"I negotiated the relationship by focusing on building blocks," he says. "I never wanted to put her in a situation where she'd say no." After a couple of months, he stepped up the assault. "My position was one of total weakness," he says. "The situation required cunning and daring and a tremendous act of courage."
One night Arn got up enough of all three to call Nancy and announce that he would be flying out to Frisco over the Christmas break. "I figured he'd stay a few days," she recalls. "He stayed three weeks."
"That final week Nancy let me stay with her," he says. "I just wore her down, and eventually I found her terms."
A Philadelphian in exile, Tellem has dragged me down to a Santa Monica delicatessen where, to his delight, the menu once had an egg-white omelet named in his honor. "If you add grilled mushrooms and onions, it has a lot of similarities to a Philly cheese steak," he says.
Izzy's is where Tellem first met Sonny Vaccaro, the self-styled Don Corleone of sneakers. Vaccaro, then of Nike, now of Adidas, was such an Izzy's regular that he set up shop in one of the booths. He and Tellem hashed out Cheryl Miller's first shoe deal there. "I knew right away that Sonny was a guy I wanted to be friends with," Tellem says. "He had his office at a deli and a sandwich named after him."
Vaccaro recommended Tellem to advisers for both McGrady and O'Neal when they were in high school. "I've always been open about my relationship with Sonny-he's one of my closest friends," Tellem says. "One of my strengths as an agent has been great relationships with owners, G.M.'s, coaches, players' unions and all the big shoe companies. I've gotten player recommendations from every one of them."
No basketball agent seems to have better relations with hotly touted teenagers than Tellem. Seven of the NBA players he reps bypassed college. Commissioner David Stern has floated the idea of making the NBA the first pro league to ban players under 20. "Stern's proposal is grossly unfair," says Tellem in a hectoring tone. "Declaring yourself eligible for the draft isn't a crime, it's a career choice, yet the NBA and the NCAA [would rather] indenture teen prodigies to colleges as unpaid professionals. Their purpose is not to encourage education but to protect the golden goose."
Tellem has been accused of being too fiercely protective of his clients, some of whom turn up in lineups penciled in by police instead of managers. The full-court press he adopts in their defense, and his tendency to paint them as victims—after Cleveland Indians outfielder Albert Belle threw a ball at a photographer, Tellem implied the photographer had invaded Belle's pregame privacy—has led critics to tar him as an enabler. "I don't think athletes should be expected to be role models," he says. "We should view them as what they are: great athletes. They're real people with real problems."
Much of his time is devoted to those very problems: paternity claims, divorce proceedings, custody battles, criminal complaints, personal lawsuits, psychological maladies. "My clients are grown men who make their own decisions," Tellem says. "Even if they make the wrong ones, I stand behind them and support them."