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The Undefeated Interview: Michele Roberts

The head of the NBA players union on gender equality, diversity in the NBA … and the Knicks

Michele Roberts made sure to make a notable correction before beginning her recent commencement speech at the University of California-Berkeley School of Law.

The Cal Law graduate was introduced as general counsel for the National Basketball Players Association. Before Roberts uttered a word of esteemed guidance to the graduates in attendance, she made a strong point to state that her title was executive director of the NBPA. Considering that Roberts is the first woman to head a major sports union in North America, her correction was certainly warranted and needed.

“When I sought the job, I was obviously aware being a woman was of some significance,” Roberts told The Undefeated. “But it did not occur to me that getting the job would be received the way it has been received. It’s wonderful getting letters and emails from young women of color, or otherwise, who talk about how impressed and motivated they are about my having the job.

“And so it occurs to me, I certainly intended to be the best executive director in the history of the union, anyway. But now I better because the thought is if I’m not, then there’ll always be some silly person who says, well, she was a girl.”

Roberts sat down with The Undefeated after her commencement speech at The Hearst Greek Theatre on Cal’s campus earlier this month. She was engaging and thoughtful. She did not divulge much about the current talks with the league on the collective bargaining agreement, other than stating that the talks are still positive and she still meets regularly with NBA commissioner Adam Silver; but she did speak candidly on an array of subjects. Roberts talked in-depth about the “pathetic” state of women executives in sports; the lack of former NBA players and African-Americans as coaches, general managers and executives in the league; the need for more minority ownership; how she fell in love with the Knicks as a young girl; whether players should be able to engage in business with NBA owners and more.

You’re the first woman to lead a major professional sports union in the U.S. Does that make you proud, or sad?

Both, but it also makes me feel a little bit pressured. Because when I sought the job, I was obviously aware being a woman was of some significance. But it did not occur to me that getting the job was going to be received the way it has been received.

It’s wonderful getting letters and emails from young women of color, or otherwise, who talk about how impressed and motivated they are about my having the job. And so it occurs to me, I certainly intended to be the best executive director in the history of the union anyway. But now I better [laughs] because the thought is, if I’m not, then there’ll always be some silly person who says, ‘Well, she was a girl.’

Have you received any messages that really reinforced how important your job is?

A lot of the letters I receive are from women, but I’ve received a number of letters from fathers of daughters who tell me how impressed and pleased they are that I have this job because it helps their daughters be able to appreciate how far they can go. And when you hear a man say that, who’s typically not supposed to get it, but he gets it because he’s got a daughter or daughters, those always sort of make me tear up a little bit.

You said you could’ve embrace the mindset “never a woman” for who gets hired as head of the National Basketball Players Association. Why didn’t you?

Twenty-five, maybe even 15 years earlier, I might have said, ‘I’m not in the business trying to break any glass ceilings.’ By then I understood, if you don’t go for it, it’s not gonna be got. And I wanted that job. And while I understood from good intelligence that it was a long shot, nothing beats failure but to try. So I did it.

Has anyone questioned your ability once you got the job?

[Laughs] People, when I say it, don’t think I’m telling the truth. I was as shocked as you might imagine. I’m in my office, and I had just gotten the job a couple days or maybe a week or so earlier. I was getting a lot of phone calls from people, and I was taking them. And this gentleman [laughs] – I use that word – called me and he was clearly inquiring about a position. And I was getting a lot of calls from people, principally lawyers, and he – I suppose with a straight face, I couldn’t see his face since he was on the phone – said to me, ‘If you want to be taken seriously in the New York sports market, you’re going to need to hire somebody like me. And I’m white, and I’m male and I’m a Jew. And I will give you credibility. And I will guide you through this whole process.’

And I think I’m pleased he was not in my office because I swear for God I’m sure I would have slapped the piss out of him. But instead, since I was on the phone, I had an opportunity to take a breath, and pinch myself and realize that this was not a joke. This guy was serious.

And I said, ‘OK, tell you what, why don’t you send me your resume, and send me all of your contact information, all of it.’ And he said, ‘Absolutely.’ And he did. He emailed me his resume, and he emailed me his contact information.

And the truth is, I kept it only because I wanted to make sure there wasn’t a chance in the world that my legal team would make the mistake of hiring this man. But it happened, and it happened less than two years ago.

I mean, he clearly was a fool. But he called me, and that’s what he said.

What do you think about the state of women sports executives now?

