When LeBron James was a rookie, he leased a place in the Reserve Square apartments in downtown Cleveland.

Not too long afterward, William Wesley, the ultimate fixer in the world of basketball, moved in nearby.

From there it wasn’t too long before Wesley had James caught up in playing Booray, the popular Louisiana card game. Soon the game became the rave for James and his Cleveland Cavaliers.

Several of his teammates also had places at Reserve Square. They played a lot of cards.

No, this isn’t a story about gambling, at least not the crass kind. James does have a sizeable thirst for cards, but so far he seems to be able to handle it just fine, thank you.

And, no, this isn’t another treatise on how Wesley, aka “Worldwide Wes,” is some malevolent force intent on corrupting the young princes of hoops.

Actually, LeBron James was a hero in his own young life at the time, a brilliant athlete just emerging from the kind of rough-ass circumstances that have destroyed so many promising people.

Born to a 16-year-old mother who had a taste for alcohol and Newports, James had in time emerged as an adolescent force in the football and basketball youth leagues of Akron, Ohio.

It was obvious his mother Gloria loved him just as it was obvious she had her demons and her penchant for hanging out at Rob Roy’s and some of those other Akron nightspots. Whatever those demons were, she always somehow managed to get him to his sporting events. They were usually late, but they got there.

It wasn’t long before a series of father figures stepped in to stabilize James’ life. He lived with a couple of different ones, including Frank Walker, a strong Akron family man.

Finally, at about age 14, LeBron and his mother got their own apartment in public housing on the sixth floor of Spring Hill Towers in Akron. It overlooked the whole city.

Those who saw it say that James’ eyes lit up at the chance to have his own place. Gloria kept it neat and clean, and even later, when King LeBron had assumed his throne, she was hesitant to move out.

It was that good.

But you can see where this is going. There was a tide of wealth, a virtual storm surge of money, heading toward LeBron’s life. His mother, with the help of the community, had managed to raise him up pretty damn well. Yes, there was that brouhaha in high school after James went to an all-star game in California and saw that Tyson Chandler was driving an Escalade. LeBron wanted his own ride, so Gloria, who held no job, managed to finance a Hummer, which triggered an investigation.

But everything was cool.

LeBron graduated into the larger world as a striking figure, a hell of a young man, with a good heart and a good head on his shoulders. And Gloria herself also managed to impress those around her. She was pretty, affable, obviously bright in her own right despite her demons. She had a way of putting the people around her at ease.

Sometimes his associates thought she was “trippin’”, but there were lots of other mothers who would have been more aggressive in those circumstances. Many people approached her during those early years, and she obviously saw through those who weren’t genuine.

Yet the angels looking down on LeBron saw that trouble was headed his way. There was this approaching flood of big bucks, and that could destroy you as quickly as anything if you weren’t ready to ride the tide.

There, to make sure that didn’t happen, was William Wesley.

Today, seven years later, as James tries to sort out his future with the coming of his free agency July 1, Wesley is still there.

A two-time MVP of the league with his hometown Cavaliers, James is playing very big cards these days. His choices and his talent easily make him the most powerful free agent in the history of American basketball.

But as James has cruelly discovered this year, there are limits, even to his immense power. Some suggest those limits begin right there in Akron, but no one really knows. That’s the nice thing about such power. It will be what James and his “team” of advisors can make of it.

It’s an impressive group that tightly encircles James these days, mostly people who knew LeBron before he became royalty. Randy Mims handles logistics and travel. Richard Paul deals with image and publicity issues.

But the central figure is Maverick Carter, his older high school teammate, who returned from playing college basketball at Western Michigan to take up a main position in LeBron’s life. They have called themselves the “Four Horsemen” and quite some time ago formed LRMR Marketing to handle James’ many opportunities.

Carter’s known as one of the smartest players to ever emerge from the Akron hoops scene. When LeBron ended his relationship with agent Aaron Goodwin with a text message notice in 2005 and turned things over to Carter, there were immediate suggestions that Carter, just 23 at the time, was in over his head, that he would fall on his face.

That hasn’t happened, though. Carter has prospered in the role. He’s on the phone, in the star’s ear many times a day, working out the details of the money machine that is King James’ life.

The West Coast-based Goodwin had struck an envious array of deals for James with Upper Deck trading cards, Bubblicious chewing gum and Coca-Cola brands Sprite and Powerade. Shoe and apparel giant Nike ponied up $90 million over seven years to sign James about a month before he became the No. 1 pick in the 2003 NBA draft.

