Player salaries had skyrocketed during her tenure, which began in 2014, and the NBA was locked into its collective bargaining agreement through the 2023-24 season and its media rights deal through 2024-25. It was the right moment, she thought, to make sure the union was in good hands. Then, she could settle into her new home and begin traveling internationally, free from professional responsibilities for the first time in her adult life.
“I was so close,” Roberts told The Washington Post last week from Disney World’s Grand Floridian resort, where she is nearly halfway through a three-month stay in the NBA bubble. “So close.”
The pandemic, which halted the NBA on March 11, pulled her back in. With basketball stopped just five days after she announced the transition plan, the NBPA faced a critical turning point. Players wondered whether paychecks would stop coming, and Roberts worried that a year might pass before games could safely resume.
Roberts spent the next four months in constant talks with NBA Commissioner Adam Silver and her constituents, in search of a workable comeback plan that could protect player safety, limit the financial damage to the league and further the players’ social justice efforts. While basketball is back — with no positive coronavirus tests since the bubble was established in early July — her work is just beginning. Another round of negotiations with the NBA, to set the terms for next season, is just around the corner; the sides need to work through fundamental issues such as when it will begin, how the financial pie will be split and whether games will again take place in a bubble or regional bubbles.
“I don’t regret that I didn’t get out in time,” Roberts said. “If this all happened right after I left and I was not able to play a part in shepherding the players through this, I would have been miserable. I care about these men. If this is the way my career ends, that’s far better than watching from the outside.”
On the ground
Roberts, a distinguished trial lawyer who graduated from law school at the University of California Berkeley, was tabbed to run the union after her predecessor, Billy Hunter, was ousted amid questionable business practices. At the time, the NBPA was viewed as disorganized and weak following the 2011 lockout, which led to major financial concessions by the players. The union needed to restore credibility, increase internal engagement and turn the page.
“I just remember how selfless she was when we interviewed her,” said Chris Paul, the NBPA’s president. “She said it would be ‘players first,’ and it’s been that way.”
Together, Roberts and Paul have scored signature victories, including moving into a new midtown Manhattan office and establishing a health insurance fund for retired players that the Oklahoma City Thunder point guard calls his proudest achievement. They successfully negotiated a labor agreement extension in 2017, avoiding a stoppage of play. While the league’s new salary cap rules favor superstars such as Paul over rank-and-file players, the sport’s boom kept most everyone satisfied.
The pandemic vaporized that rosy narrative: 40 percent of the NBA’s $8 billion in annual revenue is derived from arena sales, the bubble games are being played without fans, and the league still has no idea when it will be safe to return to its 20,000-seat arenas. In the scramble that followed, Paul and the NBPA’s executive committee of players realized the scope of the crisis and discussed the next steps.
“We all let her know how much we wanted her to lead us through this,” Paul said. “Michele has a unique way of calming players, speaking to them, hearing them out. We needed it through this entire process.”
Roberts understood there would be immense financial incentive and public pressure to resume games. To feel comfortable signing off on a proposal that could put the players’ lives in jeopardy, she dug into the science around virus transmission and risk factors.
Skeptical throughout the early stages of the talks, she became convinced that a comeback could be possible once Disney World emerged as a possible host. Unlike Las Vegas, another possible host, she reasoned that Disney World could maintain its restricted environment well enough to host three months of games.
“You never stop thinking that the worst could happen,” she said. “I still haven’t. Every day when I get the testing reports, I say, ‘Please, God, no positives.’ When I got here and looked around, I thought, ‘I’ll be damned; this thing might work.’ ”
At first, it wasn’t clear whether it would be safe for Roberts and other NBPA staff members to join the bubble. The doctors strongly recommended bringing as few people on campus as possible, but eventually Roberts and seven other union staffers got the green light. Unlike Silver and the NBA’s owners, Roberts went through a full quarantine process, and she undergoes daily tests so she can be present for the duration of the league’s restart.
“That’s her,” Paul said. “You can tell somebody about this experience as much as you want to, but you only really get it if you’re here. She wants to be here. She wants to see what’s going on. She wants to help players.”
Roberts has been cleared to sit courtside at games, and she cheered on the Utah Jazz and New Orleans Pelicans as they participated in the league’s first national anthem demonstration against police brutality. At night, she often sets up shop by the hotel pool. Players swing by to discuss their virus anxieties and lodge complaints about the accommodations, but also to show off pictures of their children and to seek advice on their options after basketball.
