Fluffy Answers Not Allowed -- An Afternoon With Michele Roberts

Jennifer S. Altman/Washington Post/Getty Images

After five months on the job, NBPA executive director Michele Roberts seems comfortable answering just about anything thrown her way.

Michele Roberts lives in Harlem, four blocks from the National Basketball Players Association offices.

This proximity is no coincidence. Most days, she works long into the night. At first, the quick commute was simply a convenience. Now, it's almost a necessity. Roberts cannot imagine riding the subway from a downtown neighborhood, or from a different borough entirely -- another hour of her day, gone.

The 58-year-old lawyer was named the executive director of the NBPA in July, moving to New York from Washington, D.C. (She didn't start the job until September.) During her first few months, Roberts would occasionally deflect questions, saying she wasn't yet knowledgeable enough on the subject.

Those days are gone.

For the past five months, Roberts has taken a crash course in all things NBA -- from endless meetings with forensic economists to FaceTime calls with Chris Paul. Roberts once had a social life in the nation's capitol, meeting colleagues or friends for the occasional drink after work.

Those days are gone, too.

Roberts is about to schedule her first substantive meetings with Adam Silver, the commissioner of the NBA, and she now also possesses a clear take on issues both large (any detail of the collective bargaining agreement, race relations) and small (media availability).

And so the week after the All-Star break, and in combination with Black History Month, Roberts sat down with espnW to discuss the state of the union.

"This job leaves no room to have a life," Roberts said. "It is my life. The good news is that I don't have any kids or friends or obligations. I have nothing like that here, so there is no guilt about working until midnight."

During NBA All-Star Weekend in New York, the NBPA held its annual meeting -- the first with Roberts as executive director. After the closed-door session, Paul, who is president of the NBPA, said the following: "It was great to have the dialogue, the feedback, from all the players giving their insight and ideas, not only about the things that have happened over the course of the season, but for the future, too. Over the summer, we were fortunate enough to select the lovely Miss Michele Roberts. It's been amazing. Her foresight for the union has been tremendous."




Roberts has the corner office on the third floor of a restored loft building in Harlem. The walls are covered with pictures: There is one in commemoration of Harriet Tubman, another of Allen Iverson. The shelves are lined with books. Pandora is streaming from her computer -- the Temptations followed by the Four Tops. Before this meeting, Roberts was tidying her desk, and the background noise was a welcome distraction.

Roberts sat with her legs crossed at the small circular table in the room. She leaned back. Her vibe seemed to convey, "Ask me anything."

And there is plenty to ask. Just the previous week, superstar forward Kevin Durant spoke out against the media, sending the NBA down the anti-media path blazed by NFL running back Marshawn Lynch during Super Bowl week. Roberts said the first thing she does every morning is Google her marquee players to see if any have started a firestorm. "I trade phone calls with DeMaurice Smith at the NFLPA about who has the trouble this week and who doesn't, and so far, we're on a roll -- they've had much more than us."

Although Durant would later say he just "had a moment," his words raised some questions about media availability and the commitment players have made, especially in the locker room before and after games.

"Most of the time I go to the locker room, the players are there and there are like eight or nine reporters just standing there, just staring at them," Roberts said. "And I think to myself, 'OK, so this is media availability?' If you don't have a f---ing question, leave, because it's an incredible invasion of privacy. It's a tremendous commitment that we've made to the media -- are there ways we can tone it down? Of course. It's very dangerous to suggest any limitation on media's access to players, but let's be real about some of this stuff.

"I've asked about a couple of these guys, 'Does he ask you a question?' 'Nah, he just stands there.' And when I go in there to talk to the guys, I see them trying to listen to my conversation, and I don't think that's the point of media availability. If nothing else, I would like to have a rule imposed, 'If you have a question, ask it; if you don't, leave.' Sometimes, they're waiting for the marquee players. I get that, but there is so much standing around."

The NBA actually amended its media policies before last season, cutting pregame locker room access from 45 minutes to 30. "We did a full review of our media access policies to make sure our requirements made sense," NBA spokesman Mike Bass said. "We determined there were some redundancies and revised the policy in some ways and made the process less onerous on the players. And we continue monitoring everything we do."

Still, as you can see, Roberts' answers are rarely fluffy; she says what she means. And that's one reason she's so popular with the players. Another? She's getting hundreds of hyper-competitive guys to believe they're all on one team. "I have this whole 'one team' mantra, and I think the guys are amused by it. But that's my message: At the end of the day -- no matter what happens on the court -- off the court, we're one team, because the owners are."

