Spread out on the desk in Arn Tellem's office in suburban Los Angeles, the mementos of his life have the disconnected quality of pages torn at random from a diary. There's a DVD of The Godfather, the film that, Tellem says, taught him everything he needed to know about being a players' agent; a snapshot of his three sports-mad sons, Mike, Matty and Eric; and an official mug from Survivor, the show that Arn's wife, Nancy, the president of CBS Entertainment, shepherded to boob-tube immortality. ("The only episode of Survivor I ever sat through was the first season's finale," Tellem confesses. "I had to—I was at the cast party." The Eye network's First Hubby hates TV.)
There are also collectibles associated with three of Tellem's biggest clients: a bobblehead doll of New York Yankees first baseman Jason Giambi, a T-shirt bearing the name of Boston Red Sox shortstop Nomar Garciaparra, and a can of Sprite embossed with a likeness of Los Angeles Lakers guard Kobe Bryant. Nearby is a copy of the book The jew in American Sports, given to Tellem at his bar mitzvah in 1966. ("Bar mitzvah age," Tellem says in a high, gentle tone that seems to contain an apology and a question mark, "is when a Jewish boy learns he has a better chance of owning a professional sports team than of playing for one.")
There are baseball cards of the ill-fated 1964 Philadelphia Phillies, Tellem's favorite team during his boyhood on the Main Line. There's a frayed Hank Greenberg card from APBA Major League Baseball, the tabletop game to which Tellem lashed his adolescence. (The card—which lists Hammerin' Hank's statistics during the 1938 season, in which he smacked 58 home runs—is the same one Tellem carried in the breast pocket of his suit at his wedding, in 1979. "I wanted Hank to share the most important day of my life," Tellem said then.)
In the midst of all this Tellemania is a reverse clock given to him by Jerry Reinsdorf, owner of the Chicago Bulls and White Sox. The timepiece counts down from five years—the length of Tellem's commitment to continue working for SFX Entertainment, which in 1999 paid more than $25 million for the agency he had built up from nothing beginning in '89. As of midnight on Sunday, the clock had two years, four months, nine days, one hour and 46 seconds left until zero hour.
For Tellem, every tick is precious. "In life there are no timeouts," he says. "The clock is always running." He has savored every second since he had sextuple-bypass surgery 10 years ago. He was then the self-proclaimed Ted Williams of cholesterol: His count was 400. Tellem was 38, only three years younger than his father, a Philadelphia pathologist, had been when he dropped dead of a heart attack. "I want to accomplish a lot but know I might not have enough time," Tellem says. "The fear is constantly in the recesses of my mind."
Tellem and I have been close friends for 40 years. We met when I was in fifth grade, and we became charter members of a Wiffle ball league in a friend's backyard. We still speak on the phone every few weeks. The shy, buttoned-down wheeler-dealer with the whinnying laugh may be the silliest person I know, but he doesn't think he's silly, he thinks he's eminently sensible. I le knows exactly who he is and what he wants.
Reinsdorf says that he and Tellem have discussions, not negotiations: "Aim is never threatening or confrontational. He doesn't sell his players; he helps you decide if you really want them."
Yankees president Randy Levine calls Tellem "a problem-solver rather than a problem-creator. He gives you his word and keeps it."
Oakland Athletics general manager Billy Beane gushes, "With Arn, there's a friendly casualness, a high degree of trust and a great amount of absurdity. In the middle of an intense deal, he'll blurt out, 'My baseball fantasy league draft is coming up. Got any suggestions?' He combines the intelligence and steadfastness of Alan Dershowitz with the neurotic behavior of Woody Allen."
In a profession rife with self-aggrandizing publicity-mongers, Tellem is an efficient power broker who strives for invisibility. "I hardly ever go to my players' games," he says. "I can't get any work done there. I'd rather be in my office. Agents who go to games just want to be seen."