Impact 25: NBA Union Chief Michele Roberts Knows Exactly What She's Doing

Courtesy of Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom

Attorney Michele Roberts changed the sports world in 2014, when she was named head of the National Basketball Players Association.


Michele Roberts understands the importance of storytelling.

The new chief of the NBA players' association worked for more than 30 years as a lawyer, first as a public defender, then in corporate law. And what are trials if not a form of storytelling, with a jury as the audience?

So Roberts has been telling stories all her life; she's just not used to telling stories about her life. She isn't used to being at the center of the narrative. But, of course, that's exactly where she finds herself after she landed one of the most high-profile jobs in sports and became the first female union chief of a major American sport.

Everyone wants to know who this 58-year-old woman is and how she convinced the best basketball players in the world (she received 32 of 36 votes from the executive board) she should be their leader.

Stand in a room with Roberts for five minutes, and something becomes overwhelmingly clear: She knows exactly what she's doing -- every word, every gesture, every story. All are delicately placed. She might be new to the media spotlight that comes with sports, but she's not new to high stakes, to adrenaline, to outsmarting the opposition at every turn. Washingtonian Magazine once called her "the finest pure trial lawyer in Washington." Even her recent Q&A with ESPN The Magazine, which stirred some controversy because she said NBA owners are replaceable, felt like a deliberate play -- like pulling the queen out early, checking the opponent and, perhaps, signaling to her constituents she intends to play hard ball. "We're all on the same page," Knicks center Cole Aldrich said. "She's that main voice for the collective players."

The ironic thing: Roberts' pursuit of this job wasn't necessarily a long, calculated move. She was a partner at Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom, one of the most high-powered firms in the country. Sure, she had always loved basketball and was even a season-ticket holder with the Washington Wizards, but that was the extent of her connection with the game. She never once contemplated taking over for former union chief Billy Hunter. That is, until she found herself in front of the computer, night after night, reading everything she could about the players' association and the ins and outs of its procedures.

Finally, she recognized the emotion driving this behavior: passion.

Roberts isn't one to ignore that kind of thing. She found a way to get herself in the room with the players. Once there, she pitched them a compelling story about why an outsider made sense.

She wouldn't owe anyone anything, she said, wouldn't have any preconceived notions. Essentially, Roberts was offering them a clean slate, upon which she promised she would galvanize them and give them reason to believe in their union again after a disheartening few years.

"Michele possesses a willingness to work harder than her opponents and an ability to read people and speak to what moves them," said Mike Naeve, head of Skadden's office in Washington, D.C. "Plus, she is articulate and chooses her words carefully."

Roberts obviously had the goods, but she was still a long-shot candidate.

"The executive committee, they interviewed a few hundred people," said Aldrich, who was in the room during the union's vetting process. "And they came to us a few times and said, 'Here are the candidates,' and we listened to them, and we just felt so strongly about her voice, the way she went about things and the confidence she had. She made us all kind of rally together, and that was really strong because, being a woman in a room of all men, well, that just blew us away."

Roberts didn't avoid the elephant in the room, either. She acknowledged her gender -- to not address it would be a mistake, she thought.

"I bet you can tell I'm a woman," she said cheekily inside the Aria Resort & Casino in Las Vegas. "And I suspect the rest of the world can, too."

But Roberts had spent much of her adult life as the only woman surrounded by men. That day in Vegas, in front of NBA players, was really nothing new. The thing is, regardless of gender, she had always felt a kinship with the players, many of whom had come from nothing and made themselves something, just as she had.

I like to live my life this way. Pressure, it's something I'm a big junkie for, and this new job will be pressure-filled. But that's what gets me up in the morning.
Michele Roberts

To be certain, nothing about Roberts and nothing she does is happenstance or inadvertent. It's all a part of her own personal narrative, including the story about how she became one of the most interesting power brokers in sports.

