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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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Bristow imposed more than his will on Tellem. Twelve years ago, during negotiations for Gill, Tellem's rope-a-dope stance, refusing to react to Bristow's proposals, frustrated the 6'7" general manager so much that he grabbed the 5'8" agent by me throat and slammed him against an office wall. " Bristow told the press that we'd had a 'heated, eye-to-eye discussion,' " Tellem says, laughing. "That's true, but he lifted me a foot off the floor to conduct it." Afterward Tellem, shaking, phoned Nancy. "You won't believe what happened," he said. "He choked me. He choked me."

"Arn, are you nuts?" said Nancy. "Get out of there."

"I'd like to, but I can't," he said. "I haven't finished Kendall's deal."

The deal was done a few days later, but only after Charlotte agreed to give Gill the option to leave after three seasons. Which he did. "It was one of the few times in my life I promised myself there would be a payback," Tellem says righteously. "I paid Bristow back, in full."

The Tellems' Patio

The sports agent and his wife, the network president, pace the backyard of their Pacific Palisades home in concentric circles, cellphones cocked to their ears. He's putting together a shoe deal for Garciaparra; she, a new contract with David Letterman. They circle and talk, side by side, hands waving as if they'd just walked into a wall of cobwebs. Their voices get softer and softer until the yard is filled with low murmurings. You can't Tellem apart.

As a couple, Arn and Nancy complement each other neatly. Whenever he spins off into his own strange orbit, she plays Ground Control and talks him down to earth. "Nancy runs my life," says Arn, whose players earn only a few hundred million dollars a year less than the budget she commands at CBS, "and I'm a source of more stress for her."

The Tellems met cute, as they say in Hollywood. In 1974, the year of Richard Nixon's impeachment hearings, both were summer interns in Washington, D.C. Nancy, a Cal junior from San Francisco, worked for Oakland congressman Ron Dellums. Arn, a sophomore at Haverford who was, he says, "obsessed with getting Nixon," got hired by another California representative, Jerome Waldie, a member of the House Judiciary Committee, after bombarding him with term papers he had written on Tricky Dick. One day Arn, in a madras jacket, was sunning himself on the steps of an office building near the Capitol when he felt a sharp pain in his back. "Nancy had kicked me," he says. "I looked at her, and she said, 'That's one horrible-looking sports jacket. Where'd you get it?' That was it. I was smitten."

Nancy wasn't. She kept Madras Man at a distance. But Arn found out that Nancy regularly visited her Aunt Rosie in Philly, and he started taking the same train up from Washington. "It took me a while to catch on," Nancy says. "After the third time it was like, Who the hell is this person?"

"At that moment she realized I was desperate and pathetic," Arn says. When Nancy returned to Berkeley, he launched a phone campaign. "He'd call and call," she says.

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