At least on the basketball side, we have a second coach now playing with Sacramento. I mean, it’s pathetic. There needs to be more women. I will say this, there are lots of women in the sport. For example, some of the stuff with espnW. There are lots of women that show up at these conferences and they are smart and accomplished. But we ain’t running much. So there needs to be more work in that space. And I’m told, because I’m new to this, it used to be a lot worse. But it can clearly get a lot better.

There’s a low number of Black coaches, GMs and owners in the NBA compared to the number of Black players. Is there anything the union or players are doing to change that?

I sort of view it in two ways. You’re right, there clearly is a dearth in the number of coaches of color and GMs of color – and frankly owners of color. We can’t pretend there’s not work to be done. Again, I concede that the numbers have gotten better. I don’t know why they can’t get even better because the number of veteran players that are available for assistant coaching positions and then ultimately promotion to coaches, is overwhelming. And there’s so much talent that’s not otherwise employed.

I had a conversation recently about getting our guys coaching positions with HBCUs because frankly they can’t get jobs, even at the Division I schools that they played at. So the league needs to do a better job; the teams need to do a better job.

I would be at least as interested in seeing us figuring out if there’s something we can do as a players association or even just informally to do something about the amount of African American ownership of color. Because I frankly think the tone is set at the top. And if we have so few owners of color at the top, then it reduces the chances for there being more coaches of color, GMs of color.

What Michael [Jordan] is doing in Charlotte is really quite impressive, but he shouldn’t be the only majority owner of color in the league. I don’t know and I don’t want to pretend that I know what, if anything, the league is doing. I don’t know if we necessarily need to replicate football, with mandatory interviews of GMs and coaches of color — couldn’t hurt, but we have to do something.

Yeah, it’s something the players do on occasion bring to my attention, as something they’d like to see us try to do.

Players are not allowed to be involved in business ventures with their owners. Is this policy something you are reconsidering?

It’s a great question and one that has been raised by players and, frankly, discussed internally. Especially some of these new owners are phenomenally successful businessmen. And I would certainly, if I had some money to invest, would love to be able to pick their brains and get some guidance. And I have actually been told from several owners that they would love to be able to assist the players in making some financial decisions. For reasons that may be obvious, we’ve had to be very careful about having our players engage in joint ventures or otherwise be in business with owners, because of the potential conflict issues that are raised. So we’re thinking this through. We’re trying to figure out a way for players and owners who want to be able to benefit from each other’s expertise to at least have discussions, but we’re doing it in a way that makes sure the player is protected, and that the game is protected.

It’s something that I suspect was never even asked about, with respect to some of the older owners, but again, these new crop of owners are a phenomenal success. And it begs the question: Why in the world can’t we talk about the ways in which I can be successful as well?

We’re working it through.

When did you fall in love with the game of basketball? Who was your team?

I have two older brothers, and each of them at one point, like every other kid that grew up in the projects, wanted to play in the NBA. The one television that we owned at the time, whenever it was basketball season and the Knicks were on, we watched the Knicks.

I have learned that if you watch enough basketball, you can’t help it, you’re going to fall in love with the game. And so I fell in love with the game at a very young age because my brothers were watching the game. And of course my team was the Knicks.

I can still see it like it was yesterday, what was it, ’68-69, when Willis comes out and he has no knees. And the whole [Madison Square] Garden goes crazy. Of course, we didn’t have enough money to go to the Garden, so we were watching this on TV. But that championship year, I don’t think I stopped thinking about basketball after that year. You know, I’m a New Yorker. [smiles]

So what about your Knicks?

Well, I’ve got 30 teams now. [laughs] And the good news is, I always win because somebody always does.


You have a picture of Sojourner Truth and A.I. in your office. Why those two?

Well, with A.I. — I try not to be a fan when I’m around my players, though I am — but I couldn’t control myself when I finally got a chance to meet Allen Iverson. He is someone who — because he was so little, and scrappy, and sort of had a background like mine — I worshipped as a player. He and his game were special to me. And therefore, I’ve had a picture of him hugging his mother when he won the MVP in my office for many, many years.

With Sojourner, one of my favorite poems or speeches by her is the Ain’t I a Woman. It was a lesson in being tough, and surviving, yet at the same time, knowing you’re a woman. And those things are not mutually exclusive.

You knew at a young age that you wanted to be a lawyer, and specifically a public defender. What have you learned about the U.S. criminal justice system during your time as a public defender, especially as it pertains to the poor and people of color?

