A 2007 GQ Magazine article on 45-year-old William Wesley asked, "Is this the most powerful man in sports?"
That's a stretch. But in the new NBA, where superstars are flexing muscles like Mixed Martial Arts fighters, the Summer of LeBron James seemed at times like the Summer of William Wesley, otherwise known as "World Wide Wes" -- which very well could be the greatest nickname going.
(Former NBA player Jalen Rose claims to have given Wesley his name. His latest name anyway. Wesley first answered to "Fresh Wes" when he was putting spanking new basketball shoes on the feet of athletes at a Cherry Hill, N.J., store called Pro Shoes.)
Not since Keyser Soze in The Usual Suspects has one man/myth cast such a shadow -- real or imagined -- over the proceedings as Wesley has recently.
Example: Louisville coach Rick Pitino told ESPN that for anyone courting LeBron James it would "probably be smart to have a relationship with William Wesley."
The well-dressed man moving through the crowd in Miami that greeted LeBron James' private jet the night he flew from "The Decision" on ESPN to his new life with the Miami Heat. Yep. World Wide.
"Uncle" to NBA stars such as James, Chris Paul, and dozens more. That's World Wide Wes.
The guy pictured shielding Ron Artest from harm on the court during the infamous Pacers-Pistons brawl at The Palace in 2004? That's him, too.
NBA analyst David Aldridge told GQ, "At any given time, if you look at a sports event, there's a very good chance you're going to see Wes."
And so the litany of Wesley sightings: hugging Jerry Jones after a Cowboys' Super Bowl win, sitting next to Jay-Z at the NBA All-Star game, with Phil Knight of Nike at the Final Four, hanging in Greenwich, Conn., with James earlier this month for the worst hour in sports programming history, in various locales with Team USA.
Brian Windhorst, my colleague at The Plain Dealer in Cleveland, attended the World Championships in Japan in 2006. Team USA execs had clamped down on distractions. They adopted a bunker mentality. No players' families. No entourages.
"Nobody," Windhorst said. "Except...there was Wes."
The Most Interesting Man in the (Sports) World
In the GQ article, writer Alex French doesn't quite pin down whether Wesley was a guest at Sinatra's funeral (one story says he was) or his legitimacy as a reported friend of the Clintons (another story). But he captures the Wes Experience with an anecdote involving Brazilian star Leandro Barbosa's trip to the United States in hopes of positioning himself for a NBA career.
Barbosa found himself in Cleveland that night at a Cavaliers' game, then shortly after in Wesley's car. The former shoe salesman/mortgage broker/all-around-go-to-guy impressed the young player by dialing up Michael Jordan on speaker phone (he got Jordan's voice mail) then Jay-Z (who was with Beyonce working a late night in the studio).
Who was this guy, Barbosa wondered?
No one has spent more time on that question than basketball writer Henry Abbott. One New Year's Eve night a few years ago, Abbott was struggling to come up with a resolution. Wesley popped to mind. Abbott pledged to find out as much as he could about William Wesley over the next calendar year.
OK, so it wasn't a pledge to help end world hunger. But he's a basketball writer, not a rock star.
And it beats my annual resolution to go to the gym once every January.
The abbreviated version of Abbott's findings paint the picture of a man who works the margins between players, teams, shoe companies and the entertainment industry. The more relationships he fosters, the more valuable he becomes.
As Abbott wrote, "The basic goal of the investigation was to find out what he did for a living."
Short answer: um, uh...everything?
The Rise of Fresh Wes
Wesley met a number of Philadelphia athletes while working at Pro Shoes in Cherry Hill and as a doorman for at a nightclub owned by former Pistons and Sixers player, Rick Mahorn.
Growing up in South Jersey, he also became best friends with high school basketball sensation Milt Wagner and followed him to Louisville, where Wagner appeared in three Final Fours. Through Wagner, the NBA world opened even more to Wesley, who met Jordan and worked at Jordan's basketball camp.
