertainment where he has been closely associated with artists like Jay-Z and 2 Live Crew.
When Rick Mahorn and some business partners opened Mahorn's nightclub in New Jersey in 1989 they hired Wesley as a doorman. On the club's first night, Wesley invited all of his athlete friends to stop by. Those celebrity guests did wonders for the club. Wesley was quickly promoted. Mahorn's ran into various kinds of trouble (one of the last nights of the club is documented on YouTube -- it's a little PG-13 -- and ends with brawling patrons) and closed a few years later.
In 1993, some of the same investors who had been impressed by Wesley's connections in New Jersey made Wesley an offer to become a partner in a new club in Chicago, the Riviera. Wesley agreed, moved to Chicago, and lured a who's who of Chicago stars -- Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Ron Harper and Dennis Rodman chief among them -- to the club. The Riviera was a raging success through much of the Bulls' heyday, until the neighbors -- it was in a residential neighborhood, and parking was an issue -- finally caused enough trouble to make it not worth continuing.
Wesley didn't leave the nightlife entirely, though, often playing a role as a promoter of various athlete-related club events, including one interesting night involving Dennis Rodman.
Wesley has long told people he sells mortgages. When I started digging into the story that almost seemed too convenient, like some kind of cover story. But based on insight from multiple people with first-hand knowledge, that's true. (Jerry Stackhouse, for one, said on SIRIUS XM the other day that when he first moved to Philadelphia, Wesley helped him buy his first house.)
There's a story about how, nearly 20 years ago, Wesley was with an NBA player who was on his way to lunch with his mortgage broker in Chicago. This was, of course, the person with whom this player had made one of the most important financial transactions of his life. When they got to Houlihan's, the player didn't know what the broker looked like.
He had never met him before, which amazed Wesley. Some time before, Wesley had been approached by New Jersey-based Greentree Mortgage about selling mortgages to players, and had discarded the thought. But when he realized that NBA players were doing huge deals with total strangers, he sensed an opportunity for himself -- someone who had close relationships with lots of players already. Not long after that he started working with Greentree.
Wesley first became important to Nike back when he was "Fresh Wes" selling as many early-generation Nike shoes as anyone. It's not clear he has ever stopped. Wesley makes appearances at Nike events, like LeBron James' Skills Academy. He seems to know almost everybody at Nike. A lot of the NBA players he is closest to -- LeBron James, Chris Paul, Rip Hamilton and the like -- wear Nike. Nike sponsors Team USA, to which Wesley has had extraordinary access. Does Wesley still work for Nike? The company's denials have been legalistic and vague. But Wesley's evident associations with Nike -- even wearing his own personalize Nikes in public from time to time -- persist, even though neither Nike nor Wesley say have ongoing business ties.
Wesley is undeniably close to Kentucky coach John Calipari. Not only do a lot of players close to Wesley end up playing for Coach Cal -- Derrick Rose, Chris Douglas-Roberts, Tyreke Evans and the like -- but Wes is unabashed in rooting for Cal's teams, once the Memphis Tigers and now the Kentucky Wildcats.
Calipari has often been painted as one of the more corrupt figures in basketball, with Wesley as Exhibit A that he is surrounded by shadowy figures. Wesley's version of events is predictably different. When Wesley was managing the career of Milt Wagner's son Dajuan Wagner -- with whom Wesley is extremely close -- he sought out Calipari (whom he first met when the coach was in New Jersey recruiting Kevin Walls, in the 1980s) to coach Wagner because he thought Calipari was one of the only college coaches who would be honest in preparing Wagner for the NBA, and telling him when he was ready to go.
A common complaint about college coaches is that they lean hard on their best players to stay in school, even when it's not in the players' best interests. Think about the lengths college coaches go to in recruiting the best high-schoolers. Those players aren't nearly as helpful in raising a coach's profile as NBA-ready, NCAA-tested stars. It's hard to let those players go, and as a result, when players ask their coaches if they're ready for the NBA, it is distressingly common for them to be told "no."
Calipari's approach here is reflected in the funny line DeMarcus Cousins has been using again and again. "Coach Cal said that if I want to do what's best for him, and to put food on his family's table, I should stay in school," says the Kenntucky big man. "But if I want to do what's best for my family, I have to go to the NBA." Cousins -- arguably the best player in college basketball -- is leaving school at his college coach's insistence, even though he says he'd love to be returning to college. That's a rare instance of a college coach working against his own best interests, and at the heart of Wesley's long-term regard for Calipari.
Rival agents love to tell you that William Wesley's real game is recruiting clients like Allen Iverson and LeBron James for NBA player agent Leon Rose. Rose and Wesley have known each other essentially their entire lives, and while Rose is respected as an agent, nobody thinks he has the stature among NBA players to recruit his current client list all by himself.
What's more, a few years ago when Eddy Curry was having agent trouble and signed up with Rose, I asked Curry if Wesley had advised him on the switch, and he said yes.
There is plenty to the relationship between Rose and Wesley.
