Arn Tellem and Franz Lidz Are Going to the Hall of Fame

The super-agent and the prolific writer — who are about to be inducted into Philadelphia's Jewish Sports HOF — talk about their careers, the Jason Collins story and growing up in the Philly ’burbs in the ’60s.

Arn Tellem and Franz Lidz

Arn Tellem (left) and Franz Lidz (Photos: Courtesy of the Philadelphia Jewish Sports Hall of Fame)

Franz Lidz moved to Penn Valley in 1961 “during a legendary blizzard.” A year later, he struck up a friendship with a boy who had also just moved to the neighborhood: Arn Tellem. The two ventured into different careers — Lidz a respected writer for publications like Sports Illustrated and Smithsonian magazine, and Tellem a “powerful sports agent you can actually like” — but remained friends. On May 28th, they will both be inducted in to the Philadelphia Jewish Sports Hall of Fame.

This year’s other inductees are former Penn State Nittany Lion mascot Norm Constantine, sports psychologist Joel Fish, tennis coach Marty Gilbert, golfer Ben Goldman and basketball player Sam Jacobs. Philadelphia magazine chatted on a three-way conference call with Tellem and Lidz about their inductions, growing up in the Philadelphia suburbs, their collaboration on Jason Collins’ SI story where he came out and how their friendship remains strong after so many years.

How does it feel to be going into the Philadelphia Jewish Sports Hall of Fame?

Arn Tellem: I’m looking forward to it. It’ll be a lot of fun to be able to celebrate, especially that night with Franz and so many close friends and my family. And I have quite a large family. So this will be like my second bar mitzvah, I have a feeling. And I know my grandparents, who aren’t alive, would probably get the biggest kick out of this kind of evening. It’ll be a lot of fun.

Franz Lidz: He’s going to pack the house. It’s more like his bar mitzvah than mine. Did I go to your bar mitzvah?

Tellem: I don’t think so. I had a very limited bar mitzvah. So this is the party I didn’t have.

Lidz: What was the party you had at the Latin Casino?

Tellem: That was my surprise 18th birthday party. We went to see Don Rickles at the Latin Casino.

 

When did each of you decide you wanted a career in sports?

Tellem: Once I was cut by the 9th grade basketball team at Welsh Valley Junior High School, that was sort of the wake up call that I had to do something else. My first interest was writing. I started writing sports for the school newspapers and the Main Line Times. I was a stringer for the Philadelphia Bulletin. My first inkling was to be like Franz, was to be a writer.

It was only in high school when I went to a Philadelphia Sportswriters Dinner and I got to sit with Stan Hochman, who told me that it would be better for me to get my law degree — that I could make a bigger impact in sports as a lawyer.

Lidz: Somebody sent me… a questionnaire I filled out when I was 13. It was sort of like a bucket list. And one of the things I said was, “Interview sports superstars.” And if you had asked me that 10 years later, I would have said that was ridiculous. Some of the other things were being a foreign correspondent and writing for the New York Times. All but one thing — which I don’t want to say, because I don’t want to jinx it — I’ve done.

I had this rambling, discursive route to being a sportswriter. When I applied at Sports Illustrated, I was about to be canned from Johns Hopkins Magazine for a story I’d written [about Hopkins alum P.J. O’Rourke, which featured “language not normally seen in a Hopkins magazine”]. A colleague at the Baltimore News American, whose father had been a writer at Sports Illustrated, Mark Kram, told me there was an opening there. I had never written sports. The only sporting event I ever covered was a pigeon race in Chapman, Maine. And I couldn’t tell you who won that race.

But anyway I hitchhiked up from Baltimore for this interview. And it was a day that could only be called mild on the planet Mercury. And the only sports jacket I had was wool so I was really sweating and I hitchhiked up to New York, and fortunately the managing editor was the idiosyncratic Gil Rogan. And I just walked into his office, and he was struggling to open a jar of orange juice. And he just looked at me, and said, “If you can open this, you can have the job.” And I opened it and said, “When do I start?”

 

What was life like growing up in the Philadelphia suburbs in the 1960s?

Tellem: Belmont Hills Elementary was, I think, roughly half-Italian, half-Jewish. I still think for me it was all about the close group of friends we made at Belmont Hills. To this day they’re still my closest friends.

Lidz: That’s probably because he hasn’t made any friends since then.

Tellem: That may be true, too. It was such a close-knit neighborhood that we lived in — you could walk to friends’ houses. The relationships that we made with our friends and their families is what made it so special. And obviously sports played a huge part of it. We had our wiffle ball league. We played table games. So much of our life revolved around playing sports, talking about sports and playing sports fantasy games.

Lidz: The sporting highlight of my life would have to be in Little League. I was in Lower Merion Little League. You played in little league, right?

Tellem: I wasn’t good enough.

