Long before she became executive director of the National Basketball Players Association [NBPA], Michele Roberts was a girl growing up in New York City. She knew as a young child that she wanted to be a lawyer, but not just any kind of lawyer. She knew she wanted to be a “good lawyer.”
Roberts was raised in the South Bronx, where she and her mother, oddly enough, would spend time watching trials at the local courthouse. She recalls the profound impact of one particular arraignment.
“One of the people that got brought before the judge was a friend of my brother's... I’m sure I didn’t understand what was going on. But he was given a bail that he couldn’t afford, and he went back into custody and I was mortified,” she told BET.
“I remember thinking and saying to my mom, ‘I don’t think his lawyer fought really hard for him. Why did he pick that lawyer?’”
Roberts received a response from her mother that so many poor Black and Brown children have heard before and will unfortunately continue to hear. When you’re of limited means, there is no picking or choosing. “If you’re poor you get whatever the city gives you.”
It was at that moment Roberts decided she was going to be a lawyer. Not only that, but someone committed to helping out the underdogs, the underprivileged, and those who had the misfortune of being unlucky in life.
By the early 2000s and with an intense self-belief, Roberts had garnered a national reputation as an outstanding trial attorney, feared by her opponents, revered by her clients, and loved by judges. Washingtonian Magazine called her the “finest pure trial lawyer in Washington.” Quite the honor for a poor Black girl from the South Bronx in an overwhelmingly white male-dominated field.
In 2013, Roberts was preparing to try a case that she anticipated would last for months. But the parties ended up settling before ever reaching trial and Roberts found herself with a lot of free time on her hands.
“I had time to read a newspaper! I found out Billy Hunter, then head of the NBPA, was just fired. I was kind of aware there was a union for players, but not really. I remember thinking, ‘wow it’ll take 10 minutes to fill that job because it must be a cool job.’”
Another year passed, another case settled and Roberts learned the NBPA still hadn't found a successor.
“So, I did a little more digging. At this point it was just out of curiosity. I wanted to find out what the deal was.”
The NBPA had hired a search firm, and she inquired with the headhunter about the responsibilities tied to the position. She received a call from the head of the firm, and despite Roberts’ transparency that she wasn’t seriously considering the position, they met for coffee in D.C.
“He’s now a friend, but I didn’t like him at the time,” she admits.
“I thought he was a little condescending and he said ‘Look, I don’t want to waste my time. We’ve done a little due diligence on you, if you’re really interested we can go further.’ I said, ‘I don’t know, I’m happy where I am.’ He said, ‘you need to tell me in a week.’ Then I really disliked him. I remember thinking, ‘I’m not even going to talk to this guy again.’ But I couldn’t get it out of my mind, so I called him in a week and said ‘let’s move forward.’”
Over the next several months, Roberts conducted painstaking research on the NBPA, its history, and interactions with the league. The more she learned, the more she thought she could do the job and the more she thought, the more she realized that no one could do this better than her.
Blood, Sweat, and A Little Bit of Luck
Becoming the head of a professional sports union is obviously no easy feat, particularly for a Black woman, and someone without a background in sports. Yet, Roberts’ talent for winning arguments in front of juries made her uniquely qualified for the toughest part: winning over the players in the interview process.
“I always believed that [the players] were smart, I didn’t know the depths of that intelligence. Those were some of the toughest interviews I’d ever gone through. They were laser focused. Chris Paul was the President, Steph [Curry], Andre [Iguodola], Anthony Tolliver, Roger Mason, Willie Green, and Kyle Korver were all on the executive committee,” said Roberts.
“It was in the middle of the season so I had to fly all over the place. We had great conversations but I still never thought they were going to hire a woman. They had been clearly told not to say anything about the fact that I’m a woman. They never brought it up and I wasn’t going to.”
Depending on roster size, there are only between 450-490 players in the NBA at any point during a season. Given the amount of people who play basketball worldwide, this proves you’ve got to be one of the absolute best to be in the league. We’re talking .0001% good. She understood that in a way that very few could, even without ever playing professionally herself.
