Michele Roberts: ‘I’ve always loved my work, but there are other things I want to do’
The outgoing NBPA executive director talks Adam Silver, what she’ll regret not accomplishing during her tenure and more
HARLEM, N.Y. — Eight years ago, Michele Roberts walked into an 11,000-square-foot office on 310 Lenox Ave. that shares the building with the Red Rooster restaurant as the new executive director of the National Basketball Players Association (NBPA). Just last month, the recently-retired Roberts had tears in her eyes as she enjoyed vegetarian sides and red wine at the popular soul food restaurant while reflecting on her union days.
“I believe that there is room for improvement, and I look forward to seeing it. But we kicked ass. We really kicked ass, so if it can get better than that, I’m thrilled to see it,” Roberts said on Feb. 14.
Roberts certainly made her presence known during her tenure with the NBPA. The Washingtonian brought needed stability to the NBPA, moved the union to a luxury facility in Manhattan with a basketball gym, worked to avoid a lockout, played a major role in getting retired players life insurance, saw players’ salaries and team values skyrocket, developed mental health programs and delayed her retirement as she guided the players through the NBA bubble while they played with “Black Lives Matter” on the floor and the back of jerseys. Tamika L. Tremaglio replaced Roberts at the beginning of the year.
The following is a Q&A with Roberts for Andscape.
What ultimately caused you to say ‘It’s time to go’?
Fulfilling a promise I made 25 years ago that said, ‘Michele, if you’re 65 and God says you don’t need a walker, and you’re not dying of cancer, and you have your health, do not die behind a desk. Get up, get out and do something that’s principally initiated by what you want to do. What you want to do, not how much you’re being paid to do.’ I kind of didn’t think that would happen, but it did, and so, yeah, why wouldn’t I?
Did former NBA commissioner David Stern’s abrupt death have an impact on you that way?
I’ll say this: It wasn’t pretty much David Stern’s death. But David Stern’s death was confirmation of that. I heard that he kind of left [the NBA], perhaps involuntarily, but he wasn’t really inclined to leave. It’s clear to me that he wanted to stay engaged in a meaningful way. The notion that he died having lunch, in some ways, still trying to conduct the business was really sad to me. I don’t know. Maybe there are some people that really do want to die behind a desk. They’ve loved their work so much that it’s all they want to do, and the notion of doing something different is a nightmare to them, and perhaps that was David Stern.
For me, that’s not been the case. I’ve loved my work. I’ve always loved my work, but there are other things I want to do that don’t include continuing to be involved in the NBA and NBPA, and in the legal field.
What was your last day with the NBPA like?
Because of COVID, the office, there were very few people there. I left at 8 or 9 p.m. Did some work, and then I left. It was uneventful.
Did you want it to be uneventful?
I think so. I did not want my staff to reassemble and be there to say goodbye. We had a party during Christmas, and that was very nice. But at the end of the day, our day is spent responding to whatever issues that can emerge. And so, I think that day it was a Friday. I had maybe eight or nine staff members go in there. I did my work, and I went home.
If it wasn’t for the pandemic, if it wasn’t for the bubble, when do you think you would have retired?
I would have retired in 2018. Well, that was the plan, and then COVID happened, and I guess it was not appropriate, but the plan was to do four years, maybe five, but that’s all.
Looking back at your career with the NBPA, what are you most proud of, and what was the most challenging thing?
There’s no one thing. But [Phoenix Suns guard and former NBPA president] Chris [Paul] says this, and I think I agree that it’s certainly among the things on the list, was getting health care for life for former NBA players. I think that’s just amazing, and getting a mental wellness staff in place. It was so late but appropriate. Getting a medical, physical wellness staff in place was important. We have a transition program, because I think it’s, well, not typically known what it means to transition from being an active player to a retired player, what that means, and getting people sort of ready for that. Getting our players to take control of their intellectual property, no longer having the league managing their commercial rights.
THINK450 [the NBPA’s for-profit licensing and business development entity] is extraordinary. We’re creating a sanctuary in midtown for our players that is the state-of-the-art headquarters. Full-court basketball and weight training and also podcast and office space. It’s like a sanctuary for these guys to come to what belongs to them.
Oh, it’s unbelievable. Our guys can come 24/7, 365 days a year, and this is their space. Nobody owns it. It’s theirs. They can do what they want, and nobody has access to it. I think that’s fantastic. Yeah. THINK450 revenue at January of last year was in the hundreds of millions. There’s so much that we did because of a great staff and some great player buy-in and more and more player programs. Player programming in Europe, having an international staff that is particularly concentrated on addressing the needs of international players. It’s amazing what this team was able to do for our players. That’s why I can leave.
What’s left on the table that bugs you, or something that happened that you couldn’t fix that still stings you from your time with the NBPA?