Roberts was born in the South Bronx and raised by a single mom, who she affectionately called Miss Elsy. As Roberts herself said, she had "no business making something of her life ... I should have been pregnant at 17 and never left the neighborhood, like most of my friends."

But Miss Elsy felt differently. She was determined her kids would make a different life. So when Roberts and her siblings came home from school, they didn't play outside -- they went inside to study. When other families in the neighborhood accused Miss Elsy of thinking her kids were better than everybody, she would respond, "No, I just think they're better than everyone thinks they are."

During the school year, Roberts did little except study. "My mom would say, 'Your way out of here is education, so don't come in my house with anything less than A's. You can make it if you study and work hard.'"

During the summers, Roberts would often spend the day at the local courthouse with her mom, watching the trials and arraignments. "It was free, and we didn't have any money," Roberts said. "And I thought it was the greatest thing in the world."

By her sophomore year of high school, Roberts had carved a path out of Melrose Housing, the low-income development in which she grew up. She enrolled on scholarship at the Masters School, a boarding school in Dobbs Ferry, New York.

Two years later, she was at Wesleyan.

Soon after, Roberts told her mom she wanted to be a lawyer. Miss Elsy did not say, "Do you really think that's possible?"

"What kind of lawyer?" she asked without missing a beat.

Roberts knew that part, too: She wanted to be a public defender. Growing up, a family friend had been left without a competent defender, and Roberts saw what happened to someone without a smart, passionate lawyer by his side.

Miss Elsy died in 1980, but not before learning her daughter had passed the bar exam and officially become what she said she would.

Realistically, nothing that happens in the next few years between the NBA and the players' association -- common sense dictates the players will opt out of the current collective bargaining agreement after the 2016-17 season -- will be more stressful than what Roberts faced as a public defender. Those cases were, quite literally, a matter of life and death.

"I deliberately didn't become a librarian, the most pressure-free job one can have," Roberts said. "I like to live my life this way. Pressure, it's something I'm a big junkie for, and this new job will be pressure-filled. But that's what gets me up in the morning."

No moment can ever match the stress she felt years ago while defending a young man who had been accused of rape and murder. The defendant was 17 years old, and because of the details of the case that involved a single mother raped, beaten and left for dead in an alley, the city of D.C. was in a frenzy. The media and community had essentially already convicted him; Roberts herself even assumed guilt when she took over the case.

"I hadn't had that kind of response to any other case, but I got so caught up in the hype of it that I did not want to represent him," Roberts said. "I did so reluctantly."

But she quickly saw her assumptions about the boy and what had happened were misplaced. He was innocent, of that she became sure. Each day, when she met with the young man in prison, she would ask, "We OK?" And he would respond, "We OK. I just can't wait to go home."

Roberts would stay awake at night beset with worry, with concern that she would somehow fail her client and live with the knowledge that an innocent man was imprisoned. She says now that if he had been found guilty, she's unsure how she could have continued practicing law. That's how disenchanted with the process she would have felt.

Said Roberts: "There is no pressure greater than defending an innocent client. In my view, it was going to be solely my responsibility to get him freed."

Her client was acquitted. Roberts still keeps in touch with him.

When Roberts first started practicing law, she noticed a certain reaction when the opposing lawyer, usually a man, watched her walk into the room. He would seem to breathe a sigh of relief, the equivalent of loosening his tie.

"You could actually see it," Roberts said. "There was a level of, 'I got this' that was palpable. You could tell they were not as worried about the combat as they would be if I were a man. If you were a woman -- and there were so few of us -- they assumed we were shy, that we couldn't look jurors in the eye, judges in the eye, that we would let people roll over us."

Roberts quickly realized she could respond one of two ways. She could become irritated and say, "Hey, you might not think I'm very good, but I'm good!" Or she could not say a word and let her opponent underestimate her.

She chose the latter.

