Michele Roberts (Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom LLP/AP)

Michele Roberts (Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom LLP/AP)

The National Basketball Players Association has a new executive director. Michele Roberts, a trial lawyer from Washington D.C., was tabbed for the position earlier this week, despite having no previous basketball experience.

Roberts joined Bill Littlefield to outline her vision for the union, which may be heading toward another labor dispute with the NBA in the summer of 2017.

BL: I’m curious about what led you to seek the job?

This is their union. I will do everything I can to empower them to run their union.
– Michele Roberts

MR: Well, you know, because I love basketball I kind of know what’s going on in the world, and I was obviously aware of Billy Hunter’s ouster. I honestly can trace my initial interest in the position when I saw one of the players being interviewed on some television show about the condition of the union, and that player was adamant in rejecting the notion that the union was broken. And I recall very vividly the player saying, not only is our union not broken, but we intend to take our union back and when we do it will be stronger than ever.

He spoke with such passion that I remember thinking, “Gee, if the rest of his colleagues feel that way this is going to be an exciting time to be a part of that union.” So I suddenly began to think, “Well, what if?” And the more I thought about it the more I couldn’t stop thinking about it, so I just said, “Let’s go for it.”

BL: It’s interesting that you mention the ouster of former executive director Billy Hunter. He was characterized as “aggressive,” “intimidating” and “power hungry.” I wonder if you’ll embrace any of those qualities?

MR: Well, first let me say I don’t know him. I’ve never met him. Power hungry? No. Whatever that means, I’m pretty sure I won’t be that. Aggressive? There are times when we have to be aggressive and there are times when I am, so I don’t think of that as a negative and I can’t recall the third descriptor.

BL: Well it was “intimidating.” And I don’t know, that probably comes in handy sometimes. 

MR: It probably does, but, you know, I don’t know that that’s necessarily very effective. I mean people that are intimidated are normally not people that you have to intimidate because that, by definition, means that you’re more powerful than they are, so I don’t know what the point of that is. I know that what I have been able to do is make my enemies respect me and make my friends support me, so everything I’ve seen about some of the people I’m going to be dealing with suggests that this is not going to be a barnyard fight. It’s going to be some very intelligent people trying to come together and find some common ground. So I look forward to it.

BL: There was some controversy about your taking on the position because of your lack of specific basketball experience but you did receive 32 of 36 votes. What did you do to convince those voting — 88 percent of those voting — that you were the right person for the job?

Everything I’ve seen about some of the people I’m going to be dealing with suggests that this is not going to be a barnyard fight. It’s going to be some very intelligent people trying to come together.
– Michele Roberts
MR: Well, I was candid. Let me address the first part of your question because it’s a fair one. I don’t intend to be the only person that assists in the management of this union, and I think the model of having one person be the manager of a union is ridiculous. It’s a recipe for disaster. It’s been tried, clearly, and didn’t work out in the end. So one of the things the players understood from me, and I suggested they needed to endorse, was the notion of having a management team, and obviously that team will include people who have more experience working in the industry than I have — not everybody but certainly enough. So we’ll have that covered.

What I think the players appreciated from me — and certainly what I appreciate from them — is candor and acknowledgement that these guys — these men and women because there are, of course, women that are involved in this — have worked very, very hard. And they are the backbone of this game. They are the folk that the fans come to see, and there is no room for a lack of respect for that. This is their union. I will do everything I can to empower them to run their union and respect that this union exists for one reason and that is to protect and promote the interest of the players.

BL: Finally, you have said that as director of the players’ association you  want to be inclusive. I would think that it would be a heck of a challenge to simultaneously serve the needs and interests of players making $20 million a year or more and those at the end of the bench who may bounce back between 10 day contracts in the NBA and stints in various minor leagues all over the place. Tough challenge?

MR: It’s tough but what each player has in common with the other player is that if this union is not strong than the terms and conditions of their employment are absolutely compromised and to the extent everybody has an interest  in a fair share of the pie. They can only do that together. They can’t do it alone. It’s much like the game itself. No matter the superstar, if you don’t have your bench the game is lost, and that’s the same here.

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