If I had known better, I don’t know if I could have fixed it, but I would have gone at it differently, though I always knew that we needed to spend time addressing it, and that is getting an equity share of these teams. It makes me insane. Naively or stupidly, I went after the CBA negotiations saying, ‘OK, you guys need to give us a share of these teams, because it’s fair,’ and it’s true, that is fair, but that’s also ridiculous, to think that: ‘You know, you’re right. It’s fair for us to give you a piece of these teams.’ Of course, it didn’t work, and it won’t work. What should work is being able to say, ‘OK, we want to be able to purchase an equity share in these teams, in the same way that you, seven, eight months ago, allowed [private equity] investors to come in and purchase a share of these teams.’ We have a check. We’re prepared to write it, but we want the right to buy in.
If I was still around, glad I’m not, but if I was still around, that’s what I would do. There is no way the league can, with a straight face, say, ‘No, you can’t buy in,’ because if you allowed venture to buy in, how do you not say to the men that created the value in these teams that they can’t buy in? And you can’t hide behind these conflict rules and say, ‘Well, current players shouldn’t be able to buy in.’ Let the NBPA buy in. Let the NBPA write a check to get a piece of every one of these 30 teams. It won’t be 20%, which is what you allowed [private equity] investors to do.
It may only be 5%, but let us write a check so that we can have a piece of these teams. And maybe 100 years from now, who knows, when those teams are sold, and money is being distributed, it will no longer be the case that the players who created that value will not be able to enjoy that. If I had figured out, it was just going to be a commercial transaction, that’s how I would have approached it. I approached it as an, ‘It’s the right thing to do,’ which is silly. So that’s cool. All right. Just give us the chance to make the purchase. It drives me nuts, and it wasn’t clear to me until I saw venture writing checks to get in. I said, ‘What? Wait a minute. Wait? That’s how we do this.’
Was there a moment that you had during that time, I don’t know if it was the 2020 NBA bubble or a moment with a player, that is very meaningful to you?
There were many, but since you referenced the bubble. I’m not sure who it was. I think it was [then-Los Angeles Lakers center] JaVale McGee, but maybe not, but I don’t know now. At the pool in the bubble and across the way, there was a player who was doing FaceTime with his children, and he was reading to them. Even now, I’m welling up. God. It was fantastic. But the humanity in that moment allowed me to know that this is not some commercial deal. These men, they’ve got families, and it was worth it.
So, what do you miss?
Oh. Right now? Nothing. Right now, I can watch the games. Right now, this time of year, the players are so invested in winning that there wouldn’t be much interaction anyway. So right now, not much.
Do you keep in touch with any of the players?
I don’t want to say. People text me, ‘Thinking about you.’ Nah, I don’t want to say who.
Well, when I do think of a player and I think of you, I think of Chris Paul. What does he mean to you?
You’re deliberately trying to make me cry. I love Chris. He’s got such an amazing family, yeah, that embraced me kind of immediately. I can’t even imagine having done this job without Chris. You know Chris. And his mom, his daughter, and then his brother, his wife. They’re amazing. I miss Chris.
So are you still a Knicks fan? Are you still watching games? Are you still following everything?
I’m watching games. It’s not as many as I used to, because there were games I would watch because I knew I would see players, and so I would watch their game. I still love basketball, so I’m still watching games, but I’m not going to lie, I’ve not watched as many as I used to. And because of COVID, I’m not trying to get to the arenas. Yeah, once the playoffs start, we’ll see.
Did you have any last conversation with NBA commissioner Adam Silver and how would you describe your relationship with him over the years?
Oddly, no complaints. Adam believed me when I said: ‘Don’t f— with me, I won’t f— with you, right? Treat me like an adult, and I’ll do the same with you. Don’t lie to me, I won’t lie to you.’ I think that worked out. Well, he was not as new. He really wasn’t as new as I was. He’d been working at the league forever, but he didn’t know me. I didn’t know him.
I’ve always understood that even as we both talk about the good of the game, I always understood that his bosses were the team owners, and he always understood that my bosses were the players. I just think we figured out a way to do that dance. Oh, I genuinely like him. I genuinely respect him. I tease my counterparties that other [player unions] are liking my commitment better than yours. I think it’s fine. He and I figured out what we could get away with, and then we negotiated.
Did you have a conversation with Tamika Tremaglio before she took over to give her some words of wisdom?
I’ve known Tamika for a minute. And, of course, we’ve talked about what all of this means. I think she’s ready. I wouldn’t tell you I’ve given her advice other than to make sure you put the players first. I think with that as your guidepost, you really can’t go wrong.
“Our community cannot allow the fact that there are those who don’t want us to get to the next level to stop us from trying to get to the next level. I don’t have any time for that.”— Michele Roberts
I know you got letters, women that have said very meaningful things to you, and you made history. You opened doors that weren’t open before. What does your impact on the sports world for women mean to you?