“One of reasons I especially love my players, and have always admired them even before I became involved in the game, was because I appreciated what absolute talent, and some modicum of luck, but certainly hard work it took for them to become one of the members of this very exclusive club.
“I kind of feel the same way. There’s obviously more than 450 lawyers in the world but as a Black woman coming from the projects, the odds of my succeeding were fairly poor. And I knew what it took to get to where I got.”
The Road Ahead
In July 2014, Roberts became the head of the NBPA, and she left victorious after her very first collective bargaining agreement (CBA) negotiations on behalf of the players. They received a salary increase and the basketball related income (BRI) split was 51% to 49% in favor of the players. Health benefits were upgraded for current and retired players, pensions increased, and working conditions improved, including fewer back-to-back scheduled games.
If this is the era of “player empowerment,” Roberts is leading the revolution. She has made the players aware of all of additional income opportunities, including group licensing and content creation. She has overseen a massive overhaul of the NBPA and has done it under a “player’s first” edict.
Now, the NBPA has announced that after six years, she is stepping down and the careful search for her successor has commenced.
As she completes the second round of a four year term as executive director, Roberts will continue the hard work necessary to ensure that the league is in good hands. She’s not going anywhere anytime soon. Remember, it took nearly two years to fill the role with her.
“For the past six years, I have greatly enjoyed and continue to enjoy leading the NBPA and am proud of all we have been able to accomplish,” said Roberts in a prepared statement.
“When I agreed to a second contract as Executive Director, I made clear that I would not be seeking a third. The Executive Committee and I are committed to making certain my successor is thoroughly prepared to assume the position upon my departure from the NBPA and continue its sustained path for growth."
When she started, the NBPA had a staff of 23 people who worked out of a townhouse in Harlem. She now has a staff of almost 90 people who are housed in a state-of-the-art facility in midtown Manhattan.
When visiting teams are in New York City, players can come and check in at the office with ease given its central location. And to make them feel even more at home, there’s a regulation practice court, high performance workout rooms, pools with built-in treadmills -- everything a high level professional athlete needs, and more.
All of this is part of her legacy, but Roberts will also forever be known for focusing on increased programs and benefits for the players.
“I wanted to grow the programming available to the players. I wanted to do something about the absence of any mental health services for our players. I wanted to do something about the absence of any transition for our players. Every single one of our players is going to be a retired player,” she said.
“That’s a very difficult reality for our players and there was no transition assistance being provided. Most of our players don’t finish school. Our best players do one year of college and then they’re in the league. I want there to be tuition assistance for those players who want to return to school.
“We knew we wanted higher pensions, but I wanted more. We now have health care for life for our retired players. We’ve overhauled our career development program. Not every player can be a coach and not every player wants to be a coach, but that’s all we were offering. Now we have real estate, entrepreneurial programs, entertainment, franchising, the business of giving and establishing foundations.”
A Not So Distant Future
Roberts doesn’t live in fantasy land. She knows everything isn’t perfect, nor will it ever be. For instance, there are issues related to race and representation in the ownership suite and front offices.
“As much as we want to believe that sports transcends race, it doesn’t. Nothing does,” she explains.
“The very fact that we have one Black Governor [Charlotte Hornets owner Michael Jordan], and most of the front offices are predominantly white [25 of the 30 general managers], and the only people who aren’t [white] are the players. Nobody can deny that. My job is when I see it and I can do something to impact it, then I call it out.”
Roberts has been a critical part of the NBPA’s overall success for the last six years. She won't be easily replaced. As the only woman to ever be in this position, her shoes are incredibly hard to fill. The next executive director will at the very least have to embody a similar sense of tenacity, vision, and passion for advocacy, just like the kind that was engrained in that little girl sitting in the courtroom so many years ago.
Jarod Hector is a New York City born-and-raised sports and pop culture enthusiast. A multimedia content creator and host who enjoys nuanced discussions of the intersection between sports, culture and society. You can find him on Twitter and Instagram @jshector.
Photo by ©Jennifer S. Altman/For The Washington Post via Getty Images