Tellem tends to Pistons, nurtures hope for Detroit

By Gregg Krupa
The Detroit News
Between retooling the Pistons organization, spearheading a bid for a Major League Soccer team and overseeing the construction of the Pistons practice facility, Arn Tellem has been a busy guy.

Detroit — When Tom Gores hired the renowned sports agent Arn Tellem as vice-chairman of Palace Sports & Entertainment three years ago, the owner of the Pistons said Tellem’s excitement and enthusiasm for the job reflected the potential of the city and the franchise.

Since then, the Pistons have moved back to Detroit.

The owners of three major professional sports franchises — the Lions, Pistons and Cleveland Cavaliers — have combined in a bid for a Major League Soccer expansion team for the city.

The Pistons have hired a new senior advisor to Gores, charged with reshaping the irresolute franchise.

They also hired the NBA coach of the year.

On each of these efforts to realize the potential are the firm hands of Tellem, 64, a maker of deals in professional sports for four decades.

“I came here with a broad portfolio to be able to represent ownership in the community, the overall strategy of our business, which continues,” he said.

“But part of that now is taking a very deeper dive into our basketball operation, and trying to help reshape the front office and the coaching staff, our player development people, assessing our conditioning and training staff and how we look at that going forward.”

More: Detroit officials redevelop plans for MLS at Ford Field bid

The Detroit move

His immersion into the on-court and in-the-front-office details of the Pistons parallels the work of fully locating the team in Detroit, including the development of a practice facility two blocks south of the landmark Fisher Building in the New Center.

The Henry Ford-Detroit Pistons Performance Center, scheduled to open next summer, will include a training center, community activities spaces and offices for the Pistons, a sports medicine center managed by the Henry Ford Health System, and public spaces for community relations and team events.

The Pistons will host fitness and health events, youth basketball clinics and Pistons Academy programs amid the sometimes-overlooked geography between Wayne State and what for several decades was the world headquarters of General Motors and the Burroughs Corporation.

Rendering of the Henry Ford-Detroit Pistons Performance Center

“Sports has played a significant role in Detroit’s ongoing rebirth, and will continue to play a significant role,” Tellem said. “And, you can see, by creating a sports entertainment district downtown, which I think is unique to any city in the United States, the impact is significant.

“Having lived in Los Angeles and grown up in Philadelphia and spending time in a lot of other places, there is no city like Detroit that has this sports and entertainment combination in the heart of downtown. The impact of that is young people moving downtown, which is the most important thing, other developments and restaurants opening at a record pace.

“Sports plays a significant role here. There’s no doubt about it.”

To the front office

To the surprise of many in the business of sport, in 2015 Gores plucked Tellem from the presidency of WMG Management in Los Angeles.

At the time Tellem was the leading NBA agent.

He brought about 100 professional basketball and baseball players with him in 2006, when the Wasserman Media Group acquired Tellem’s agency from SFX Entertainment. They included Pau Gasol, Tracy McGrady, Jermaine O’Neal, Nomar Garciaparra, Jason Giambi, Hideki Matsui and Mike Mussina.

SFX had purchased his firm, Tellem and Associates, in 1999.

Three years before that Tellem designed an end-run around the NBA Draft to divert 18-year-old Kobe Bryant to the Lakers.

That came several years after he helped the pitcher Ed Farmer win a landmark arbitration case against the Chicago White Sox in 1982, and garnered the first player he ever represented, pitcher Mark Langston, a then-record five-year, $16 million with the Angels in 1989.

He got Hideo Nomo out of his contract in Japan and on to the Dodgers, and represented Albert Belle and Chase Utley in deals that altered salary structures and set records.

From 2000 to 2006, Tellem’s agency represented the most first-round NBA Draft picks.

Among his basketball clients: Ben Wallace of the Pistons, Baron Davis, Antawn Jamison, Joe Johnson, Derrick Rose, Brandon Roy and Russell Westbrook.

When he resigned to work for Gores, he ranked first among NBA player agents in players represented, All-Stars, maxed-out contracts and clients’ salaries, according to USA Today.

The character Arliss Michaels of the HBO sitcom “Arli$$” was based, in part, on Tellem. That he can make a deal is manifest.

But Tellem’s knowledge of NBA personnel, on the court and behind the scenes, might pay dividends, too.

“Since the end of the season, the vast majority of my time has been spent working with Tom Gores really focusing on the reconfiguration of our basketball operations, from the front office to the coaching staff,” Tellem said. “And that continues.”

They like the talent they have attracted recently, Tellem said.

“Obviously, we’re very pleased,” he said. “We’ve hired Ed Stefanski, who’s been a friend of mine for almost 40 years; one of the best basketball executives, who has a sterling reputation throughout the league.

“And, we brought in Dwane Casey, who was just named coach of the year. Probably the first time in NBA history when the coach of the year has changed teams, and we’re very fortunate to be able to get Casey to come to Detroit. Now, we’re focusing on spending a lot of time helping both of them build out their staffs and the rest of the basketball operations and coaching staff.

“I was involved with helping Ed on the draft strategy and our trades, our trade to acquire another high second-round pick,” Tellem said. “And now, I’m involved with just helping shape our strategy for the summer, you know, what type of free agents we’re going to go after.”

More: Casey aims to change culture, mentality of Pistons

A Michigan man

Tellem’s roots in Michigan extend to his graduation from the University of Michigan Law School in 1979, and to Hank Greenberg.

Greenberg, the great Tigers slugger and World War II hero, had a son, Steve, who played baseball at Yale and hoped for a major league career, but ended up being one of the prominent deal makers in sports business, beginning in the 1970s.

Tellem began his legal career at Manatt, Pelps, Rothenberg & Tunney, where Steve Greenberg was a mentor.

Arn Tellem

Soon, he represented baseball players and acted as legal counsel to the San Diego Clippers, counseling the NBA franchise during its move to Los Angeles.

As a kid in Philadelphia, Tellem had idolized “Hammerin’ Hank” Greenberg, as did many in the American Jewish community, all across the country.

“For me, coming out of law school, his son would become my mentor and one of my closest friends,” Tellem said. “Steve would really shape my professional development. I owe my career to him.

“And one of the highlights of working with Steve was that, starting at the end of 1979, I was able to spend a fair amount of time with Hank Greenberg.”

When Steve Greenberg and Tellem recruited baseball clients, an attractive lure was lunch at the Beverly Hills Tennis Club, with the retired Tigers first baseman, the winner of two World Series, a five-time All-Star, two-time Most Valuable Player and four times each the home run leader and RBI leader of the American League.

“He would regale us with stories,” Tellem said. “Often, when you meet people, they disappoint. But Hank Greenberg never disappointed.

“I held him on such a pedestal growing up. He meant so much to my family and my grandparents. He was a real hero to us. But, when you met him, he absolutely lived up to those high standards."