NEW YORK — Though her only previous connection to professional basketball came as a longtime Washington Wizards season ticket holder, Michele Roberts believes her connection to the NBA players she now serves as executive director of the National Basketball Players Association has always been much deeper.
Given her history overcoming modest beginnings and chasing a dream few thought possible, Roberts doesn’t find it unusual that after a successful career as a lawyer, she is now the first female union leader of one of the four major professional sports in North America.
“That’s one of the reasons that I love these guys. They sort of grew up having a dream that for most of them was unattainable, and some of them have backgrounds like mine. I came from a broken family. We were pretty poor. And there were people who found it amusing that I thought I could be a lawyer. Including my father, who said, ‘Just go ahead and get married,’ ” Roberts, who has never been married, said, shaking her head. “Even before I got this job, I was passionate about not being in the same room with anyone who would call them crooks or lazy or thugs. It would offend me, and I had a couple of — not fistfights — but some words when people would characterize them that way.
“That’s why I kind of love what I’m doing now because it gives me a chance to honor them by making sure that the world honors and respects them and treats them fairly. They’re not supposed to be here. The odds were against them. They were against me. So we’re cousins in that regard.”
An advocate for underdogs for much of her career, the 58-year-old Roberts is the new face of a union that is making the transition from an embarrassing period of bickering and mismanagement into a promising era in which the league and its players will be asked in two years to divide a staggering $24 billion pot from a new media rights deal.
“It’s an exciting time,” said Roberts, who recently completed her tenure as partner with the Washington law firm Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher and Flom. “We’ve got a new commissioner [Adam Silver] who wants to continue to grow the game and work with the players, so this is a good time to be here. Financially, things are fairly flush and people are excited. So I’m feeling a little empowered by a bit of a wind on my back that’s given me a nudge forward.”
Nearly three years after getting pummeled by the owners in a collective bargaining agreement that saw the players make considerable concessions — including having their revenue share reduced from 57 percent to 51 percent — the union is relying on someone with no extensive past in labor relations or professional sports. But those who placed Roberts in her current position are confident she has what it takes to lead the players in a more successful manner than her predecessor, the dispatched Billy Hunter.
“She is very calculating, intelligent. But most importantly, authentic,” said Cleveland Cavaliers forward James Jones, a union vice president. “It took 15 years to tear [the NBPA] down. You can’t rebuild it overnight. But you need a leader in place to help you put the pieces together and to build momentum. . . . We just wanted the person most qualified to help us take our union to heights we’ve never seen. Of all the candidates we saw, she was by far the best.”
The flaws of Hunter’s regime were captured in the Paul, Weiss report, an independent review that charged Hunter with nepotism, questionable business practices and a contract that was extended without union approval. The players unanimously voted to fire Hunter, the union leader since 1996, at the 2013 All-Star Game in Houston. But as the delay to find a replacement continued for several months and then a full year, Roberts started researching the Paul, Weiss report and studying the collective bargaining agreement.
“After a while, I not only convinced myself I could do this, I actually convinced myself no one could do it better,” Roberts said. “The longer it was available, the more I convinced myself that’s because they were waiting for me.”
Harvard law professor Charles Ogletree, a longtime friend, mentor and colleague of Roberts, believes self-assurance is the primary reason she will thrive in “an all-boys club.”
“Michele is one of these people who wants to break glass ceilings and create opportunities that never existed before, and I think with her experience as a lawyer, as a fighter for justice, as a woman to push her way in to make sure she’ll be treated equally, she’ll be fine,” Ogletree said in a telephone interview. “I think she’s going to be exceptional in bringing them in and helping them understand that the job is not playing basketball but owning basketball.”
Roberts grew up in a low-income housing project in the Bronx, not far from the union’s current headquarters in Harlem, but she has been gone so long — she graduated from Wesleyan, received her law degree from the University of California at Berkeley and earned her reputation at the Public Defender Service in Washington — that her return to New York can hardly be considered a homecoming.
Since moving from Washington in September, Roberts is adjusting to apartment living after having the space of her comfortable home and trading the sound of crickets at night for pedestrian traffic outside her window. But there is an energy in New York that is both enthralling and irresistible, one she joked she can take “in small doses.”
The next three months will find Roberts spending most of her time away from New York, however, on planes and trains as she meets with all 30 teams. She has found the audiences to be curious and engaged, especially with the league revenues from television set to triple and the salary cap expected to skyrocket at the start of the 2016-17 season.
“It’s nicer to come into it when there’s a lot of money because then you’ve got a lot of people’s attention,” Roberts said. “I’ve got 24 billion reasons why we should have a conversation about this new TV deal. And the players are smart. They know there are some things the owners are asking them to do in connection with this money.”
The union and players can opt out of the current collective bargaining agreement on Dec. 15, 2016, a move that could set up the NBA for another unflattering work stoppage in 2017. Roberts is going through the process of devising a strategy to prepare the players for every possible scenario.
“I don’t want a lockout. I don’t want a strike. What I want is anything any reasonable person would want — and that is labor peace,” Roberts said. “That’s what I hope for, but I’ve got to be prepared for a lockout.”
Roberts has started to assemble a senior management team to assist with the transition. That has included the initial hiring of Gary Kohlman as general counsel, Roger Mason Jr. as director of player relations, Walter Palmer as director of international relations and marketing and Domonique Foxworth as chief operating officer .
“Something that most good lawyers understand, you have one job and one job only, and that’s to serve the client,” Roberts said. “Nobody is a successful executive director if you don’t understand that basic proposition and principle. I think that’s something where Mr. Hunter may have lost his way in some regards. Billy, I’ve never met him, so I’m not suggesting that he’s not a bright guy, but I would never adopt the management style of, ‘I’ve got this.’”
The recently retired Mason, a former union vice president, had several career opportunities last summer — including some to continue his basketball career — but couldn’t resist the opportunity to assist Roberts as she leads the union through its next era.
“Someone like Michele will galvanize our group,” Mason said. “She’s a person that you don’t mess with.”
Roberts made that clear in July during her presentation to players in a Las Vegas ballroom, where she uttered the now infamous line, “My past is littered with the bones of men who were foolish enough to think I was someone they could sleep on.”
She received 32 of 36 votes, proving the players weren’t overly concerned about her gender or lack of basketball pedigree when it came to negotiating on their behalf.
“I think the fact that I was not of their world made me an asset,” Roberts said.
“I wanted them to understand because I didn’t have any of that, I didn’t owe anybody anything. No owners. No agents. No nobody. Therefore my allegiance would be pure and completely committed to them.”