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Michele Roberts shines light on lack of Black women in power in NBA

‘It pains me because I know that there are Black women that are in this space and they’re not being given the voice’

Since 2014, the National Basketball Players Association (NBPA) has been led by an African American woman by the name of Michele Roberts. During that span, Roberts has put the NBPA on solid footing, kept a major lockout from taking place in 2016, strongly supported social justice alongside the players and helped guide them through the pandemic.

During her tenure as the first woman to head a major professional sports union in North America, Roberts, 65, has also been pleased to see more women working in the NBA at large. However, she says, most do not look like her.

“Even as I see more women, and I’m happy about that, there are not enough Black women,” said Roberts, who plans to retire soon. “And it pains me because I know that there are Black women that are in this space and they’re not being given the voice.

“I think that there is the reality that this business is obviously dominated by white people and dominated by white men. And to the extent that the business is attempting to do better on the issue of inclusion, and I’m probably going to regret saying this, but I think it may be more palpable when it comes to women, for white women to be received as opposed to Black women, despite the fact that I’m here. I just think that’s true.”

With Women’s History Month in March nearing an end, Roberts recently talked to The Undefeated in a phone interview about the lack of Black women in executive roles in the NBA, how she views her tenure in the NBPA and the sleepless nights she’s had during the pandemic.

Over your tenure, does it appear that more women are starting to get involved in the NBA at large, whether it’s coaching, front office, agents?

Yes. What’s also true is there were more women than people were noticing in this business. When I first got here, I was surprised at the number of women that I found, not sort of in the forefront, because they weren’t. I would be in meetings and there were no women there. And then I would be in meetings or at some league event and I’d see all these women who were like, ‘Oh, I’m an agent.’ Or, ‘I work at the [NBA]. I work for a team.’ But they weren’t in the rooms where these decisions were being made. … They’ve always been there, but not being part of the sort of the power structure. So, I don’t know if it’s true that there are more women that have now become part of the business, but there are more women who have broken through this veil of opportunity.

So now I have meetings with the league or some agency or even a team, suddenly there are more women that are in the room. I don’t think it has anything to do with me though. … I think much more of what’s going on is, women are just becoming more, ‘Look, I know more than you. I’m part of this department. I am impactful. I want to be in that meeting.’ And suddenly they’re appearing, and that’s nothing but good news.

Do you come across a lot of women of color in power working for the NBA?

Who are they? It’s not prominent enough. It makes no sense to me that there are not more women of color that are visibly engaged in the business of the league. I don’t know who they are. I guess the only Black woman that is publicly and visibly involved in the CBA [collective bargaining agreement] negotiations was Michelle Leftwich [former NBA vice president and assistant general counsel] who no longer works there and came on very late in the process.

When I negotiate with the league, I am negotiating with white men and that is the truth. … The only woman is Kathy Behrens [NBA president of social responsibility and player programs]. And that is pretty much it. Black women? Where are they?

How do you view your time in your position with the NBPA and what are you most proud of?

It’s kind of hard because I honestly think that the union, when we got here, though competent, and I’m giving my predecessor [Billy Hunter] his due, was not broken in a way that there was no service being provided to the players. It was credible, at least not bordering on incompetent. But I do think that the union today, the PA today has done a couple of things. One, it’s absolutely allowed the players to believe that the PA is exclusively interested in their best interest, as opposed to having to wonder if there was some other agenda that the staff had. I think, No. 2, whether the league believes it or not, I think they do, is the union is now viewed as being a formidable partner and indeed an equal in terms of promoting the business of basketball and our players’ role in getting this business from A to B. …

People criticize it when I would say that, ‘Yeah, well, we’re a union, but we’re not plumbers.’ We’re not. We are, and our players are, professionals that have more than the ability to bounce a ball, to increase their contribution, both in their communities and, frankly, in their revenue-generating potential. And so I think there’s a maturity that’s happened to the union that didn’t exist before. I won’t take personal credit for it, but I think I have a great staff that’s helped us get there.

Is it safe to say getting the players through the NBA bubble and dealing with COVID was your biggest challenge?

Absolutely. Are you kidding me? S— yeah. I will go to my grave not ever not recalling the day I found out that we had to stop playing. I can recall it in my brain a hundred times saying, ‘Oh, my God, what the f— is this going to mean?’ And the fear in our players’ voices when they said, ‘Michele, what’s going on?’ Figuring out a way to both keep these men safe, but understand that the inability to continue the season was going to be catastrophic in terms of their livelihoods, it was the hardest thing I think I could do for them, and work and manage with them and for them. It was spooky. …

So yeah, I mean, I was averaging 3½ hours of sleep at night. That’s tough.

You were in the NBA bubble early in its inception until the end. What are your fondest memories?

I remember going to the pool outside of our hotel, and it might be 10 o’clock at night because I couldn’t sleep very well. And I remember [Indiana Pacers guard] Malcolm [Brogdon] sitting out poolside reading a book and then going out and say, ‘I don’t mean to interrupt you.’ And then we just have a conversation. And then [Pacers guard] Jeremy Lamb, I remember one night going out and talking to him. Conversations with players … those were opportunities I would never have had other than in the bubble.

And none of that would’ve happened, but for the bubble, to be able to have an opportunity to interact with players after hours when they were alone and say, ‘Sorry, I don’t mean to intrude.’ ‘Oh, no, Michele, come sit.’ Bring a bottle of wine down to have, or a player bring a bottle of wine down. Those are phenomenal experiences that I loved. And I guess, again, if there’s a silver lining to this god damn virus, those are among them.

What can you say about your latest challenge in terms of dealing with COVID-19 with the players?

