By Amy SpoonerApril 1, 2016
As a student at Michigan Law, Arn Tellem, ’79, didn’t envision a career that sometimes would involve telling the girlfriends of professional athletes that they were being dumped. Then again, Tellem didn’t envision a career that involved professional athletes at all.
Tellem was one of the most well-known, influential sports agents in the country when he walked away in 2015 to become vice president of Palace Sports and Entertainment (PS&E), the front office of the Detroit Pistons NBA franchise. But way before all of that, formative summer experiences in Washington, D.C., including an internship with a member of the House Judiciary Committee during the Watergate hearings, convinced Tellem he was destined for a career on the Hill. Instead, falling in love with a Californian took him to Los Angeles after law school, where he became an associate with Manatt, Phelps, Rothenberg & Tunney. Although at first he was drawn to the firm’s sports, entertainment, and politics practice—“I initially wanted to become a campaign manager”—his focus shifted when he realized that “politics was all about money.” The mentors he chose at Manatt also played a part in his career turn. “I could see myself emulating them one day,” he told students during a recent talk sponsored by Michigan Law’s Sports Law Society.
One of those mentors was fellow alum Alan Rothenberg, ’63; the other was Steve Greenberg, son of baseball legend Hank Greenberg. Rothenberg and Greenberg had built Manatt’s sports practice, and as Tellem began working with them—especially with Greenberg to grow the baseball practice—he knew he had found his path. “I liked the impact I could make on someone’s life, and building close relationships with my clients and their families,” Tellem said. “Good legal skills help you be successful, but good relationship skills get you in the door.”
Tellem also became general counsel for the NBA’s San Diego Clippers after answering an anonymous job posting from what turned out to be owner Don Sterling’s office. Although Sterling asked Tellem to be in-house counsel, he stayed with Manatt but was instrumental in moving the Clippers to Los Angeles. “I had a split personality,” Tellem said. “I was on the labor side in baseball and the management side in basketball. It was a great learning experience.”
As Tellem developed a solid reputation in a cut-throat business, his client list grew; an early signee was the talented rookie cum NBA Hall of Famer Reggie Miller. By 1988, Tellem decided to open his own business as a full-time players’ agent. While leaving Greenberg was difficult, “I wanted the chance to build a sports agency.” In the ensuing two and a half decades, Tellem became a powerhouse who represented basketball stars Kobe Bryant, Tracy McGrady, Jermaine O’Neal, Pau Gasol, Anthony Davis, and Derrick Rose, as well as Major League Baseball’s Frank Thomas, Albert Belle, Jason Giambi, Hideki Matsui, Nomar Garciaparra, and Mike Mussina, among many others. In 2006, Sports Business Journal and The Sporting News both named Tellem the most influential sports agent, and in 2010, Business Insider called him one of the world’s four best sports agents. In 2013, Forbes ranked Tellem the third most powerful agent in sports (first in basketball). In addition to negotiating huge contracts and the aforementioned soured romances, Tellem was alongside his clients during deeply personal moments, like when Jason Collins came out as the first openly gay player in the NBA, and when Giambi and Rafael Palmeiro were found to have used performance-enhancing drugs.
But in spite of his success, Tellem was intrigued when PS&E principal Tom Gores came calling. “I liked the idea of leaving the agent business at the top of my game and with no regrets,” he said, “and I thought it was time to challenge myself to make an impact in a different way.” The Philadelphia native was also drawn to the gritty, underdog mentality of both the city of Detroit and its basketball team, and he told the students that he was inspired by the city’s comeback from bankruptcy. “Because they are community assets, sports teams have an obligation to be involved in their communities, which is important to me at this stage of my career. And this is a very exciting time to be involved in the city of Detroit.”
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