If you’re poor and you don’t have the good fortune of having a good public defender — and this is a shame that this country has to deal with — you are so behind the eight ball.

I used to think I needed to clone myself, and the rest of the public defenders I worked for in D.C. We wanted to represent everybody. Because it really did make a difference, the quality of representation, made the difference between imprisonment or freedom. It was the toughest job I had and I frankly wish I had the energy to go back and do it, because we need more good lawyers.

You talked about the “isms” you face, like sexism, racism. Do you still face that now? Or do you think it’s more hidden?

If I said I don’t, no one would believe me. And so I’m not going to say I don’t, ’cause that’s not true. But it’s not something I deal with on a day-to-day basis. I think people who are that foolish now have the good sense to keep that ignorance to themselves. And so if somebody treats me badly, I don’t assume, and it’s not necessarily clear to me that it’s because they have a problem with the fact that I’m a woman, or African American, or both.

But I still suffer the same slights we all do. I can still walk into a nice boutique and have someone follow me from corner to corner. Because I wear my hair short and sometimes I’m wearing pants, I can’t get a cab in New York either. But I really can’t allow it to sort of paralyze me.

With powerful players like Kobe, now retired, LeBron and Steph, do you think there are players now who can get into ownership?

I do, I do. Obviously Michael is Michael. And everyone predicted that he’d one day do what he’s succeeded in doing. I believe the same with each of the guys you mentioned. Kobe, we’ll see very soon. I think LeBron is someone who everyone suspects will own an NBA team one day. I do have some optimism with what’ll happen in the next five to 10 years. But, it can’t happen soon enough.

How much involvement does Chris Paul have as president of the union? What’s your relationship with him?

I had been prepared to have very little access to Chris because he’s an extraordinarily talented player and is obviously central to his team’s success. So I knew he was not someone seated at the end of the bench who may otherwise have more disposable time. And two, Chris has got a family. And he’s got a big family and they’re very close.

So I fully expected he was not going to be someone I could count on to make contact with on a regular basis. And I have been delightedly surprised otherwise. Chris has a rule, and I’m very good about not abusing their time, but the rule is, ‘If you need me, just reach out.’ And I’ve never reached out when I needed him and been unable to reach him. He’s unbelievably accessible. And even now, given what happened to his team postseason, he has been available. Obviously he’s spending time with his family, but he’s been available for me and for the union as we navigate these CBA waters. He is an ideal president. He cares seriously and genuinely for the union. And he has committed more time than even I expected he would commit. So the players are well served.

You have a star-studded supporting cast on your board’s executive committee. In addition to Chris Paul, there’s LeBron James, Steph Curry, Carmelo Anthony. How much does that help, having star power involved? In the past there were good players involved, but not as much star power involved in the labor discussions as this.

Your question answers itself. Everybody pays attention when you have that cadre of players on your roster. Having LeBron, and Steph, and Carmelo, and Chris … I got Steve Blake, Anthony Tolliver, Andre Iguodala’s on my board. Players pay attention to the fact that these guys are committing their free time to this venture. That gives them reason to think this union is of some consequence, if these players think it’s important enough to be engaged.

The owners, they’re not ignoring my executive committee, because they are not to be ignored. And so that gives added credibility to our discussions and negotiations.

And frankly, the fans. The fans see that these men, who otherwise can be doing any number of other things and making all sorts of money doing other things, are committing their time to this union. And the fans I think can appreciate, therefore, that what the union must be about is important. I’m not suggesting that we can’t be successful if we don’t have marquee players on the executive committee, of course we can, but it certainly does enhance our credibility when our star players show what we’re doing is important.

What would you say to those who say people like LeBron and Steph aren’t really involved in the union?

Well, that’s clearly someone who doesn’t have anything to do with my union. And has nothing to do with how my executive team interacts with the executive committee, because they would be wrong. They also said LeBron didn’t drive a Kia. [Laughs.]

What can you say about the CBA discussions?

They’re ongoing. They have thus far been productive and we are optimistic we can avoid a lockout.

Still having lunch with Adam Silver?

Yeah. Absolutely. It’s important for the game that we be able to speak regularly. I think, unlike, and I won’t name the other sport, but when the commissioner and the head of the PA can’t have an adult conversation, that doesn’t bode well, for the game or anyone. And so, we do speak regularly. And I hope that we’ll be able to maintain that constant communication.

Would you say your relationship with Adam Silver is pretty good?

I think so. We’re both mindful that we have clients, but we’re civil. And I believe that we’re at a place where there’s mutual respect.

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.