"What I decided to do was think to myself, 'OK, that's fine. You go ahead and think you can be half-assed-prepared for trial, go ahead and not engage in the kind of pretrial preparation I know you have engaged in when working against my colleagues. That's fine, because you will know sooner rather than later that you blew this. You should have prepared. You should have assumed I was competent.'"

Inevitably, after opening statements, Roberts looked at the opposing lawyer, who was now doing the equivalent of gulping, long and hard.

"But what were they going to do then?" Roberts said. "At that point, it's too late."

Of course, this scenario played out less frequently as Roberts got older and developed a reputation that preceded her. But sometimes, when she switched jurisdictions, she would smile as some unknowing lawyer made the same mistake.

Roberts was referring to these moments when, during the interview process inside the Aria in Vegas, she told the NBA players "my past is littered with the bones of men who thought I was someone to sleep on."

The phrase is poetic and extemporaneous. "I wish I could say, 'Yeah, I practiced that,'" Roberts said with a laugh. "But that was impromptu."

Might more such men exist in her future? In a way, Roberts is switching jurisdictions again, except now she's crossing into the sports world.

"There is an opportunity for that to happen now, and I still think there is some level of that happening now," she said. "But I'm not trying to convince anyone of anything. I'll let my work speak for itself."

NBA commissioner Adam Silver said there is zero chance the league's 30 owners, whom Silver represents, are looking past Roberts.

"All I can say is that no one at the NBA is underestimating her," Silver told espnW. "She's made it clear she will be a strong advocate for the players."

As she has repeatedly demonstrated, Roberts is a master at controlling narrative, a skill that will almost definitely be tested in the coming years, when the NBA and players' association are back at the negotiating table. Certainly, one piece of negotiating a new collective bargaining agreement is having command of the information, but another is storytelling -- getting the media and the public to see your narrative as the true one.

Take what happened during the 2011 NBA lockout. The NBA owners had a distinct, believable story: The housing crash of 2008 had affected us all, and many NBA franchises were losing money. For the good of the game, the players would need to meet the owners halfway. The result? The new CBA saw the players concede on the majority of points.

"The owners are 'on a roll,' as we say," Roberts said. "Not a single one of them thinks they should be intimidated by me, though they might be amused."

I'm not trying to convince anyone of anything. I'll let my work speak for itself.
Michele Roberts

Added Roberts: "The league's narrative was so powerful in 2011 that it even had the fans saying, 'Share the money. Don't stop playing. You make a lot of money.' I remember thinking, 'Everyone believes the players make too much money.'"

So when the NBA signed a nine-year, $24 billion TV extension a few weeks ago, the players felt excited and emboldened. The league was obviously healthy and growing, which meant the narrative of 2011 would be reversed.

But only days later, Silver started again mentioning how some franchises were still struggling. The players rolled their eyes.

Not this again.

"The commissioner going back to saying, 'A third of our teams are losing money' -- that really got to the players," Roberts said. "Everyone was thinking the game is growing, revenue is growing, and then Adam says that."

Said Silver: "It's too early to talk about collective bargaining. When the time comes to negotiate a new collective bargaining agreement, the facts regarding our finances will speak for themselves ... obviously, we don't agree on every issue, but we have a strong relationship based on mutual respect and our joint interest in the success of the league and game."

Collective bargaining, Roberts says, is just like a trial: You create a narrative, and you hope the evidence supports that story. Same thing happens at the negotiating table.

"One of my responsibilities is to make sure the reality I know exists -- and I think the owners know exists -- is replicated in the story put out to the public," Roberts said. "That's the power of storytelling. The reality is the game is growing in an impressive way, and that is reflected in the increased revenue, and we can have a healthy and adult discussion about how we're going to split that revenue, and it's not because anybody walks in here at an economic disadvantage. So don't start talking about how the players make too much money. The owners make plenty of money; we could only hope to make as much money as the owners make. That's the real narrative and the one I'm going to fight to get out there."

There seems little reason to doubt her.

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