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Franz Lidz
May 27, 2002
Employing a mix of integrity and absurdity, ARN TELLEM is the strangest of beasts: a powerful sports agent you can actually like
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May 27, 2002

The Arn Of The Deal

Employing a mix of integrity and absurdity, ARN TELLEM is the strangest of beasts: a powerful sports agent you can actually like

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Of course when you've represented 14 of the NBAs first-round draft picks over the past two years and control 13% of the players in the league—42 to be exact—you can afford to be invisible. Tellem's basketball roster ranges from alltime great Reggie Miller of the Indiana Pacers to current All-Stars Baron Davis of the Charlotte Hornets, Tracy McGrady of the Orlando Magic and Jermaine O'Neal of the Pacers. "The reputation of sports agents is that they're vicious, cutthroat and quite slimy," says the Seattle SuperSonics' Brent Barry, a Tellemaniac for seven years. "The one thing Arn brings to the table is a little decency. In a sea of great white sharks, he's a gefilte fish."

Tellem's Grandma Fanny made splendid gefilte fish, and his mother taught him to use his Judaism as a shield. She named him Arn after a brave knight in the Prince Valiant comic strip. "That Arn fought the Inquisition and then took 10 percent," Tellem deadpans. A deal between this Arn and a player buys—for about 4% of the player's contract revenues and 10% of his endorsement deals—Tellem's superb bartering and lawyering skills. In an age in which NBA players' salaries average $4.5 million a season, Tellem pockets sums that even Valiant would deem princely. The multiyear pacts of the two Yankees he reps, Giambi and Mike Mussina, total almost a quarter of a billion dollars. You do the math.

When putting power moves on management, Tellem uses as much muscle as his players. One of his first NBA clients, former Chicago Bulls guard B.J. Armstrong, affectionately calls Tellem Meyer Lansky, after the tough Jewish mob financier. Bryant calls him Hyman Roth, after the Godfather II character patterned on Lansky. Retired big league pitcher Mark Langston, the first athlete Tellem ever signed (in 1981), calls him the Master Manipulator.

One of Tellem's most masterful manipulations was his circumvention of the '96 NBA draft to maneuver the 18-year-old Bryant to the Lakers. "Basically, I kept teams from picking Kobe by not giving their coaches access to him," says Tellem, who learned the backstage moves of NBA front offices during six years as general counsel for the LA. Clippers, from 1983 to '89. "I knew teams would be reluctant to take a chance on a high schooler without first talking to him and working him out." ( Bryant was picked 13th by Charlotte and immediately traded to the Lakers.)

Among Tellem's least masterful moves: the way he stuck his neck out in a 1990 negotiation on behalf of Hornets draft pick Kendall Gill and literally got it wrung by the team's irate general manager, Allan Bristow. Then there was the embarrassment of getting sued in '98 by a suspended player, Latrell Sprewell, for having included the standard "moral turpitude" clause in Sprewell's contract with the Golden State Warriors. Without it, Sprewell could have choked his coach and still gotten paid. (The suit was settled out of court, with, appropriately, a gag order on both parties.)

Each of these episodes caused Tellem great anxiety—which, it turns out, is his raison d'�tre. That and bagels, which are his raisin d'�tre. But two years ago he realized he had to watch his carbs as well as his fat consumption. His blood pressure was rising, and so was his weight. By pounding a treadmill to U2 concert footage, weighing himself four times a day and following a no-bagel diet for more than a year, he dropped 35 pounds. In the throes of withdrawal, he would ring up his friend Mark Moskowitz in Pennsylvania and listen while Moskowitz chewed an onion bagel. "I could hear Arn salivate in ecstasy," Moskowitz says. "It was his idea of phone sex."

Tellem, who now allows himself scooped-out bagels with low-fat cream cheese, is down to 155 pounds, which is what he weighed in the sixth grade. Back then he ate for "entertainment, attention and stats," he says. He'd chart his daily bagel intake. "I kept running totals in seven varieties, from onion to pumpernickel. Same goes for hamburgers and hot dogs. My record was the 17—eight burgers, nine dogs—I ate at Ricky Roisman's 12th birthday party. But my real soft spot was for liver knishes." It was quite an experience to watch this tugboat of a boy attack a tray of knishes at a bar mitzvah. "Other kids worried about their first kiss," he recalls. "I worried about whether I could reach 100 in knishes."

I remember this compulsive lover of liver as a budding Duddy Kravitz with the chutzpah to challenge Mr. Sala, our dreaded grade-school gym teacher, to a debate over inequities in the lunchtime hoops league schedule, under which some teams played the toughest squads more often than others did. Thanks to Tellem, Mr. Sala compromised and added a day to the schedule.

"Happily," Tellem says, "due to the revised schedule, my team could have forced a playoff by winning its final game." Sadly, in that game Tellem missed all 12 shots he took from the floor, and regulation ended in a scoreless tie. "We lost in overtime," he says with a sigh. "The point is that Mr. Sala relented, and I won the case." Tellem had pulled off his first sports negotiation.

Within anyone's life, there are a handful of people who make a big impression, either favorable or unfavorable. These are folks you obsess or brood upon. Tellem is one of mine. My memories of him are as evocative as the mementos in his office, and, for that matter, the mementos in Memento, a movie in which the incidents in a man's life unfold backward, like the seconds on Tellem's desk clock.

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