Ever since Michele Roberts went as a young child with her mom to watch cases in court and saw public defenders not doing a very good job by their clients, she thought she could do it better. Throughout her career after graduating UC Berkeley’s Boalt Hall and first working as a public defender and later as a higher profile white-collar litigator, she has done exactly that.
That’s what caused her to jump from a higher paying career with the Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom in Washingto n, D.C. to becoming the first female executive director of the NBA Players’ Association (NBPA), and first female director of any major sports union.
After former ED Billy Hunter was fired by player members for business improprieties and essentially turning the NBPA into a dysfunctional, understaffed organization that poorly served its player members, Roberts knew she could do better.
Though she lacked sports and labor experience, she was a nearly unanimous choice by the player members over 300 other candidates because she was viewed as a tough litigator who wouldn’t roll over for the owners.
When she arrived at her new post, Roberts faced the Herculean task of restoring trust, confidence, and respect for the NBPA that had eroded over the past several years. Her approach, she says, is transparency, proactive involvement with player members, and telling it like it is, good or bad. And when a player phones the office, she tells her staff, “You drop whatever you are doing to take those calls.”
What motivates her most is interacting with the players, including NBPA President Chris Paul and VP LeBron James. “These guys are competitive, young, and smart on the court and just great people off the court,” she says. “They expect to be successful and want their union to be successful.”
The fact that she is a woman leading a male-exclusive organization just doesn’t enter Roberts’ mind much anymore. This summer, she is working on partnering with NBA Commissioner Adam Silver with the goal of avoiding a work stoppage or another lockout—similar to what occurred in 2011—when collective bargaining comes due in 2017. Issues to be addressed include salary capping, the use of analytics, the media’s interaction with players, number of games in a season, and whether the best 16 teams should compete in the playoffs versus the eight best teams from the East and from the West.
Roberts’ counts her mentors as “men, women, older, younger, black, and white,” a diverse range of influences. The title of greatest mentor, however, goes to her mother, who Roberts described as possibly “the greatest mother on the face of the earth…. She protected [Roberts and her four siblings], kept us safe, encouraged us, but had a ‘no nonsense’ approach to our responsibilities as kids, the main one being that ‘you learn!’ From her I learned that there are no excuses, and even if your circumstances may not be the best, you do the best regardless of those circumstances.”
Her proudest accomplishment was passing the bar and becoming a lawyer, an achievement she realized just eight days before her mother passed away. Roberts thinks of her mom often, especially since moving back to her hometown of Harlem, where her current job is based. And pending the success of upcoming negotiations, Roberts will be able to share a personal moment of triumph with the woman who helped shape her values.