Talking to Alex French, Fresh off the William Wesley Beat for GQ

Alex French called me last fall. A friend of his had showed him TrueHoop's William Wesley investigation, and French was intrigued. He pitched an article about Wesley to his editors at GQ, and they went for it.

He was wondering if he could pick my brain.

He did so in style, with a very nice dinner in Philadelphia (thank you, GQ). It was tough for me -- I was happy to have a compatriot on the trail of William Wesley, but out of respect for my sources who needed to remain anonymous I could only tell French so much. He ended up getting tons of information all on his own. I'm not sure I was even all that much help -- beyond what I had published on TrueHoop.

There's plenty of new information. See for yourself. As of a few minutes ago, French's whole article is available for free on GQ.com. I'd quote from it, but you should really go read the whole thing.

I just finished a conversation with Alex, which went as follows:

Have you tallied, in any meaningful way, how much time you spent on this story? How many interviews? How many miles traveled?
I haven't done an official tally. I will say that I started reporting the story in October and handed a first draft to my editor in late February. This was far and away the most demanding story that I've done. I think I did some where in the neighborhood of about 150 or 200 interviews. I made trips to Cleveland, Philly, Washington D.C., and Detroit. During that period I think I went to probably 25 or 30 NBA games to either interview players or try to find Wes.

That's a lot of heavy journalistic lifting. I'm going to ask you something I have wondered about myself: Why? What's the appeal of this story?
For me the why was simple. Wes is fascinating. During the early stages of the reporting, I wasn't quite sure about what to make of this guy. But as the time went by and I gained a better understanding of who Wes is and how he functions, the story became about something different entirely -- and that's how the world works. Wes is one of those rare people who make the world work.

That's an amazing thing to say. Please explain.
Well, Wes is what's known as a connector. Meaning that if you were to take apart all of the various mechanisms that constitute the NBA -- the players, the front office executives, the shoe companies, the agents, the marketing executives -- the one dot that all of those other dots connect to is Wes. He has the ability to shorten the chain between any of those two dots.

Let me heap you with praise. You did two things that I found nearly impossible to do with this story: you provided a big dose of lucidity through the morass of information, and you managed to get a lot of people, like Reggie Miller, David Falk, Luther Campbell, and John Calipari to speak on the record about William Wesley. That's no small feat.
David Falk was probably the best interview I've ever done. Fascinating, brilliant guy. He gave me two and a half hours. That interview is at the SFX office in DC. It was the last stop on a very long, two-week trip. I locked my keys in the car prior to the interview and went in cold -- all of my materials, except for my tape recorder were locked in the car.

Whoa. That's a sweaty moment.
But the Falk interview was really the turning point in the reporting for me. He provided me with an understanding of the NBA, the system, he called it, and the role that Wes plays with in that system.

What was his agenda, do you think? Why would a guy like David Falk want to help a GQ reporter writing about Wes? Seems like almost everyone else in his position is anxious not to say too much.
Good question. I'm not sure that David had an agenda. Yes, he's getting back in the agent business, so to have his name in a magazine like GQ is good for him. But to be honest, I'm not sure that David had a real clear idea of what the interview was going to be about. There was some confusion at the beginning of our time together about the subject of the interview. He thought the story was about what happens to powerful people after they give up that power. Or something like that. It was a confusing moment. But once he figured out it was about Wes, he was happy to talk.

I know that if your experience is anything like my experience, you probably heard a lot more about Wes than you can get on the record with any journalistic professionalism. How much of what you feel you know about William Wesley is in this story?
A fraction. But at a certain point I decided that my story wasn't about trying to prove that Wes was dirty. You can never prove any of that.

No, indeed. And it seemed like, I imagine for the sake of clarity and word count, you had to decide to leave it a mystery how he supports himself.
He's a mortgage broker, Henry. You know that.

My mortgage broker is a pretty serious professional. But he does not have a private plane at his disposal.
Well, during the process of reporting I did turn up some interesting public records. Wes's special lady had concierge and consulting businesses registered under her name. Which is strange, because she's a school teacher.

Wow. That's something. Can you tell from the records if those businesses are active?
We've known that Wes played the consulting and concierge angle for quite some time. Back in 2001 Wes told GQ's Max Potter all about his business. I don't have the records handy at the moment.

Do you think Wesley is bothered by the work you and I have done?
I don't know. I will say that Wes seemed less than pleased with my efforts during the reporting process. I chose to report this story in something of an unorthodox style -- I interviewed all of the people surrounding Wes first and went to him last. That seemed to have upset him.

Here's my take: he needs people to have confidence in him -- that he will keep secrets. So he can't be seen to be courting the media, and looking to get his name out there.
I agree.

But at the same time, having a bunch of media types saying that he's all-powerful ... that doesn't hurt his ability to be influential. And to impress people.
I think he takes pleasure in being a mystery. It adds to his mystique. He's powerful because people think he's powerful.

So, it's kind of perfect for him: He's in the article wagging his finger at you, saying he's not a story and you had better get it right -- but then he's still the star of the feature story.
That was kind of a scary moment. The finger wagging. The next day I showed up on his door step.

How did that go?
I had made arrangements with Fred Girard, a really great journalist from Detroit who had filed a story on Wes a few years back, to drive out to Wes's place. The intention had been to just drive past the place, but Fred wanted to go in. When Wes answered the door and saw Fred and me there, he looked profoundly confused. Eventually he let us in. We were there for about 45 minutes. Most of the conversation was off the record. Wes handled it really well.

How so?
He could have sla
mmed the door in my face. He didn't. He let us in. I asked him questions and he answered them -- for the most part.

Must kind of tear you up, on some level, not to get to write about that. It's the big moment your story was hoping for, and it really happened, and it's nowhere to be found in the article.
I think my editors at GQ, Joel Lovell and Andy Ward, really did an amazing job with the piece. Those two guys are the best editors in magazine publishing. We came to an agreement that the story was more interesting with less of me in it.

Impossible! I want the Alex French show! What's next for this story, do you think? It seems like it's going to be interesting for a long time.
Yeah. I really hope somebody -- whether it's you or Real Sports, or somebody else -- keeps going with this. It is an interesting story. And I hope that somebody has the opportunity to step back and take a long view of basketball -- the AAU system, the agents, the shoe companies -- and really dissect how Wes fits into the big picture.

Indeed. There is a lot of interesting stuff yet to figure out. And it does tell us a hell of a lot about basketball. That's where I feel your article is important. My work is really all focused on what it means for basketball. Yours makes clear that this is just a story with universal intrigue and implications.
You make it sound like a spy movie.

I guess I think of it more like a political movie.
Yeah. It really is. I imagine there are a million people working in Washington who function in the same way that Wes does.