Super Agent Arn Tellem: How I Helped Jason Collins Come Out (Q&A)
The legendary sports rep sounds off on the Lakers' woes, what happens when a client is caught using performance-enhancing drugs and what he learned from wife Nancy about talent.
This story first appeared in the Aug. 23 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
A year ago, agent Arn Tellem teamed with hedge-fund billionaire Steve Cohen in a bid to buy the Los Angeles Dodgers. Had they succeeded, Tellem likely would have had to leave his powerful post as vice chairman of Wasserman Media Group, where he oversees a huge roster of basketball and baseball players including Derrick Rose and Pau Gasol. But he viewed the Dodgers as a "once-in-a-lifetime opportunity" that had to be pursued.
Tellem, 59, remains disappointed that the team instead was sold to a group led by Guggenheim Partners (owner of The Hollywood Reporter) for $2.15 billion, but the University of Michigan Law School graduate has had plenty of work to keep him busy. The spouse of Nancy Tellem -- the former CBS Network Television Entertainment Group president and now head of digital media at Microsoft, with whom he shares a West L.A. home and three sons -- orchestrated Jason Collins' April 29 coming out, via a Sports Illustrated cover, as the first openly gay male athlete in a major sport. He's agitating for new leadership at the NBA players union. And he's helping Wasserman grow its football practice (the group reps budding NFL star Andrew Luck).
The Philadelphia-born agent -- who partly served as inspiration for HBO's Arli$$ and once repped Kobe Bryant (they split about a decade ago) -- got his break as the top lawyer for the Clippers during the '80s, helping move the team from San Diego to L.A. before launching his own agency in 1989. He spoke with THR about the emotional aspects of being a high-profile sports agent.
The Hollywood Reporter: What's the toughest thing any client has said to you?
Arn Tellem: There have been a lot of emotional moments -- one that obviously comes to mind is Jason Collins. You care about someone who's been part of your family. And then he comes to you for advice, and you feel tremendous responsibility to do what's right for him and to guide him through this in the right way. Going through those discussions with him and his family was powerful, emotional. It still gets me worked up when I think back on those moments. And it turned out … I think we handled it well.
THR: When did you learn Collins was gay?
Tellem: Well, that was the funny part. I was on my wife's birthday trip to Africa in February. It was after the NBA trading deadline, so I timed it so I would hopefully not have to deal with any issues. I got a couple of urgent calls, and my first thought was that he was firing me. I then texted him and said, "Can it wait till I get back?" And he said sure. It was March 1 when we talked, and that's when he told me. And then the discussion became how were we going to announce this and in what form were we going to do this.
THR: Collins hasn't signed with a new team. Do you think there are GMs who would discriminate against a player based on sexuality, consciously or subconsciously?
Tellem: I certainly would hope not, and I don't think so. At this point, I have no reason to believe that that's been a factor at all in all my discussions with the teams. I'm still hopeful, but unfortunately this could drag on well into September.
THR: What has been your most challenging moment as an agent?
Tellem: I've had several players die at very young ages. Those moments I still remember vividly -- going to the funerals and the loss that a family feels, and how I felt just horrible. And then there were moments I'd say were tough and challenging. I had a number of players who dealt with performance-enhancing drugs, guiding them through those moments. There is so much riding on those moments, where the player is looking to you and you hope you do what's right for them.
THR: What is it like when a client comes to you and admits to using PEDs? [Jason Giambi was one of Tellem's clients listed in the Mitchell Commission report on the use of PEDs in baseball.]
Tellem: I've never sat in judgment of players. People make mistakes; people do things that they regret. We all do, and it's how you deal with those mistakes by acknowledging them and the life you lead after these mistakes occur that's ultimately how you're defined. With the players that we've had, I think they've all come out of these moments with their dignity and their heads high and able to resume their careers and able to have the respect of all the people in their sport.
THR: Are the Lakers in need of a reboot?
Tellem: With every great franchise and when a team has a great run -- like the Lakers have had over the last, I don't know, 12 or 13 years, or even maybe a little bit longer -- there comes a time when the players, because of age … the team has to make changes. The Lakers had to do this after Magic [Johnson] stopped playing. They were able to, a few years later, get Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal. But they will have to bite the bullet and go through a rebuilding process. Clearly one advantage the Lakers have is, it's one of the most attractive places, if not the most attractive place, to play in the NBA. They will be able to get players to come here -- star players who want to play here. I wouldn't cry for the Lakers; they'll be all right.
THR: Players now have access to Twitter and Facebook, and some of your clients -- Kris Humphries, for instance -- have huge followings. What's your social media advice?
Tellem: That's really where you talk about the change in the business: It used to be just doing a contract, guiding them and hoping that they do the right things with their money. [Now you need to help them] pick the right people and make the right personal choices in their life because of the scrutiny athletes are under. The players want to put themselves out there and comment about things, but they have to be very cautious. We have a whole digital media subdivision within our management group that guides players on a 24/7 basis on what they should or should not be saying, helps them craft statements and edit what they say and gives them resources so that they can connect with their fans in a positive way.
THR: Is that to say that their tweets are vetted?
Tellem: They are often discussed before they're put out there. Ultimately it's their voice, but we may suggest the tone or how to say it.
THR: It's getting pretty competitive in the sports-agency world. So what's more important for an agent: a law degree or a hip-hop persona?
Tellem: I'm not losing sleep over Jay Z's entrance into the business. I have always believed that to be the best agent is essentially to serve not yourself but your clients. It's a service business, and it's about protecting your clients and being there for your clients. There is no greater education to prepare you for that than being a lawyer.
THR: CAA and others have spent millions of dollars building sports representation businesses. Is it worth the return?
Tellem: There are some that do it well, there are some that don't and some that are able to get by, and some ultimately are exposed. But for me, there was a lesson that I learned from [Basketball Hall of Fame coach] Dean Smith very early on. Once he told me just to worry about myself -- if I do what's right, that's all that matters, and I'll win more than my share.
THR: IMG is for sale. Is your company interested?
Tellem: It's still in the early stages. It's a very valuable asset that's going to go like the Dodgers, for an extraordinary price. There will be all kinds of bidders -- people who are in the business, people who are out of the business who want to get in the business -- so I don't think the odds [of Wasserman buying IMG] are that great. But it will be interesting to see how it plays out.
THR: What is something you learned from your wife's Hollywood career that you've applied to your own?
Tellem: You see it from her perspective on how important talent is. You need talent to win, whether it's writers or directors or key actors and actresses who make a successful show. They can say all they want about the executives at the company, but it's the people who they get to put a show together that really drives so much of what works. It's really no different than what makes a sports team successful: They can talk all they want about the GM and the president of the team and the CEO of the team, but it's about getting the best players and a great coach and letting them go out there and play the game. I think she gets that; I know that everyone at CBS got that.
THR: You bought an Israeli basketball team with New York Knicks star Amar'e Stoudemire. Why?
Tellem: It combines two of my great passions: 1. a love of Israel; and 2. a love of basketball. Also, the one thing that I've seen in sports over the years is that sports is a powerful tool to bring people together from all backgrounds and all ethnicities, and it can be used as a positive social force in a country that I love.