Former Michigan guard Josh Bartelstein flourishes in a suit, not jersey, for the Pistons
In basketball, the clock counts down to zero at some point. Whether it’s high school, college or in the NBA, the end comes — whether it's the kid who grew up playing in a park with no nets or for Michael Jordan.
Taking off the jersey for the last time doesn’t mean that basketball ends, though.
Josh Bartelstein found life after college basketball.
Following a four-year career that began as a walk-on at Michigan ending with being named a captain and a run to the championship game in 2013. Bartelstein wasn’t picked in the NBA draft like teammates Trey Burke, Tim Hardaway Jr. or Mitch McGary, or even Caris LeVert, Glenn Robinson III or Nik Stauskas the following two seasons.
In a weird way, he could outlast them all in the NBA.
His playing career ended there but Bartelstein, 29, found another niche with the Pistons, starting with working under vice chairman Arn Tellem and ascending to his current role as chief of staff of Palace Sports & Entertainment.
In that role, Bartelstein has worked on major projects such as the Pistons’ move from The Palace to the downtown home at Little Caesars Arena, on the effort to bring a professional soccer team to Detroit, on the Pistons’ new practice facility in midtown Detroit and on the Pistons’ G-League franchise’s move to play at a soon-to-be-built arena at Wayne State University.
It’s been a fulfilling ride for Bartelstein, who didn’t take the easy road to success in the NBA. His father, Mark, is an NBA mega-sports agent, but instead of latching on with his father, Bartelstein has carved his own path with the help of Tellem, and a fortuitous phone call.
When Tellem joined the Pistons organization in 2015, he was looking to assemble the core of his staff, later adding general counsel Rich Haddad and Awenate Cobbina, who had worked at the White House under President Barack Obama.
Tellem had heard of Bartelstein’s time at Michigan and from the book Bartelstein wrote about that 2013 experience.
“Arn and my dad weren’t friends, but they were respected rivals and you just talk to people,” Bartelstein said. “He called my dad and said he was looking for a young guy to be his right-hand person.
“(Tellem) said, ‘Do you think Josh knows someone or if he may be interested? … So, I get a random call from an L.A. number. It’s August 15 — I’ll never forget where I was: I’m at a barbecue on a patio. I answer it and it’s Arn Tellem.”
Fast-forward four years and the evolution of their working relationship is clear.
“That’s my second father,” Bartelstein says of Tellem. “I didn’t know him — some people think Arn and I go way back but as of four years ago, I had never met him in my life. The first time I ever spoke to him was on this call.
“I had obviously heard of him; he changed the game in the sports industry. Everything you hear about him and all the values about the person he is — it’s all true. That’s what’s made him so successful in Detroit. We hit it off and I moved here in early October of 2015 and the journey started.”
Qualities for success
Tellem is no stranger to grooming good talent. One of his most prominent proteges is Bob Myers, team president of the Golden State Warriors. Myers also played college basketball before joining Tellem, who was a mega agent at the time.
Tellem sees some of the same qualities in Bartelstein.
“What impressed me about Josh is that he reminded me — very much in a different way — but very similar qualities, to Bob Meyers, who I hired when I was an agent as an intern out of UCLA,” Tellem said. “Impressive as (Bartelstein) was, he had a couple good qualities that are critical to success. One is sincerity and can connect with people and you can immediately trust.
“The second aspect was that he was a self-starter and motivated. He had this incredible attitude that is essential for determining someone’s future success. I knew he was smart as well.”
The easy road for Bartelstein would have been working in his father’s agency, but that wasn’t the road he chose. After earning a degree in sports management from Michigan, Bartelstein did a mini-tour for his book, “We On: An Inside Look at Michigan Basketball's Final Four Run,” and later worked in commercial real estate in Chicago.
Then came the call from Tellem. It wasn’t a hook-up from his father and he hasn’t relied on nepotism to make his name in his career. Tellem said he wasn’t even looking to hire Bartelstein initially; rather, he was hoping Bartelstein might refer someone else.
Things have turned out differently, which is what Bartelstein wanted.
“Whenever your dad has a successful company, you want to go out on your own and prove yourself first. There are a lot of people who can get hired into that role, whether it’s other employees or partners or employees,” Bartelstein said. “(I don’t want them to say) Josh is just here and he was given it and didn’t earn it. I would never want that.
“I didn’t have to go to prep school and for someone who grew up in a lucky situation, I had an amazing childhood. It wasn’t the hard way, but nothing was ever given to me.”
The playing career
Bartelstein’s basketball career wasn’t stellar: six points — on two 3-pointers — in 33 career games in his four years at Michigan. He left a lasting impression in other ways, though. He’s most noted for his early celebration on Trey Burke’s iconic game-tying 3-pointer in the NCAA Tournament against Kansas.
Although Burke had missed a few other potential game-winning shots in that season, Bartelstein had confidence that Burke’s luck was going to change.
“When I saw (Burke) bring it up the court I was like, ‘This is that shot.’ All those other ones didn’t matter; this was the one that is going to make for Michigan basketball lore. For the rest of history, people are going to ask where you were when Trey hit that shot.
“If I had known he was going to take it from that deep, I might not have been as confident. That guy finds a way to get things done. I jumped and it’s probably what I’m most famous for at Michigan, for predicting the future.”
The entire Michigan experience almost didn’t happen. Bartelstein said while he was playing in prep school at Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire, he was leaning toward going to the University of Pennsylvania.
While both of his parents went to Illinois, Bartelstein wasn’t really considering Michigan — that is, until he took a campus visit.
And everything changed.
“I said, ‘How do I say no to this?’ This is the best academics, high-level basketball and great social life. It was the perfect intersection of everything I was looking for,” he said. “I committed in spring 2009. It changed my life. Never in a million years did I think what happened would happen.
“You go from a walk-on freshman year, doing conditioning with Manny Harris and DeSshawn Sims and wondering how I’m going to do this. This isn’t going to work.
“It ended with being named captain my senior year. I didn’t realize what that would mean for me post-college. You’re on the team and helping lead.”
In many ways, Bartelstein helped usher in the renaissance for Michigan basketball during his college career. In his work with the Pistons, he has helped with the move downtown and with changing the look and feel of the franchise to regain its Detroit roots.
He’s just grateful for the opportunity and whatever the future may hold.
“The future has unlimited potential for him. Nothing would surprise me, whether it’s running a team in the front office or running a company in the private sector,” Tellem said. “It’s going to be very interesting to follow him in the years ahead.”