Over All-Star Weekend, Roberts added a key person to the union's leadership: LeBron James, who carries the kind of sway among players not seen since Michael Jordan. James is now vice president of the union. "Chris Paul is the president and Michele is obviously the commander in chief, and we look forward to doing some good things," James told reporters while he was in New York for the All-Star Game.

On behalf of her players, Roberts has drawn a clear line in the sand about many of the straightforward issues the league and union must negotiate.

How does the union feel about raising the NBA age limit? "No way. Completely against it," Roberts said.

What about the length of the season -- is 82 games too many? "The schedule is ridiculous. Now I know that decreasing the number of games decreases potential revenue, but if, at the end of the day, players are too tired or too injured to play, how does that affect the game?" (Bass said the NBA has no plans to shorten the season and that it has responded to wear-and-tear issues by lengthening the All-Star break and has made it a priority to dramatically reduce back-to-back games, as well as four games in five nights.)

Would the players support changing the playoff structure, allowing the best 16 teams to make the postseason instead of eight each from the East and West? "This is from very informal conversations, but no player has had a problem with that at all," she said. "These guys are really competitive and they really believe the best players should be in front of the fans. And while it's cool for some weaker team in the East to say, 'We made the playoffs,' at the end of the day, these guys all want to see competitive basketball."

Of course, not every issue is so straightforward. For example: race, and how it plays out between owners (predominantly white) and players (predominantly black). As she discussed her job, Roberts referenced the famous 2011 quote from Bryant Gumbel, in which he likened commissioner David Stern to being a "modern plantation overseer."

"I'm not so naïve that I don't think it impacts everything that I do, because I'm black," she said. "And I'm not so naïve that I think I can ignore the fact that 80 percent of the league is African-American. Someone reminded me of a quote from Bryant Gumbel, and I was asked if I think that was an accurate portrayal of the league's relationship with the players. And I honestly don't. And this is why I don't: I don't know most of the owners. I've met a couple. I think there are two horrible things you can be: one, a racist. But you can also be accused of being a racist and not be -- and that's horrible. So I have very, very judiciously accused or characterized someone's motives as motivated by racial animus. And I'm not prepared to do that unless and until there is more evidence to substantiate that. I think this is a business and I think the owners are engaged in the practice of maximizing their profit. I think if the players were all white they would still be inclined to do that. I'm sure there are one or two or maybe 10 owners that need to improve their attitude about women and persons of color. But I'm not going to presuppose that that is why any owner is on a different side of the page with respect to an issue we're going to have to collectively bargain."

In the most recent report card issued by Richard Lapchick's Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sports, the NBA received an A-plus for its racial hiring practices and a B-plus for its gender hiring practices. In addition, Bass called the 2011 comments by Gumbel "unfounded, offensive and inaccurate." Bass added, "NBA owners embrace and are committed to the principles of inclusion, diversity and respect that are the foundation of our league."

Many people around the NBA feel as if the league and union are like two battleships positioning themselves directly at one another. (Both the players and owners can opt out of the current CBA in 2017.)

But Roberts wouldn't go that far, choosing instead to focus on the time still remaining to solve issues rather than the number of issues needing to be solved. "I am of the view that we should address any issues that are ripe for addressing now," she said. "I keep a running list of things I intend to address with Silver when we have our very-soon-to-be-scheduled first substantive meeting.

"Hopefully, the issues will all be resolved along the way, and if we continue to operate that way, then by the time we get to opt out, the question is, 'Is there something we need to opt out about? Are there issues we know we need to address that haven't been addressed? Do we need to opt out because we can't seem to come to the meeting of the minds?' If the answer is no and the league's answer is no, then we don't opt out."

Roberts then paused, laughed and said, "And that's called really wishful thinking."

The NBPA held its meeting over All-Star Weekend at the Sheraton near Times Square. Afterward, Roberts walked to the podium to meet with the media; the NBA's biggest stars, including Paul and Carmelo Anthony, flanked her.

"Today is the day when I remind myself why I love this job more than I could possibly imagine," Roberts said, tossing a thumb backward. "Because I spent the day with these guys, and they inspire me."

Of course, most days aren't spent with them.

Most days are spent in Harlem, in a specific four-block radius.

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