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Arn Tellem on the jump to NBA front office: If not now, when?

Arn Tellem explains his decision to leave Wasserman Media Group for the Detroit Pistons. 

Editor's note: Arn Tellem, one of the most successful sports agents in history, is taking on a new challenge. Tellem will join the Detroit Pistons as the vice chairman of Palace Sports Entertainment. He spoke with Sports Illustrated about his decision to switch sides of the bargaining table.

Ten years ago Steve Jobs gave a commencement address in which he advised young graduates to continually ask themselves: “If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today?” Whenever the answer is "no" for too many days in a row, he counseled them to summon the courage to follow their hearts and intuition.

Those thoughts have stuck with me ever since. This week, after 34 years as a player agent, I tendered my resignation to the Wasserman Management Group in Los Angeles and accepted an offer to, later this summer, become vice chairman of Palace Sports & Entertainment, which owns the Detroit Pistons. This decision to change careers has been the most difficult of my professional life.

When owner Tom Gores offered me the job, I was at first stunned, and then flattered. Part of me thought, I can’t possibly accept. I’m responsible for helping to guide the careers of scores of pro baseball and basketball players. But I grew pensive when I remembered something a friend once told me: That making a difference in a community gives you a deeper sense of purpose.

Tom was offering me a chance to join him in making a difference in Detroit and its surrounding neighborhoods. I thought, 'I'm 61. If not now, when?'

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I consider myself very fortunate: In the decades since I signed my first ballplayer (Mark Langston, in 1981) and basketball player (Reggie Miller, '87), I‘ve been privileged to represent more than 500 amazing athletes. I think of them as members of my extended family, and, long after their pro careers have ended, I try to stay as close as possible. In my new position, I hope to establish a similar intimacy between the Pistons and the community. The scale is much broader and the impact, potentially much greater.

Throughout my career, I’ve forged many important relationships on both the labor and management sides, in the media and the offices of league commissioners. I'm grateful to Tom Gores for giving me this opportunity, and to my friend Casey Wasserman, who, in my mind, runs the finest sports marketing and talent management company in the business. My confidence in Casey and the WMG agents has helped me make the jump.

While pondering the question “If not now, when?” I realized that now was the time to pass the baton to the next generation of agents. I know that our clients will continue to be well served at WMG. To ensure a seamless transition, I intend to stay at Wasserman for the next two months.

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If not now, when?

Over the last 15 years, the world of sports has been radically globalized. Some of the foreign athletes I’ve repped have been pioneers in breaking down nationalist barriers—men like Pau Gasol and Hideki Matsui—who embody sportsmanship and its virtues. Many of my former clients, like Detroit’s own Jalen Rose, have dedicated themselves to making a difference in the lives of young people in their communities. Others, like Jason Collins, showed that courage is less about having no fear than confronting and overcoming it. I’m proud of the small part I played in my clients’ journeys of self-discovery and paths to leadership.

My own journey has underscored my belief that sports can effect positive change in society. For many years, I’ve been on the board of directors of PeacePlayers International and Seeds of Peace, organizations that bring together kids from conflict regions to promote tolerance and understanding. Using basketball to bridge barriers, PeacePlayers International operates year-round programs in South Africa, Northern Ireland, Cyprus, Israel and the West Bank.

If not now, when?

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I’m excited by the 21st century potential of Detroit—in commerce, the arts and on its playing fields. I hope to make a constructive impact as the Motor City emerges from bankruptcy. I want to augment and expand the Pistons’ Come Together Foundation, which enriches the lives of Detroiters by mentoring local youth, encouraging volunteerism, and partnering with businesses, government and charitable causes. Outreach programs like Come Together can make a real difference in the community.

Though I grew up in Philadelphia and have lived in L.A. for most of my adult life, I’m no stranger to Detroit. I got to know the place in the late ‘70s while attending law school at the University of Michigan. I got to know the Pistons when I repped center Ben Wallace. I’ll never forget a game at the Palace during which the fans were so loud and boisterous that I thought my heart would explode.

I believe in the future of the franchise. As vice chairman, I’ll do whatever I can to support the management team, led by Stan Van Gundy and Dennis Mannion, and help build the team into a contender again. I’m coming aboard at a unique moment for the Pistons and Palace Sports & Entertainment. Together they will play a pivotal role in Detroit's turnaround.

I’m elated. I’m pumped. And frankly, I’m terrified. But if not now, when?