In 1993, he partnered in a Chicago nightclub frequented by Jordan, Scottie Pippen and Dennis Rodman. Rodman told ESPN this about Wesley: "No one knows what he's delivering, no one knows what he's doing, no one knows what he's got." He also said before Wesley earned Jordan's trust Wes "used to kiss more ass than anybody back in the day."
Abbott found players, team executives and others reluctant to talk about Wesley on the record. That helps Wesley fit the Winston Churchill line about Russia. A riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.
When Milt Wagner's son, DaJuan, was looking for a college, Wesley sought out Memphis head coach John Calipari because of the coach's reputation for dealing honestly with players on whether turning pro was to their benefit. DaJuan Wagner spent one year at Memphis before Calipari told him he was ready for the NBA draft.
Working for Nobody. And Everybody.
Wesley became a representative for coaches, doing their bidding for jobs behind the scenes, while building trust with players. The players Abbott contacted repeated one theme. Wesley was always there to help. He never asked for anything. Abbott concluded that in the world of the young, rich, black athlete being pulled in a thousand different directions, what Wesley offered -- friendship, trust and seemingly endless contacts -- was greatly valued.
No relationship did as much for Wesley as his friendship with Jordan. Through Jordan, Wesley met a teenage sensation already headed for the cover of Sports Illustrated under the title, "The Chosen One." LeBron James was 15 when he met Wesley. In the GQ story, James called Wesley his "role model."
A long-time friendship with sports agent Leon Rose has greatly benefited the agent in acquiring players. Wesley helped deliver James to Rose. Creative Artists Agency (CAA) of Hollywood brought Rose's business under its umbrella a few years ago and soon CAA represented James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh.
Wesley, not unexpectedly, has called his role "overblown" in published interviews. He says his power is a "myth."
But agent David Falk has been quoted saying Wesley is one of the two or three most powerful people in sports. Falk told GQ, "Leon Rose doesn't have any clout. Wes has clout."
Wesley worked to get head coach Larry Brown to Detroit after the firing of Rick Carlisle. Brown was hired in a whirlwind. Wesley had the ear of Cleveland Cavaliers' owner Dan Gilbert and pushed for the hiring of head coach Mike Brown in 2005.
Wrote GQ's French, "Working for nobody allows him to work for everybody."
The Man in the Middle
In the days leading up to LeBron James' decision, Maverick Carter, a high school buddy of James and head of his marketing "team," made a point to tell the New York Times that Wesley would not influence James' decision.
The comment became evidence to some of a rift between James' camp and Wesley. But it's since been suggested that perhaps Wesley wanted to be seen as bringing Swiss neutrality to the table to protect his other interests. Somebody was bound to be upset with James' decision. Worldwide Wes didn't want the fallout to land on him.
Rift? He was in Greenwich for James' one-hour special. And there he was getting off the plane with James in Miami.
Not too many days later, a report claimed New Orleans point guard Chris Paul would tell management he wanted a trade to go pursue a title despite having two years remaining on his deal.
Yahoo sports columnist Adrian Wojnarowski calls Wesley a "full service middle man," orchestrating deals for players and coaches. He claims Wesley has been trying for months to pull the strings on a deal for Paul, who is even more determined to improve his lot now that his best friend, James, is part of a stacked team in Miami.
The NBA recently issued a strict tampering warning, specifically naming a player (Paul) for the first time.
Even if the Olympic experience is responsible for bringing James, Wade and Bosh together -- and it wasn't Wesley directly convincing James to leave Cleveland for the Heat -- no one doubts Wesley's "player" credentials.
Jordan long ago retired. Wesley is still going strong working with another generation of NBA superstars.
Lacy Banks, a Chicago sportswriter covering Jordan's Bulls, told GQ that back then he thought Wesley worked for the "Secret Service, the FBI or the CIA."
Now everybody knows it's CAA. Not that the job description is much different.
Bud Shaw is a columnist for the Cleveland Plain Dealer who has also written for the Philadelphia Daily News, San Diego Union-Tribune, Atlanta Journal-Constitution and The National. You can read his Plain Dealer columns at Cleveland.com, and read all his mental_floss articles here.