SB Nation

Sarah Kogod | October 23, 2014

The new sheriff in town

Michele Roberts attempts to fix the NBA Players Association, her latest challenge in a lifetime full of them

Michele Roberts grew up in Melrose Houses, a low-income housing project in the South Bronx. Her father left the family when she was still a toddler, leaving her mother, Elsie, to raise five kids on her own. As a hobby, her mother would watch trials and arraignments at the nearby courthouse, often bringing her daughter with her.

During one such visit, a family friend was brought in for arraignment. He failed to make bond, thanks in part to a poor effort by the attorney who was assigned to him. It was the first time she had seen someone she knew in trouble, and it became clear to a 7-year old Roberts that the reason he didn't make bond was because of an overworked, lousy court-appointed attorney. When she asked her mother why the young boy chose that lawyer, it was explained that when you don't have any money, the court picks a lawyer for you.

"And that," says Roberts, "is when I said, I'm going to be a lawyer for poor people."

* * *

"My past is littered with the bones of men who were foolish enough to think I was someone they could sleep on."

michele roberts
(Via Skadden Arps)

Roberts is the newly elected head of the National Basketball Players Association, a job earned by hard campaigning and cemented with a single sentence.

"My past is littered with the bones of men who were foolish enough to think I was someone they could sleep on."

Those were the words that launched Roberts into the spotlight as the contender to beat in the race to become the next executive director of the NBPA. Her election makes her the sole female charged with representing the financial interests of hundreds of male athletes.

"Why didn't I plan that?" she laments, when I read the now infamous "bones" quote. "It was not something I planned. If I had, it would have sucked. I had a lot of stuff that I said that I had worked on, and none of that resonated at all. But that one damn quote..."

Roberts is meeting with me in the offices of the NBPA in Harlem, her new home after relocating from Washington D.C. after more than 30 years in the nation's capital. The intimidating image that one damn quote demands doesn't jive with the woman now sitting before me. In black pants and a tank top paired with a fashionable blue blazer and dangly earrings, she punctuates her answers with light raps on the table, her bracelets jingling when she waves her arms to make a point. When something gives her pause, she rubs her close-cropped natural hair as she thinks of an answer. Her flawless skin makes her appear at least a decade younger than her 58 years.

She looks and acts more like someone's cool aunt rather than a high-powered executive.

It turns out that someone's cool aunt is exactly who she is. Her office is littered with unpacked boxes, yet 20-30 framed photos of her nieces lay on various shelves as though they had been there for years.

"Those are my girls," she says, sitting underneath a photo of herself shaking hands with the president. "I never needed to have children. I've got them."

Early in her adult life, Roberts made the decision to not have kids, citing her love of her career as a trial attorney as the biggest reason for that choice.

"It had a hell of an impact on my social life, because men always wanted to have children," she admitted. "I made it very clear that we could play, but if you have any designs on being a dad, you'd have to cheat on me because I'm not having any kids."

Roberts, who is currently single, admits that there was one time in her early 30s when she considered marriage, but her desire to not have children led to the end of the almost three-year relationship.

"Now I know I don't want to be married," she said. "I think marriage is a significant commitment and I've always enjoyed my freedom. I've had relationships, but when I want to be left alone, I want to be left alone. And you can't just do that in a marriage."

It's a level of confidence and independence that not many women can boast. But for Roberts, it took a childhood of struggles and some maturity as an adult to ultimately get her there.

* * *

"I guarantee you I was not a tough kid," said Roberts, when I asked if her assertiveness was inherent or learned. "I was a wimp. I was a nerd. I didn't fight. I had no athletic ability. I just read."

Because of her scholastic aptitude, Roberts was often asked to take various tests as a young girl. It was for this reason that she didn't question it when her mom took her to an exam one Saturday. What Roberts didn't know was that she was being tricked into taking an entrance exam for The Masters School via a program called A Better Chance.

Roberts was accepted to the school in Dobbs Ferry, N.Y., and, despite her objections, was sent to boarding school beginning her sophomore year of high school in 1970. It was there that she had her first experience with racism.

"I didn't know any other white kids," she explains. "I was always, obviously, in the majority in my neighborhood. And then when I got to boarding school, my world was completely flipped, and most of the girls never had any interaction with a person of color before. And they just didn't know me. They didn't know anything about me and they didn't know people like me."

While there were many instances of insensitivity, Roberts recounted one in particular that cut deep.