Lidz: Well, you got your revenge. I was just bad enough to play second base, where they put fielders who couldn’t stop a sentence with a period. And I was in this game, and there was a pop up with runners on first and second with nobody out. I just ran and dove for the ball, and I made an unassisted triple play. I was kind of heaved up in the air, I didn’t know what was going on — I didn’t know what an unassisted triple play was. The umpire gave me the ball, signed it and said, “Tell your mother you didn’t steal it.”

Tellem: My sports highlight — at Belmont Hills in sixth grade in our lunchtime school basketball league — was holding Jimmy Engro, the star athlete in the school (one of the best athletes, ever, in any elementary school), scoreless. I devised a box-and-one zone with one man covering him full court and we beat him 2-0. And they were in first place in our league. It was, clearly, the highlight of my elementary school days. It threw the whole playoffs into a tizzy.

The lowlight, though, was I probably missed eight foul shots in that game. We held Jimmy Engro scoreless. I was ahead of my time. Having watched so many Big 5 games, I adapted their defenses to our lunchtime league.

 

How did the Jason Collins story in SI come about?

jason-collins-sports-illustrated-cover-400Tellem: When the process began, Jason called me and he said he was in South Africa and said he needed to talk to me about something personal. I asked him if we could wait; I thought he was going to terminate me. When I got back in March, he told me that he was gay and he wanted to figure out the best way to tell his story. He felt he had to tell it because he didn’t want it to be revealed by other people, and he felt he had to do it on his own terms.

There’s one person that I really trust for advice in this area and it’s Franz. In talking to Franz, we discussed the possibility of doing it as a story for Sports Illustrated. I really was against the idea of having a press conference or some press release — I thought it was important to tell a personal story. In my first conversation with Franz, I didn’t reveal the player, though, because I wasn’t sure the player would go along with it.

And then I went back to Collins and said: Look, here’s an idea, we could do it in Sports Illustrated, it would be your tell-all. And this writer I trust, he’s a tremendous writer, and he’ll do you proud and do you right and it will be really well written and you’ll control the content. He said he was OK with it, so I went back to Franz and said we’re open to the idea. I didn’t reveal the player then, I would reveal the player a couple days before in case he changed his mind.

Lidz: I had been doing a story in England on Eddie the Eagle from the 1988 Olympics. And then we were on vacation in Ireland and I got the call, so I just flew from Dublin to Los Angeles.

Tellem: Franz’s daughter was there when they met with Jason. There were two meetings. One was the meeting with Jason before Franz came when I met with Jason and his parents to tell them this is what we were doing, and to trust me. And it was a very poignant meeting. And they asked me who Franz was, and I said we’ve known each other for many years. Not only is he a great writer, but I’ve known him for many years. And the story would accurately reflect who Jason was. I had to get all of them to buy in to this.

The most powerful moment really was, after the story was drafted, Jason read it to his parents. And I think you can echo this, Franz, it was probably as emotional a moment as any I’ve been through.

Lidz: I basically held up Sports Illustrated, they had to agree to anything I wanted. Chris Stone, the managing editor, used to be my assistant. I knew he’d agree to anything. Part of it was they’d fly me out there and they’d also fly Daisy [my daughter] who was then living in Rochester to transcribe all the conversations [Jason and I] had. We talked for about four hours.

I had not been following his career, but I had to learn really fast everything I could about him. And then we talked to him, and the next day we batted the story back and forth to put it in his voice. And I thought it’d be great if she read it to Jason’s family, and when we got there she had Jason read it. That’s what made it doubly poignant to hear a story that was written in his voice actually in his voice. And he would stop every few minutes and look at the two of us and just thank us. And those were extremely touching moments every time he did that.

We should have recorded that.

Tellem: Yeah, we should have. I chose Franz for the piece because of trust, and because I knew it’d be beautifully written — and it was — and, really, Jason has been so appreciative of our help and support and how we handled it. And that’s ultimately what’s most gratifying, how he feels about it. And it confirms that we did him right and we did it the right way.

 

How have you two kept your friendship strong for so long?

Lidz: It’s this peanut butter thing, I think. One of the differences between Arn and me is that he’s a big fan of creamy peanut butter and I’m more of a crunchy guy. So he makes these great smoothies whenever I’m at his house. I think it’s really bonding over smoothies.

Tellem: I would have said it was our mutual love of smoked fish. I think it’s just our bonds of our childhood are so strong that has kept us together though all the ups and downs of our crazy lives. The bonds of our elementary school and our neighborhood sort of trump all.

Lidz: We have this shared history. My mother died right after my bar mitzvah, and his father died just before his. And so we have this simpatico there, this kind of mutual understanding and sympathy for each other. So, there’s that. And there’s the Wiffle ball thing. I always knew I’d beat him.

Tellem: I was the hapless Mets of Wiffle ball. For me, nothing ever came easy. I wasn’t as gifted as Franz as an athlete or a writer.

Interested in attending the induction ceremonies? Call 215.900.7999 or email info@phillyjewishsports.org.