Marc Stein reacts to the news that attorney Michele Roberts has been voted in as the new executive director of the National Basketball Players Association, making her the first woman to head a major North American sports union.
LAS VEGAS -- Washington, D.C., attorney Michele Roberts has been voted in as the new executive director of the National Basketball Players Association, making her the first woman to head up a major North American sports union.
At the close of a chaotic Monday filled with meetings, conference calls, presentations and an array of emotions, NBPA executive committee members and team player representatives cast 32 votes in favor of Roberts as the successor to the ousted Billy Hunter, six more than she needed for election.
Los Angeles Clippers star Chris Paul said he was impressed by Roberts' grace under fire, fresh ideas and quiet resolve during an extensive interview process.
"Today, we started out by telling the players how monumental today was," said Paul, the president of the players' association. "We've never had this amount of players here for a meeting, to give their input and feedback. After all the hours and time [put in by] our executive committee, along with an amazing search committee that helped throughout this process, it's an unbelievable feeling to have the wonderful Michele Roberts now as a part of our team."
Paul said Roberts was flush with fresh ideas.
"One particular member from our search committee ... asked her a very tough question in the interviews and [vice president] Roger [Mason Jr.] almost fell out of his seat after she finished giving her answer," Paul said. "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."
Roberts said she would assemble a management team to run the union, perhaps even changing the union bylaws, before diving into negotiations on a new collective bargaining agreement. The players can opt out of the current CBA after the 2016-17 season.
"They've got their union back, and I'm going to make sure that they are empowered to take their union exactly where they want their union to go," Roberts said. "It's going to be a team that's going to empower them to be able to do their business as they decide.
"I am a bad woman, but I'm not that bad," Roberts said. "We are going to have a team, a very strong team, what I call a team of gladiators, that's going to help these men and women, again, go in the direction they choose to go. It's a new day. It's not a one-person, Superman, 'I've got this.' It's going to be a team."
That was exactly what the executive committee seemed to like about Roberts' vision.
We're thrilled the players selected Michele Roberts as #NBPA Executive Director! Congrats to our players & exec comm for a historic choice.- NBPA (@TheNBPA) July 29, 2014
We're thrilled the players selected Michele Roberts as #NBPA Executive Director! Congrats to our players & exec comm for a historic choice.
- NBPA (@TheNBPA) July 29, 2014
"It really is a new day for our union," Mason said. "It started off with the players saying, 'We've had enough, we're taking our union back' a year and a half ago with Billy Hunter. We decided we wanted to be inclusive with all our players and find not only a successor but a new-age players' association executive director. We're fortunate throughout a long and rigorous process, we found one."
Roberts said she wanted to create "a system that will empower these players to run their union" and that they'd already begun talking about whether to opt out of the current CBA in 2017.
"We started yesterday preparing for CBA negotiations," she said. "It's not a question you direct to me. My clients are going to tell me where we're going, and I'm going to make sure we get there."
NBA commissioner Adam Silver issued a statement shortly after Roberts was elected, saying that he would "look forward to working with her and the NBPA Executive Committee to ensure the continued health and growth of our game."
Roberts, once called the finest pure trial lawyer in the nation's capital by Washingtonian magazine, was one of two original finalists for the post in February before a number of players and agents -- insisting that the search for Hunter's successor needed to be broader -- convinced the union to relaunch the process.
Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson soon took charge of a newly formed search committee that, according to a USA Today report Monday, considered more than 300 applicants and interviewed some 70 candidates before pinpointing Roberts, Information Technology Industry Council CEO Dean Garfield and longtime Dallas Mavericks executive Terdema Ussery as its three finalists.
But at various points Monday, while the three finalists were preparing their 45-minute pitches to the assembled players, it appeared a vote might not take place, after several top agents urged their clients to push to delay the voting process again so other candidates could be considered.
"There was some chatter," Mason said. "We want players to challenge everything to ensure a proper dialogue. We don't want anyone to just go along with the process. So there were questions. I think there were answers that our players were comfortable with."
Former NBA All-Star Jerry Stackhouse, one of the most vocal critics of the selection process for months, was present Monday as well and strongly lobbied for the vote to be delayed a second time, despite the fact that the union had gone nearly 18 months without a replacement for the ousted Hunter. Upon leaving the meeting, Stackhouse told assembled reporters that the vote was being "rammed down our throats."
Earlier in the day, one agent told ESPN.com that the situation was "a joke," while another said, "none of these candidates are the right candidate."
"The league revenue is probably $6-7 billion a year in this industry for the next six years," Stackhouse said. "That's almost $40 billion. You just hire somebody to control the next five or six years for the players, $40 billion worth of money, in a four-hour presentation?"
Among the concerns voiced during the meeting, sources say, was the fact that two of the three finalists (Roberts and Garfield) had no institutional knowledge of the NBA's inner workings and limited negotiating experience, while the third (Ussery) had a longstanding relationship with former NBA commissioner David Stern after serving as the commissioner of the old Continental Basketball Association before spending nearly two decades as the Mavericks' president and CEO.
By night's end, though, Roberts had won the backing of many players in attendance and some of the leading agents -- Dan Fegan, Jeff Schwartz and Arn Tellem -- to collect the necessary votes to prevail in a first-ballot win.
According to union bylaws, Roberts needed at least 26 of 39 votes from the 30 team reps and nine executive committee members to be declared the executive director.
Roberts' reputation as a top civil litigator ultimately won out. She collected all but four of the 36 available votes, with three undisclosed teams not represented in Vegas. Union officials announced late Monday that a total of 117 players from around the league attended the meeting.
"Anytime you get 90 percent of the vote or more and full participation from the entire body, it signals that guys understand that this is a very big deal," union treasurer James Jones said. "This is a big decision and we did not want our guys to take it lightly, to do as we've done in the past, which is rubber stamp a process."
But questions about that effort, led by Johnson, were raised throughout the league all weekend when word began to spread that the Sacramento mayor was abruptly cutting ties with the union.
"It's a joke when you're telling everybody that Kevin Johnson is leading the process and then all of a sudden he drops out of the process in the final hour, it reeks," Stackhouse said. "And when you're trying push it on the guys in a four-hour period to make such a major decision is unbelievable."
Longtime NBPA attorney Ron Klempner, known for his collective bargaining agreement expertise, had served as the union's acting executive director since Hunter's ouster in 2013.
Clippers player rep Jared Dudley said he was satisfied with the process and the choice the players made.
"The board put a lot of time into this," said Dudley, who said he voted for Roberts. "You could tell they were trying to do this the proper way. They brought in three candidates. Would I have liked to see more? Sure. But they put in a lot of time and we only had the one day and she stood out early in the process.
"I wasn't there when they did the extensive thing. They're there. That's what we elected them to do. I'm going to go with them. I say it strongly because I have to trust in them."
Dudley said it was imperative the union elect a new executive director Monday because of how soon it must start strategizing for the collective bargaining agreement.
"We had to get it done," he said. "If they didn't do it now, it could be another year. There's two years until we can opt out [of the CBA]. LeBron [James], signing his two-year deal, set the tone. We know that the league is making money. They can't hide behind that now."