African-American lawyer, Michele Roberts, marks history as the first woman to be elected as the executive director of the National Basketball Players Association (NBPA). The election took place July 28. “Throughout an extensive search, there were many terrific candidates, but Michele’s resolve, enthusiasm, and vision for the future of the NBPA made her the perfect fit,” stated a press release from the NBPA.
As the first woman to lead a major North American men’s sports union, the 57-year-old will represent current NBA players to ensure their rights are protected and every measure is taken to assist players in maximizing their opportunities and achieving their goals – both on and off the court, according to the mission of the organization that was founded in 1954.
Roberts pleaded her case for leadership in a Las Vegas meeting that included 117 NBA players, a record number to attend a meeting of this kind, according to union officials. “We talked about their rights, their interests, and their futures,” Roberts told ESPN. “I told them what I thought I can bring to the table and my absolute belief in their right to get a fair share going forward.”
In a search that lasted 17 months, Roberts beat out over 300 candidates, including tech industry CEO Dean Garfield and Dallas Mavericks CEO Terdema Ussery, who were among the last standing. She needed at least 26 votes from team representatives and executive committee members to secure the position. She earned 32 out of 36. The decision was said to have narrowed in her favor due to her professional experience and personal relatability.
Roberts attended undergraduate school at Wesleyan University and received her law degree from the University of California. She began her law career as a public defender in the District of Columbia. She climbed the ranks and became chief of the Trial Division where she served as counsel in more than 40 jury trials.
Most recently, Roberts served as a partner with the Washington, D.C.-based law firm Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meager and Flom, LLP. For over three decades in litigation, her focus has included product liability, civil and white collar crime, racketeering securities regulation violations, and Title VII issues. With over 100 cases under her belt, Washingtonian Magazine named her one of the ”Finest Pure Trial Lawyers” in the District.
“One thing that’s been consistent professionally for me is what my role as a lawyer is – to defend and protect. A lawyer doesn’t tell her client what to do, a lawyer advices and then takes marching orders from a client, and that fits naturally with the role of the executive director of a union,” she said.
Roberts was interested in basketball at a very young age, being surrounded by brothers who were die-hard Knicks fans. Today, while she is still passionate about the sport, she is more invested in the struggles of the players, whom she believes resonates with her coming-of-age story.
Roberts was raised by a single mother in a project in Bronx, N.Y. “If anyone was going to bet on my success, the easy money would have been on “she will be a failure,”’ she said. Her mother was determined that she receive the best education possible and sent Roberts to boarding school at the age of 13 on a financial scholarship targeting low-income youth. This was the first time that she was surrounded entirely by Whites, creating a difficult adjustment due to stereotypes and doubt of her ability to perform academically.
While her academic and career experiences have been marked with being a minority, she hopes that other young women’s dreams aren’t limited because they are among a few. While role models like herself are important, dedication to achieve is even more withstanding. “Once you latch onto something you know you’re passionate about, don’t think about the reasons you might not make it,” she said. “I understand and appreciate how important it is to have a mentor who looks like you, but I also know you can succeed without one.”
NBA commissioner Adam Silver expressed in a statement his congratulations to Roberts, saying he looks forward to working with her “to ensure the continued health and growth of our game.”Likewise, Chris Paul, president of the association expressed his affirmation. “Even though she’s a female, she’s very relatable to a lot of our players. I think that’s what really hit home for not only myself, but some of these other guys as well.”
This fall, Roberts will move back to New York – the first time she has lived in the city since leaving for high school. She plans to champion the issues of the players with a tough and courageous mindset toward the powers that be. “I’m there, I got it – let’s do it,” said Roberts.