I never intended to have an impact in the sports world because I didn’t expect to be in the sports world, or frankly, an impact for women. I didn’t grow up thinking I was going to be a civil rights activist. I just wanted to be a lawyer. It was really that simple, but apparently, because I’m a Black woman, it couldn’t be that simple. So it wasn’t that simple.
I was doing this podcast a couple of days ago with some Black women in sports who asked the question, ‘Why did you think you could do this?’ The honest answer was, ‘I didn’t think about it.’ The good news is by the time I applied for this job, I had thanked God, long ago, stopped thinking that I had to do something extraordinary, and I just, at that point in my life, said, ‘This is what I want, and I’m not going to not try because I’m a Black woman.’
I think this is true. I think there are young women, and maybe there’s young men or whomever who are saying, ‘Oh, my God. Should I try it? Should I think about even the possibility, given who I am?’ Just f—ing do it.
Right? If you believe you can do it. Now, don’t try and do something you have no skill set to do, but then you’ll fail, and you can’t blame anybody except the fact that you weren’t ready for it, but if in your heart and brain and soul and spirit you know, ‘I can do this,’ just go do it. Our community cannot allow the fact that there are those who don’t want us to get to the next level to stop us from trying to get to the next level. I don’t have any time for that.
What’s the future of Black women in sports? What are you hoping for the future?
Well, I am being succeeded by another Black woman, and that’s so special to me, so I’d like to think that that means there are more of us who will say, ‘Move over, because this is not your domain.’ I want to see that more in media. [ESPN’s] Malika [Andrews] is getting requisitioned at NBA Today. It’s encouraging to me.
Now, I know ESPN has a dominance, but I want to see Fox Sports do that. I want to see more of us Black men and Black women, given especially the controversial composition of the athletes, being able to dominate that space. I want to see that happen in the front offices of both the NBA and the NFL, MLB.
I think this lawsuit that [former Miami Dolphins head coach Brian] Flores has brought shouldn’t be the beginning and end of how we fix what’s going on in the NFL. It is insane that so many people that look like us are only on the court and on the field and in the locker rooms, but not running this. It’s our bad if we don’t push back harder and harder and harder.
So why did you want to meet in the building that used to host the NBPA?
That’s one of the reasons I brought you here. We owned the building. We occupied two floors, and there were 27 employees. We rented the space to the Red Rooster and to TD Bank. It was a great investment. This was Harlem 25 years ago. [Former NBPA executive director] Billy [Hunter] bought the building.
There were just two floors with some office space for the PA, and then we moved to 23 employees, and in the three years, the first three years I was here, I think we had five players that showed up, ever. Chris, and he always had to have security, Melo [Carmelo Anthony] and a couple of players. They were members and stuff. Not even the board members.
How did the NBPA’s relationships with the players change with the new building?
You could have teams come to practice. The players work out and practice there. And then in the summer, the guys come and work out. It makes sense. The new PA building, we call it ‘The Sanctuary.’ It’s a beautiful place. It’s beautiful. We bring the rookies there every year so they can see what belongs to them, and I watch their eyes. It’s typically their first impression of the union, and what it says to them is, ‘We matter, and you think we matter, and this is mine?’
We recently put a podcast studio in. And that’s the point, that they know with all the s— that’s going on, this is a home for them, and not simply two floors on 125th Street. But within a seven-minute cab ride from their hotel, they can come in and get some shots off, conduct some business.
What other things do you want to do now in retirement?
Oddly enough, it’s almost a regression. Look, I started as a lawyer, as a public defender, because of my passion for criminal justice issues, and there’s a bit of unfinished business in that space. There’s so much more that can be done to improve that space. And there are lots of people who are trying now and have been trying for years to improve that space. I want to return to the trenches of trying to improve that space. Some of the work I have on my plate includes working with people in that lane of criminal justice. I’m excited about that because I have not been able to do that in any real capacity for the last few years.
What has been the coolest thing you’ve done with your free time?
I still can’t stop waking up at 6 a.m. My body is programmed to do that. I wake up, and I realize that I don’t have to get up just yet, and then I grab a book, and I read for a couple of hours. That is so cool. I just lie in my bed because I’ve got four or five books at my bedside. I wake up, I grab a book and I read it for a couple of hours, and I probably doze off again, then I get up at 8 a.m. and start my day. But it’s cool because I know I don’t have to prepare for meetings and all that. It’s nice to be able to enjoy being alive and not rushed because someone’s got a problem that I have to fix.
What books are you reading right now?
Well, I’m reading John Feinstein’s book on racism in sports, Raise a Fist, Take a Knee: Race and the Illusion of Progress in Modern Sports. Just started that a couple of days ago, and I’m re-reading Beloved. It’s one of my favorite books. I haven’t read that in, what, 15 years, so I’m rereading that. I’m also — there’s three of them I’ve read that I’m just thinking of — Hidden Figures. I’ve seen the movie. I’ve never read the book. I’m reading that book. I’ve got like 20 books on my bedstand.