"There was one girl who I became friendly with, and her parents were coming to visit," remembers Roberts. "She waited until the last minute said, ‘Michele, I don't think you should come [to dinner] with us. I don't think my father would approve of my being friends with you.' And then she left. And I couldn't believe it. It was so cruel and I was so angry."

"I didn't want to be a problem. And the way to not be a problem was to not have any unnecessary interaction with anyone."

Roberts knew her mother wanted her to stay in school and feared being disciplined if she complained, so she never revealed her pain.

"I didn't want to get thrown out of school," she said. "I didn't make waves, I just stayed away. I didn't want to be a problem. And the way to not be a problem was to not have any unnecessary interaction with anyone."

She became close with the handful of other black girls at the school and kept her distance from the rest. She didn't react when white students would say something offensive or ask to feel her hair. And when George Wallace was shot in 1972 and a white teacher accused her of praying for his death, she kept quiet.

"I came in not suspicious of the white kids because I didn't have any barometer by which to be frightened of them," says Roberts, who views her silence at the time as a form of self control. "But it was the only time as a kid that I found myself being hurt by kids.

"There was definitely anger there," she continued. "I was not happy in high school. I shut down white people after that. I just didn't want to get hurt."

* * *

Roberts kept her head down and studied her way through boarding school, then Wesleyan University followed by law school at the University of California, Berkeley. Upon graduating, she found herself in the Public Defender's office in Washington, D.C., where her experience with race hit another milestone.

"When I got to PDS, I was then working in close quarters with a staff that's predominantly white," Roberts explains. "The world was changing and I think we were all becoming less suspicious of each other. And then I was working 24/7 with people who didn't look anything like me, but we were brothers. And so gradually I realized that ignorance was something that, thank God, was fading and was not universal."

Roberts threw herself into her work, defending clients with a fervor and fulfilling that promise she made as a 7-year old watching her brother's friend failed by an incompetent attorney.

"Most of my clients were young, African-American men," she said. "It was not lost on me that I viewed them as the people I grew up with."

Roberts racked up an impressive courtroom record, winning far more cases than she lost.

"They all haunt me," she said of the convictions. "But the one that haunts me most was an acquittal. My client was acquitted and three weeks later he was dead. And then that happened again that same year. I don't know, maybe they'd still be alive if they hadn't been acquitted."

That sense of personal responsibility saw Roberts through eight years with the PDS, defending all types of clients, some of whom have since named children after her. The work was hard and emotionally exhausting, and in 1988, Roberts decided it was time to move on.

"Money was never a factor," she said of going on to work for high end law firms. "It was always the quality of my work. At some point, you become a little jaded, and my energy level was going down. As a public defender, all I did was criminal cases, and I wanted to do something else."

Roberts transitioned to a career as a trial attorney, where her obstacles with race were replaced by gender bias.

"It has happened in my professional life, fairly consistently, that some idiot will do something inappropriate because I'm African-American or a woman."

"It has happened in my professional life, fairly consistently, that some idiot will do something inappropriate because I'm African-American or a woman," she says. "And it typically involves a power relationship, where's they'll say, ‘Do this, you've done something wrong, and don't start crying on me.' That kinda crap. And so you call it."

Unlike in high school, Roberts had a fearless voice in dealing with professional men who used her gender to put her down. Wisely, she chose her moments to use it.

"I don't blame people for having biases," she says. "I think we're all the product of environment and our families. As long as your bias doesn't hurt someone, I couldn't care less. I actually tease my male colleagues when they say things like that.

"I don't spend a lot of time trying to correct people," she continues. "Most of it is harmless. If there is someone that I think has a bias or prejudice in ways that are harmful, then I will not hesitate to check it."

She maintained that attitude throughout her career, becoming one of the most respected trial attorneys in Washington D.C. But leading a group of powerful male athletes required a more direct approach to her gender, and she dealt with it head on while running for the NBPA job.

* * *

Roberts knows she's a woman. She knows that the players know she's a woman. And she knows that the agents, who showed a healthy amount of skepticism at her election, know she's a woman.

"It was clearly something that needed to be addressed, and I was always prepared to address it," she says. "I didn't want anybody to think that it was politically incorrect to ask me about whether or not being a girl was going to be a problem."

While campaigning for the NBPA job, Roberts made a conscious decision to bring up her gender when meeting with players. She didn't know if they had been told not to ask her questions about being a woman in a position historically held by men, yet she assumed it was an issue that had to be on their minds. Her approach worked with the players, but Roberts knows that she'll likely still need to deal with gender bias.

