Arn Tellem

Renowned agent Tellem is Pistons’ community point man

Auburn Hills – He left Los Angeles a crazy man. And now that he’s here in Detroit, Arn Tellem, once one of the most powerful and influential agents in sports, still finds he’s a bit of a conversation piece.

“People want to meet me,” said Tellem, who was lured away from his comfortable life – and his billion-dollar client list – last summer to serve as Pistons owner Tom Gores’ top lieutenant. “They’re curious why I would do this.”

Not half as curious as some of the friends and former colleagues back in Southern California, where Tellem and his wife, Nancy, the former president of CBS Entertainment, spent the last 36 years.

When Tellem finally announced he was leaving the Pacific Ocean for The Palace of Auburn Hills, “you sort of got two reactions,” Nancy Tellem said, laughing. “One was ‘Are you crazy?!?!’ But the other was, ‘That’s really cool!’ ”

That is what Tellem is saying now, too, as he sits in his Palace office, talking about this last act of a remarkable career and his first impressions of a new job and a new city. As the vice chairman of Palace Sports & Entertainment, Tellem, a fidgety, 5-foot-8 bundle of energy, has more than just an ownership stake here. He says he has a mission, tasked with leading Gores’ deep-pocketed efforts “to make a difference in this community.”

“Tom’s vision of the team being a community asset, a large part of that is I’ve always believed that we have a social responsibility that goes along with that,” said Tellem, who started in his new role in September. “Tom believes that. I believe that. … I think that’s what makes this job so compelling to me.”

And whether it’s coordinating a $10 million private-sector fundraising effort in response to the Flint water crisis, or partnering with organizations like the Detroit Police Athletic League and S.A.Y. Detroit on youth initiatives, or, yes, exploring the possibility of moving the Pistons downtown, Tellem says he can feel a difference.

So can his wife, who is busy commuting between Detroit, Los Angeles, New York – and occasionally Tel Aviv – in her role as chief media officer for Interlude, a tech startup focused on interactive video.

“I’ve never seen him so happy, frankly,” she says.

Tellem, who turns 62 this month, wasn’t looking for “just a basketball job,” though he admits it’s his “sweet spot,” having made his name representing some of the game’s biggest stars – from Reggie Miller and Kobe Bryant to Russell Westbrook and Anthony Davis – over the last three decades.

He had been approached about front office positions in the past, owing in part to his penchant for civil negotiations. (“He’s friends with everyone with whom he’s negotiated,” Nancy marvels.) And Tellem, whose career was loosely portrayed in the HBO sitcom “Arli$$” some 20 years ago, was part of billionaire Steven Cohen’s failed bid to buy the Los Angeles Dodgers in 2012.

But though he never found the right fit, the idealistic urge of a liberal-leaning lawyer who once envisioned a career in politics kept growing. And having offered advice to Gores and his Platinum Equity team before their 2011 purchase of the Pistons, Tellem was open to their sales pitch when they circled back last spring, looking to make a deal with the consummate dealmaker.

Making a difference

“Most of the (other NBA) owners were wondering, ‘How the heck did we get Arn?’ ” Gores said. “He’s probably the most renowned NBA agent ever. He knows everybody in basketball. And we convinced him to come to Detroit.”

It wasn’t his hometown of Philadelphia, where Tellem had always hoped he might return one day, “but this is pretty close,” he said, a comparison he makes – referencing both the underdog mentality and the plans for urban renewal – almost daily in his new job. “And it’s a town where I can probably do more here to make a difference than other places.”

Tellem, a 1979 graduate of the University of Michigan law school, was no stranger to Detroit. The youngest of his three sons, Eric, who now works for the Toronto Raptors, is a recent UM grad. Still, Tellem says he has been taken aback by how “warm and welcoming” everyone has been.

“The people here have an incredible heart, a real spirit here that I can see, and it inspires me every day that I can be a part of that,” said Tellem, whose other sons also are in the sports biz – one as an agent, the other with the Brooklyn Nets. “And in a weird way, I just think this was meant to be. I wouldn’t trade this for any other opportunity.”