I’m praying that there’s not another wave. The reality of the deals that we have struck and will strike with the league is that it’s all sort of day to day. … We have to revisit where we are at the end of the season because the revenue loss is real. So depending upon if, and I pray to God there’s no third wave. As you can see, we’re trying to slowly reopen the arenas, bring in more fans. And to the extent we can do that with some modicum of success, we can continue to generate some revenue that we’re losing otherwise. And so if that continues, we’ll never make up the 40% that we’ve lost. We get it. This is going to, once again, be a bad year.

If we can make up for some of that money, that’s fine. If there’s a third wave and we have to go back to the no fans and, God forbid, back to the bubble, it’s a problem. So, yeah, I watch it every day. I talk to our epidemiologist probably every 15 minutes if I can, to get some sense of what’s going on. But, this situation has not become less precarious. It’s more promising because of the vaccine. But with all these different variants … we all have to be mindful that we can’t start counting on money before it’s earned. And so, we’ll either get through this thing. If we have to go back in the bubble, that means we can’t make any money in terms of fans and the fans in the seats for playoffs. And if that happens, then players may end up losing more money.

Are you having second thoughts about retiring from the NBPA?

Let’s not get it twisted. I am going to leave. I am happy I didn’t leave before this happened because I would have been sick knowing I could help to sort of manage our way out. Right now it’s day to day. I’ll leave when it’s time. And I love these men and I love the work I do. So, I’m not running out the door. I’m not saying, ‘OK, you know I’m out of here.’ When it happens, it happens. But no. What needs to happen is that we need to get someone else on board that has the same commitment to the players that our current team does. We will. We’re still working on it. It will happen. I will miss them, but I’m gone.

What advice would you give to the executive director that follows you?

Call me. Seriously, call me. I’ll be there. Remember, when I came on board, Billy was fired and he was suing us, I couldn’t call him. And it was, for me, sad. I always tell [NBA commissioner] Adam [Silver] this. Adam was blessed to have [former NBA commissioner] David [Stern] before David died. David was still there. And if you needed to, he could always call David. So, to my successor, call me.

Since you’ve gotten this job, how often do you get contacted by women who are inspired by you?

Well, in terms of the outreach, it’s almost nonstop. And when I first got the job, understandably there was like, ‘Oh, my God, who are you? How are you? What are you doing? How’d you get there?’ The volume of attention was pretty high. And then it becomes cyclical. …

It’s daily that someone reaches out and says, ‘I know your story. I learned where you’ve been and where you are.’ It’s pretty daunting because it’s not something I signed up for or at least expected and thought, ‘OK, this is going to be part of my life going forward.’

Say you were to bump into a young Black girl and she asks for some words of wisdom to be in your world one day, what would you tell her?

I would tell her the NBA world is a male-dominated sports world. I would tell her not for one second should you assume that they will welcome you with open arms. They will not. I would tell her, not only will they not welcome you with open arms, they will view you with skepticism. They will be dismissive and condescending. Maybe not outwardly, but they will view you as someone that’s not worthy of being in their space.

But, you will be all of those things, worthy of being in this space, better than them, if you work your ass off. It’s an old, old story. All of our parents, grandparents said, fair or not, ‘You have got to be twice as good as they are.’ You just have to be. And as unfair as that sounds, and it is unfair, it’s true. There’s one or two things you can say, ‘Well, that’s not fair, and I’m going to be mediocre.’ F— that. Be mediocre, be as good. Until the world has changed in a really significant way, it doesn’t matter. You have got to be the best person in the room.

NBPA executive director Michele Roberts is the most well-known and high-ranking African American woman working in the NBA at large. Here are some other Black women in prominent positions around the league you should know:

Person Position
Portia ArcherG League chief operating officer
Denise BoothLA Clippers vice president, community relations & player programs
Wendy Borlabi Chicago Bulls high performance coach
Britta Brown Detroit Pistons senior director of basketball administration
Karida BrownLos Angeles Lakers director of racial equity and action
Swin CashNew Orleans Pelicans vice president of basketball operations/team development
Amanda ChinGolden State Warriors vice president of brand marketing
Chrysa ChinNBPA executive vice president, strategic engagement & development
Kareeda Chones-AguamMilwaukee Bucks and Fiserv Forum vice president, partner strategy and management
Morgan CatoNBA Associate vice president of business operations for league operations
Kori Davis-PorterNBA senior vice president, content and business operations
Sherrie DeansExecutive director for the NBPA Foundation
Allison FeasterBoston Celtics vice president of player development & organizational growth
Amanda GreenOklahoma Thunder vice president, team counsel and strategic alignment
Lindsey HardingSacramento Kings assistant coach-player development coach
Simone JelksFull-time NBA referee
Raven JemisonMilwaukee Bucks executive vice president, business operations
Sashia Jones Washington Wizards vice president of player development and social engagement
Ayana LawsonSenior director of community and lifestyle services at Oklahoma Thunder
Michelle LeftwichAtlanta Hawks vice president of salary cap administration
Cynthia MarshallDallas Mavericks CEO
Tori MillerG League College Park Skyhawks general manager
Ericka Newsome-HillAtlanta Hawks director of player engagement
Amber Nichols G League Capital City Go-Go general manager
Adrienne Scherenzel-CurryChicago Bulls senior director of community relations
Erika SwilleyDetroit Pistons vice president, community & social responsibility
Jamila WidemanNBA senior vice president of player development
Leah WilcoxNBA vice president, player family liaison
Tatia L. Williams NBA vice president and assistant general counsel
Teresa WitherspoonNew Orleans Pelicans assistant coach
Domonique WorshipNBA vice president of diversity and inclusion

Marc J. Spears is the senior NBA writer for Andscape. He used to be able to dunk on you, but he hasn’t been able to in years and his knees still hurt.