Michele Roberts: NBA players union head shatters high glass ceiling

Michele Roberts works during the NBPA Winter Board of Representatives Player Meeting in February. Roberts was one of the most highly praised trial attorneys in Washington, D.C., before switching courts in 2014 and becoming executive director of the union of NBA players. CONTRIBUTED BY NBPA

The courts are where Michele Roberts excels.

Both of them.

For more than three decades, Roberts, 61, was a star member of the bar: Adjunct professor at Harvard Law School, member of Anita Hill’s legal team during Clarence Thomas’ Supreme Court confirmation hearings — those are just two entries on the resume of the litigator whom Washingtonian magazine once dubbed the “finest pure trial lawyer in Washington, D.C.”

And then the NBA came calling.

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In July 2014, the National Basketball Players Association (NBPA) overwhelmingly elected Roberts as its new executive director. The announcement by NBPA President and then-Los Angeles Clippers star guard Chris Paul was the equivalent of a backboard-shattering slam dunk: Roberts became the first and only woman to head a players union in one of the four major U.S. pro sports (football, basketball, baseball and hockey).

Labor disputes between players and owners have hobbled the NBA several times. In 1998-99, a 204-day lockout shortened the NBA season to 50 games after a new deal was ratified in early January and the season began one month later. Here is then-Atlanta Hawks great Dikembe Mutombo after placing his vote on the deal.

Credit: AP

Credit: AP

One of five children raised by a single mother in a housing project in the Bronx, Roberts volunteered to defend death row prisoners in disciplinary hearings at San Quentin State Prison while still a student at UC Berkeley’s Boalt Hall School of Law. Working for the D.C. public defender’s office and then several of the city’s most prestigious law firms, she was known for being fiercely loyal to clients and forging strong connections with juries.

Those skills would come in handy at the NBPA, where the previous director had been ousted for mismanagement and a labor disagreement had shut down play for several months in 2011. A new agreement reached late in 2016 between the union and the NBA increased the income pool for players and created a less physically grueling game schedule while also assuring labor peace for seven years.

ExploreMORE: National Women's History Month: What is it, when did it begin, who is being honored this year?

Roberts won high marks for her role in those negotiations, effectively underscoring what she’d said when she got the NBPA job.

“I don’t live my life saying, ‘What ceiling am I going to crack tomorrow?’ ” Roberts said in The New York Times. “What I have done, and what I tell my nieces to do, is not to worry about whether you’re the only one, but worry about whether you’re the best one.”

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