Canzano: "Worldwide Wes" steps into the spotlight
William Wesley is an interesting and mysterious sports figure.
I nearly fell over when the New York Knicks announced that they’ll be represented at Tuesday night’s NBA draft lottery by William Wesley.
Yes, in the spotlight.
Yes, out front, on television.
The legendary and mysterious basketball runner — a guy known for decades as “Worldwide Wes” — will finally get worldwide exposure.
I first spoke with Wesley nearly two decades ago. I wrote about him for the first time during the 2004 NBA Finals. He wore no arena credential, didn’t work in an official capacity for a team and claimed he was a mortgage broker. Wesley moved effortlessly behind the scenes, breezing past security and drifting between the Lakers and Pistons locker rooms, shaking hands and slapping backs with the talent.
The following season, he popped up in Portland at what was then called the Rose Garden Arena. I pointed him out in the locker room and then-Trail Blazers’ guard Derek Anderson told me, “Everyone knows ‘Uncle Wes.’”
It wasn’t clear at the time if Wesley worked on behalf of one of the sneaker companies or his NBA agent-friend, Leon Rose, or maybe someone else. But he was connected and influential. I visited Blazers’ guard Damon Stoudamire in Houston that summer. When I told Stoudamire that I was working on a piece about Wesley he smiled and said, “Wes is running the NBA.”
Wesley lived in suburban Detroit. I went to his house in the summer of 2005 with the Spurs and Pistons knee-deep in the championship series. When I arrived, an Escalade belonging to LeBron James was parked in the driveway. The NBA star was playing video games in Wesley’s living room.
Wesley told me he got his start in a high-end sneaker shop in New Jersey in the early 1990s, where he befriended some of the Chicago Bulls. He’s charismatic and engaging. Wesley soon gained access to Michael Jordan’s inner circle and became a trusted confidante. He hung out with Jordan so often that he got an apartment in Chicago.
Scottie Pippen told me he met Wesley in the early 1990s. He couldn’t remember where. It’s a familiar refrain from those who know him. During the 2005 NBA Finals in Detroit, Pippen and Wesley were hanging out like old friends. They sat not far from each other in courtside seats for Game 4 of the Spurs-Pistons series.
As I stood with Wesley during warm-ups, Pippen walked up and asked, “Wes, where will you be after the game?”
“I’ll find you,” Wesley said.
At the time, nobody I spoke with seemed to know who Wesley was or what he did exactly. Was he steering America’s top high-school talent to select colleges? Or working for an agent? Was he paid by Nike or Adidas? Someone else?
Wesley was always intentionally vague. He claimed he wasn’t on anyone’s payroll and made his money refinancing homes. But from the look of his sprawling, upscale suburban Detroit home and tailored suits, Wesley appeared to be doing just fine financially.
Years ago, I asked Sonny Vaccaro what he thought William Wesley did for a living. He shot back, “Are you kidding me?!? Wes is the best since me.” Vaccaro gained a foothold in the blue-chip high school basketball scene, then the sneaker world, where he worked for Nike, Adidas and Reebok. If you wanted young basketball talent, Vaccaro knew where to find it and how to charm it.
“He’s just a more evolved version of me,” Vaccaro said.
There was one glaring difference between the men. Vaccaro sought the spotlight and loved to talk. Wesley was interested in keeping a low profile and even asked me in 2005 to not write that column about him. I published it anyway. He was a compelling figure who enjoyed pulling strings from behind the scenes. And once you noticed William Wesley, he was suddenly everywhere.
“Worldwide Wes” became a visible figure behind the University of Memphis bench in concert with coach John Calipari’s success there. When Calipari left for Kentucky in 2009, Wesley showed up there, too. When the NFL’s Dallas Cowboys made the playoffs, he was on the sideline during the final minutes of the game. When Pacers’ forward Ron Artest scrapped with some unruly fans that terrible night in Detroit, Wesley ended up on the court beside the basketball player, shielding him.
The whole sneaker-salesman-turned-mortgage-broker act was always suspect. I think Wesley secretly loved being a mystery. When Oregon landed McDonald’s All-American recruit Malik Hairston from the state of Michigan, Wesley became a frequent visitor to Eugene, too. Oregon coach Ernie Kent even hired Wesley’s long-time friend, Kenny Payne, as a Ducks’ assistant.
Wesley told me once of his connections: “It’s like the six degrees of separation. I’m just friendly. You’re friendly. We get to know people.”
He seemingly knew everyone in the basketball world.
During the NBA Finals in 2005 in Detroit, Hairston sat beside Wesley in courtside seats. He was a college sophomore. Wesley told me that he was “like an uncle” to Hairston.
When the 2008 NBA Draft approached, I wrote a column wondering if Hairston would be drafted. My phone rang that afternoon. Wesley was on the other end and said, “Malik will go to San Antonio in the second round.”
Hairston was picked No. 48 by the Phoenix Suns.
The Spurs traded for the pick.
“Told ya,” Wesley texted.
I still wasn’t sure who Wesley was, really. It didn’t really matter. It was evident over the years that he was growing more influential and more visible. A few NBA agents such as Aaron Goodwin despised Wesley. Goodwin represented LeBron James when he was drafted out of high school. Two years later, James dumped Goodwin and signed instead with Wesley’s friend, agent Leon Rose.
Today, Rose is president of the Knicks.
I last saw William Wesley during the NCAA Tournament in 2019. Bol Bol and Louis King were freshman at Oregon. Payton Pritchard was a college junior. Wesley saw me sitting on press row covering the Ducks’ first round game in San Jose, Calif. and sent a text message with two words, “Look up.”
Wesley was seated directly across the arena from me, grinning, sitting a couple of rows behind the UO bench amid the parents and families of players. He waved. We talked for a minute at halftime and Wesley told me he’d gone to work for Creative Artists Agency — Rose’s agency — as a consultant. He planned to become a registered NBA agent. Not long after that, Wesley went to work for the Knicks.
“Worldwide Wes” will attend the draft lottery on behalf of the NBA franchise Tuesday night. He’ll be out the in open, under the lights, for all the world to see. Maybe he’ll even offer a few words on camera. If so, pay attention. Because it will be the first time I’ve heard Wesley actually speak on national television.
The Knicks list him as an “Executive Vice President” on the Madison Square Garden Sports roster. His business cards read: “Senior Basketball Advisor.” I don’t know what you think that means, but I happen to think “Worldwide Wes” is probably just doing what he’s always done — ushering talent where he thinks it needs to be.
We’re in a new era of name-image-likeness in college sports. There are more voices advocating for the benefit of players than ever. Talent makes the world go around. It probably always has. I can’t help but wonder if William Wesley was simply ahead of his time. He was always fun to talk with, but my view of him has shifted over the years to a more favorable position.
Wesley has navigated the basketball world beautifully, rising from selling sneakers in New Jersey in his teens to working as a 57-year old NBA executive. The guy who was happy to stay in the shadows will be right out front on behalf of the Knicks.
Get a good, long look.
He’s been running things for a while.
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