“You have conversations that you’re not going to have by phone or text,” Roberts said. “I don’t want to go home because I’m going to miss the intimacy. It’s once in a lifetime.”
One of the biggest challenges to the NBA’s restart plans came from within the union in June, when Kyrie Irving and a group of players expressed concern that a return to play could overshadow ongoing protests after George Floyd’s death. Paul oversaw the deliberations, and once a consensus emerged in favor of playing, he and Roberts sought to use the restart to further the players’ social justice efforts.
The NBPA’s effort saw “Black Lives Matter” decals added to the court and messages such as “I Can’t Breathe” stitched on player jerseys. Players in the bubble have worn countless T-shirts with political messages, have called for the arrest of the police officers who killed Breonna Taylor and have collectively knelt before each game as a demonstration against police brutality. The NBPA also reached an agreement with the NBA on a 10-year, $300 million foundation that will be financed by the 30 teams to support the Black community.
“The resumption of our game hasn’t distracted from the discussion,” Roberts said. “It’s kept the discussion going. If you’re watching basketball, you can’t ignore it.”
The players have captured the attention of President Trump, who said he would not watch the NBA due to the kneeling demonstrations, which he called “disgraceful” and insulting to the American flag. Los Angeles Lakers star LeBron James replied that the players “could [not] care less” if Trump tuned in, a sentiment echoed by Roberts. She was similarly dismissive of the notion that the players’ coordinated activism might polarize audiences and turn off some viewers.
“This is something our fans are going to have to learn to live with,” Roberts said. “I would fight tooth and nail if there were any effort to suppress the expression. If a fan genuinely finds the idea of Black Lives Matter so offensive that they don’t want to watch basketball, I’m not losing sleep over it. I don’t understand how you could be so filled with venom over an expression of humanity that you would turn your back on something you otherwise enjoy. If someone thinks it’s disrespectful to the flag, then they’re just wrong.”
Coming labor talks
The bubble has operated so smoothly that Roberts now refers to playing out the remaining postseason games as “the easy part” for the league’s future. Only eight of the 22 teams invited to the bubble will remain by month’s end, and the NBA seems primed to crown a champion in October.
From there, it gets trickier. With billions of dollars of arena-related revenue put at risk by the pandemic, Roberts is preparing for negotiations with the NBA regarding how to handle the losses. Basketball’s leaders hope a vaccine might allow fans back in the stands next season, but the union’s conservative estimate is that it might be February or March before a clear understanding of the virus’s future emerges.
The priority until then, Roberts said, is for both sides to be “nimble” and “patient.” The NBA tentatively set a start date of Dec. 1 for next season, but Roberts called that the “least probable” of possible timelines and said, “I think we’re talking 2021.” The union wants to make sure players have sufficient downtime after the bubble concludes, and Roberts is hoping “greater uniformity” will emerge from federal and state governments on how to hold large events. Silver told ESPN on Thursday that a Dec. 1 start now felt “a little bit early” and that the league’s priority is “to get fans back in our arenas.”
Before play can resume, the NBA must set its salary cap and reach a financial agreement with the NBPA. Roberts said she hopes the talks stick to what she calls “the very discreet problem of reduced revenue” rather than the many ancillary topics that arise during full labor negotiations.
“There’s no reason for any of those discussions to be on the table and I don’t expect them to be,” she said. “We’re going to have at least one season that’s going to be challenging [financially]. We have to sit down like grown people, put aside the temptation to be greedy and appreciate the risks that are being taken by the players. I’m optimistic. We were able to do the work without lockouts and strikes [in 2017], and we should be able to do it again.”
The NBPA is carefully watching Major League Baseball, which is using empty stadiums but no bubble, to see whether there are applicable lessons for a reopening of its venues. At Disney World, players regularly ask union leaders, “Is this my last bubble or my first?”
The same question could be asked of Roberts. Normalcy is many months away. Harlem is nowhere near Disney World. And Roberts’s bucket-list trips to Africa, South America and the Middle East have been replaced by central Florida’s daily rainstorms.
“I still hope that I’ll be able to retire,” she said, “but I care enough about the guys, what we’ve accomplished and about their future to see this thing through.”
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