But Maverick Carter offered James the closeness of family. They’re supposedly distant cousins who grew up in the same Akron neighborhood.

“I have known him all my life,” Carter has said of James. “We are like brothers.”

It was apparently Wesley who suggested the group add Leon Rose as a registered agent.

“LeBron selected this team,” Cleveland attorney Fred Nance, who joins the team as James’ lawyer, once explained. “LeBron is the ultimate decision-maker. We give him advice. We make sure he is fully informed before he makes a decision, but it is his decision.

“I would say that Maverick is functioning as LeBron’s right hand. While he is not authorized to make deals without LeBron’s approval, he does engage in discussions with potential partners and explores opportunities and brings them back to the team.”

Some have suggested that Carter is too manipulative for his and LeBron’s own good, but others disagree. The two share a love of hoops, they say, and Carter has employed his substantial smarts with an unwavering allegiance to the star.

Above all, they want to find James the right circumstances where he can win championships and fulfill his destiny. That means lining him up with the right organization, the right coach and the right teammates.

That sounds simple enough, doesn’t it? Hey, it’s the NBA, the land of the lavish lifestyle. James and his team, though, have learned all too well that the league is a house of mirrors where a select few secret doors open to glory and others open to the fires of hell.

The current flames for LeBron and his team involve the nasty rumor making the circuit on ESPN and other internet sites that Gloria James and LeBron’s troubled teammate, Delonte West, engaged in a liaison, perhaps even a protracted affair, that was revealed to James during Cleveland’s disastrous playoff series with the Boston Celtics this spring.

There are whispers of a boisterous argument in the Cavs’ locker room leading up to the disastrous Game 5 of the series where LeBron played a mysteriously terrible game. Apparently the argument involved the defensive assignments for the game, but some suggest the eruption was triggered by suggestions of the alleged relationship.

Who knows what happened? Little can be determined about such delicate circumstances, true or not, other than to say that whatever they were, they were extremely unfortunate. The timing couldn’t have been worse. The incident interrupted one of the defining moments of James’ career.

And dealing with the backwash is just one of the immense distractions for LeBron’s team as they huddle and try to decide his future.

Frankly, it seems immense good fortune that James has the closeness of his team to steer him through the difficulty. Even if the rumors have absolutely no truth to them, the distress of their presence is plenty challenging.

Carter, who has long looked up to William Wesley, has teamed nicely with the mysterious hoops figure to guide James’ basketball strategy through the trouble.

Wesley has long been an all-access kind of guy in the world of hoops, whether he’s observing a closed practice for Team USA Olympic basketball or hob-nobbing with his legion of good friends among the elite of the game. He’s extremely tight with top coaches like Larry Brown and is said to be the guy who funnels all those fine young point guards to John Calipari.

“Wes is powerful, very, very powerful,” explained one up-close source. “He’s got influence at every level.”

One observer says Wesley is mostly a watchful uncle, trying to ensure that basketball’s brightest and richest young stars find their way. They don’t come any brighter or richer than LeBron, of course.

And King James is now faced with playing the most elaborate game of pick-up in basketball’s 12 decades of existence. Chris Bosh, Dwyane Wade, and coach Phil Jackon headline the host of free agents that shimmer among the pile of options.

If these free agents choose wisely and find their ways around pro basketball’s serpentine salary structure, they could put together the kind of team that runs to a series of championships, the kind of hoops context that James ravenously craves.

So it’s understandable that LeBron’s team would engage in all the back-channeling that included a soft overture to Phil Jackson and/or the Lakers through a Hollywood agent during the season.

After all, no one offers a quicker ticket to the promised land than Jackson, although a pairing with the Hall of Fame coach seems immensely complicated.

James has to at least consider even remote possibilities. He has to sort through the options, separating the true free agents from the free radicals in his life. The King has huge choices to make, and they won’t be easy, no matter how many good minds he pulls around him.

Despite the criticism, it seems as if James is making the best effort at the best decision possible. Unfortunately, the process seems to have already cost some good people, including Cavaliers executive Danny Ferry and coach Mike Brown, their jobs.

Yes, heads are rolling and hearts are aching. That, in itself, may prove the ultimate omen for James.

Above all, he should move carefully to read all the cards and make the best bet, just as Wesley has taught him.

As Buzz Bissinger, James’ co-author on a recent book, once observed, forever is about to happen right now.

Roland Lazenby is the author of Jerry West, The Life And Legend Of A Basketball Icon, recently released by ESPN Books.