"Probably, but so what?" she replies, when I ask if having a female union head would be a problem for some people. "The world is what the world is. There's no way I can guarantee there's not going to be some idiot who says that because I'm a woman, I'm less of a challenge or I can be manipulated. Of course that's gonna happen. But I'm not going to spend any time agonizing over that."

She also isn't wasting any time worrying about the fact that some player agents tried to prevent her from taking the reins, including a last-ditch effort to push back the vote altogether. Roberts knows that she needs those agents on her side.

"They have the ear of my players, which I can't ignore," she says. "I would be a fool to tell them to pound sand."

Roberts took a pay cut in coming to the NBPA and is earning less than her predecessor, a fact that has been pointed out by some who fear she is being taken less seriously.

"I do worry there is some sense that I was paid less because I'm a woman," she admits. "I don't know what else to do to avoid that except say that's simply not true. That was my number. I got what I asked for. I'm well compensated by every standard. There's no way in the world I can complain and say, ‘I can't live on this.' I'm good."

* * *

Earlier this month, NBA veteran Paul Pierce made a comment during an interview that he'd prefer his son to play professional baseball rather than basketball because the MLB has a better union. This was the first Roberts had heard of the comment, and it was the first time in our conversation that she was visibly upset by anything.

"For him to make that statement tells me that he thinks the union is important," she said, after pondering Pierce's comments for a bit. "That's a good thing."

"The way the union was being run, I would have been as jaded as they are. They have every right to feel the way that they do."

Former NBPA head Billy Hunter. (Getty Images)

She knows that Pierce isn't the only player who feels spurned by the union and its previous leadership.

"It's not their fault," she said of the lack of player participation in union issues. "The way the union was being run, I would have been as jaded as they are. They have every right to feel the way that they do."

Becoming the head of one of the four sports unions was never part of Roberts's aspirations, but seeing players struggle in the wake of a Billy Hunter regime marred with accusations of corruption and collusion, stirred emotion in her. Just as she did when she was seven and again as a public defender, she found herself wanting to help.

"What happened to the players was so unacceptably horrific that I thought, 'Those guys deserve so much better than that,'" she said. "Because I've always loved basketball players, and my poor older brother, God bless him, he thought one day he'd be playing for the NBA like tens of thousands of other African-American men. But I understood that fervor, that drive, and saw a lot of kids growing up that wanted to do this more than anything else in the world."

And just like when she was with PDS, the racial connection to her past isn't lost on her.

"This was easy for me because it's a population I believed I knew, and that I grew up with in many ways, and admired and respected and what they needed was strong executive leadership," she said. "And I thought, 'I got time for that.'"

She began to research what it would take to be successful in the position. It infected her brain, and every free waking hour was spent on the Internet learning about the history of the NBPA, its successes and failures and what was needed to make it whole again. And when she was convinced that it was a job she could do "better than anyone else," in her words, she got involved.

Roberts won with 32 out of 36 possible votes, making her the first female head of a players' union. She admits that in spite of the win, those four lost votes bother her, not because of the votes themselves, but because they represent four players who either didn't believe in her or didn't care enough to vote. Both reasons are equally worrisome.

"I wish I knew who they were," she said, of those votes. "I was hoping someone would tell me, so I'd know where to start. I'm going to have to earn their trust. I expect to see the doubters, but I'm going to do everything I can to change that. It's an uphill battle. There's a perfect excuse to say the union sucks because look what happened the last time they trusted the director."

That process to earn the confidence of her union members starts with a demanding travel schedule designed to put her in front of every team in an effort to meet as many players as she can, face-to-face. She has an open door policy, and says that her favorite moments of the day are when she gets phone calls from players.

All of her efforts come with the ultimate goal of uniting the players well in advance of the next contract negotiations, which would be in 2017 if the players opt out of their current contract as expected. Beyond that, she'd like to hand the keys to the union over to the players themselves.

"I don't plan to die here," she said. "I have a very clear agenda for what I want to see here, the structure of the union. And when that happens, then I probably will move on. I will say this, I am struck by the fact that three of the four sports unions are run by lawyers. I think that I want to see a player run this thing, and run it the way it's supposed to be. I think a players' union should be exactly that. I have no right to sit in this seat for any longer than is necessary to do what I promised to do when I got this job."

And what will her legacy be?

"She helped us rebuild our union," she replies easily. "And made it the strongest union on the planet."

Producer: Chris Mottram | Editor: Paul Flannery | Title Photo: Getty Images

About the Author

Sarah Kogod is a writer based in Washington, D.C. Her work has appeared in the Washington Post, NBC, Huffington Post and Deadspin. Sometimes she asks athletes silly questions.