However, there's also clearly far more to Wesley than being a runner for his buddy Rose. At last count, Rose had 17 clients, a dozen or so of whom (for instance Chris Douglas-Roberts is from Detroit, where Wesley lives, and played for Calipari at Memphis) have deep ties to Wesley. But Wesley is also a confidant to all kinds of elite players who have other agents. Chris Paul is represented by Octagon. Tyreke Evans and Derrick Rose -- Calipari's last two high-profile NBA players -- are both represented by Wasserman Media Group. Wesley couldn't have been closer to this year's Kentucky players, and yet John Wall selected Dan Fegan and DeMarcus Cousins signed up with John Greig.
Representing coaches at C.A.A.
A few years ago, Creative Artist's Agency bought Leon Rose's agency, bringing clients like LeBron James into their sphere. Then they made a separate deal with agent Henry Thomas, whose clients include Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, who happen to join James at the very top of this summer's free agent list. And earlier this month, Wesley signed the paperwork to work for C.A.A. himself, representing coaches and executives. His clients include John Calipari, Tom Thibodeau and others.
While nobody knows with any certainty in exactly which way the NBA will be reshaped this summer, they do know that C.A.A. will play a central role, and that at C.A.A. Wesley's is a voice that can not be ignored.
Wesley says his own role in free agency is overblown, that he's spending far more time worrying about coaching, and that he'll be advising free agents this summer only to the extent that they ask for his thoughts.
Wesley has been able to begin a transformation into a more public figure. His old way of doing things -- quietly -- was always going to end this summer, because of his central role in the Summer of LeBron. Casual sports fans were due to learn Wesley's name now anyway.
Meanwhile, he has long been helping coaches like Calipari and Larry Brown get jobs. This job as a coach's representative gives him a way to make some money from putting teams together with coaches, which he has been doing anyway. It also gives him a way to take some first steps out of the shadows. He has started talking on the record. He is essentially inviting the media to come and investigate him further, and they are obliging. Once he has passed muster, he will have opened new opportunities for himself.
With the power and connections he has amassed, Wesley would be a logical choice for all kinds of high profile sports jobs. (The main tasks of running Team USA, for instance, are recruiting people like LeBron James and Kobe Bryant to play, and keeping corporate sponsors like Nike happy. Who would be better at that?) This summer begins the process of legitimizing his name in the eyes of the public.
Being a coach's representative is a baby step in that direction. Representing coaches -- unlike representing players -- leaves Wesley entirely unconstrained by the NBA Players' Association or the NCAA from having contact with basketball players -- whether they're in high school, college or the NBA. And that's crucial.
At the core of Wesley's power is the reality that elite professional athletes trust him. Most of them will say nothing on the record about him at all, out of respect for his desire to be behind-the-scenes, but those who do speak will, in my experience, generally say something along the lines of what Jerryd Bayless told me the day before he was drafted: "Wes has been a mentor to me. Helped me out. I have asked him questions about on the court stuff. Whatever I need. He has helped me. Never anything negative. I'll always respect and love him for that."
Or consider what LeBron James told GQ about Wesley: “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. ... 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.”
Young athletes are faced with dizzying numbers of decisions for which they are often unprepared. This agent or that one? This shoe deal or that one? This trainer or that one? Almost anyone they ask has skin in the game, and can't advise honestly. College coaches tend to want all their players to go to one particular agent or sneaker company. When young basketball stars even go to a nightclub with friends, they have to worry that the friends may be getting a kickback from the club owner for bringing them there.
As athletes describe it, Wesley does not play those games. As players describe it, they tend to seek him out, not the other way around. For all of his critics and rivals, I have found it impossible to find an athlete who says Wesley abandoned him, ripped him off or misled him in some way. Professional athletes have a hard time trusting people. They hold almost all the power in sports, but are often unsophisticated in wielding it. There's a cavalcade of slimy people -- from agents and college coaches to financial advisers and jewelry salespeople -- who are intent on fattening their own pockets by tricking players into bad decisions.
Players have their guards up against that.
That means that when teams, agents, charities -- even Team USA -- want superstar athletes to show up somewhere, to work with a certain trainer, to lose some weight (think about Eddy Curry last summer), to do anything ... they often have a hard time getting players to buy in. They can come off like just another person trying to exploit players one way or another. It's hard to know who to trust. But "Uncle Wes" -- with his big deep voice, his street smarts, his wealth of stories about his time with Michael Jordan in Chicago, his ability to make fun things happen and his unstoppable Rolodex -- he's an easy person to want to believe.
And there's something of a race story here, too. A lot of the traditional powerbrokers in basketball -- agents, executives, administrators and coaches and the like -- have been white. Fairly or not, a lot of young black players have felt exploited by that system -- you wouldn't believe the stories about agents ripping off their own players, for instance. Wesley navigates the scene in a different kind of skin, as a walking antidote to the idea that making it big means entrusting your career to the older, mostly white establishment. Instead, he's telling players to take charge of their own affairs. It's no accident that LeBron James has started his own business, with friends, to market himself. They may have mangled things at times -- James reeled in a lot more endorsement deals when Aaron Goodwin was doing the work -- but the ethic at work is that the player should be at the top of the business pyramid, not an agent or anybody else.
In the end, that's Wesley's message. Take care of your own business, on and off the court. Get your degree. Run your affairs. Show up to practice. Make a lot of money. Players want those things, and that's why they trust him. And that trust is why this summer the world is catching on to the idea that he may be the most important man in sports.