For Tellem, this opportunity offers both a “blank canvas” and a full plate, expanding the billionaire Flint native’s philanthropic and business interests while trying to, as Gores puts it, “find ways to move the needle for the city.” Gores and his Platinum Equity partner Mark Barnhill, who are based in Los Angeles, call it the “Big Math” project. And now that the Pistons’ basketball operations are on firmer footing – team president and coach Stan Van Gundy has reshaped a young roster into a playoff contender again – “we’re really ready to put it on supercharge,” Gores said.

“This is a very big job,” said Gores, who will be back in town Wednesday for Chauncey Billups’ jersey retirement ceremony. “I mean, I think even we didn’t estimate the hugeness of this job coming in. Eventually the task was bigger than I could handle or Mark could handle. We really needed somebody on the ground every single day thinking about Detroit.”

Enter Tellem, who certainly has made a fast impression in the city, and maybe an unexpected one, as Tom Richey, the CEO for Detroit’s Police Athletic League, discovered when they met during a panel discussion at last fall’s “Detroit Homecoming.”

“You sort of wonder what a guy like that is going to be like,” Richey said. “But he’s super humble, very laid-back, very personable – the kind of guy that’s going to look you in the eye and have a conversation. He’s bringing that same blue-collar Philly kid here to Detroit, just with a lot more resources. So right away, we hit it off. We sat down for breakfast. He said, ‘We’ve got to do something.’ And next thing you know, here we are.”

Here they were last month with a $300,000 contribution to support PAL’s new youth rec basketball league in Detroit. And there Tellem was again a couple of weeks later with the Pistons’ brass, pledging $600,000 for gym renovations and academic support at the S.A.Y. Detroit Play Center at Lipke Park.

“And I think you’re going to see some announcements that have nothing to do with basketball that will have them more deeply engaged in Detroit,” said Mayor Mike Duggan, who has quickly developed a relationship with the Tellems and hails their “big-city perspective” as a bridge, of sorts. “I think it’s no coincidence that you’re seeing the Pistons now start to have a presence here.

“Arn and Nancy have accomplished everything in their lives that they need to. And I do believe he has taken this challenge out of love. He wants to see the team do well and he wants to see the community do well. And we’d like to see both.”

Duggan, of course, is just one of many who would like to see the Pistons playing games downtown again after a 40-year hiatus in the suburbs. And that’s a possibility Gores & Co. are exploring, even as they vow to “respect the home we’re in” – a Palace facility the owner has invested more than $40 million in since buying the team 4 1/2 years ago.

“We’re gonna continue to do everything we can to keep this place state-of-the-art for our fans, and right now, we foresee staying here,” said Tellem, who reveled in the atmosphere last month when the number of one of his former clients – Ben Wallace – was retired before a packed house at The Palace. “But as Tom said, we’re gonna always look at our options. We have to.”

And though he adds, “it’s hard to imagine leaving this place,” it’s easy to connect the dots here, with the Ilitch family building a $627 million arena in the city and fellow NBA owner Dan Gilbert publicly pushing Gores to bring the Pistons back as well.

Ironic, too, in that high-profile investment banker Steve Greenberg is both a longtime adviser to Mike Ilitch and the sports dealmaker who helped Gilbert purchase the Cleveland Cavaliers. He’s also a close friend and mentor to Tellem, who stalked him as a law firm intern nearly 40 years ago, obsessed as he was with Greenberg’s father, Hank, the Tigers’ Hall of Fame slugger. The latter is prominently displayed in Tellem’s office at The Palace, and Nancy Tellem says her husband carried Greenberg’s baseball card in his suit pocket on their wedding day.

Gores ‘wants to do right’

Tellem says he hasn’t yet “gotten in depth” in conversations with the Ilitches, but hopes to in the near future. And while he’s “inspired” by the revitalization efforts of Ilitch and Gilbert, whose companies have invested nearly $2.2 billion in more than 85 properties downtown – “it is really remarkable what they both have contributed to this city,” Tellem says – it’s Gores’ interests he’s representing.

“Tom told me the first time we met he wants to be a great owner,” Tellem said. “It’s not about being competitive with anyone else here. He wants to do right for the Pistons, The Palace, the music properties we own, the fans, the city, the state. And that’s what we intend to do. It’s not worrying about keeping up with this person or that person. We have our own goals and that’s what we’re looking to pursue.”

With Tellem running the point, that’s hardly a crazy proposition.

Source: The Detroit News /