Willis Reed Inspires ‘Bad Woman’ Roberts to Govern NBA’s Union

Michele Roberts’s love of basketball stems from simple arithmetic: two older brothers; one TV.

“We watched a lot of basketball,” said Roberts, who was named executive director of the NBA players’ association early this morning, making her the first woman to lead a major pro sports union in the U.S. “And when you watch basketball, can’t help but love it.”

A litigator in the Washington, D.C., office of the National Basketball Association’s outside counsel, Skadden Arps Slate Meagher & Flom, Roberts said she grew up in the South Bronx without enough money to go see her favorite team, the New York Knicks. “I loved that 1969-70 team,” she said. “Willis Reed became my lifetime hero.”

“It wasn’t until I became a lawyer that I could afford to see live basketball -- the Bullets,” she said in an e-mail interview, referring to the NBA’s team in Washington, which is now called the Wizards. “Hence, my adoption of the Wizards as my now former favorite team. My new favorite team is the NBPA.”

Acquiring tickets will no longer be a problem for Roberts, who was culled from more than 300 candidates, including fellow finalists Terdema Ussery, the chief executive officer of the Dallas Mavericks, and Dean Garfield, the chief executive officer of a technology industry advocacy group.

“What a great choice,” said Jeff Mishkin, who spent seven years as the NBA’s chief legal officer, leaving in 1999 to join Skadden. “Michele is a spectacularly talented trial lawyer and we will miss her very much. Those skills will make her an exceptional leader of the Players Association.”

She didn’t participate in NBA cases at Skadden, focusing instead on civil and white-collar criminal litigation.

Hunter Firing

Roberts joins at a critical and tumultuous time for the union, which hasn’t had a permanent executive director since Billy Hunter, a former U.S. Attorney and National Football League player, was fired 18 months ago after 16 years on the job. An independent report found that Hunter, among other things, failed to manage conflicts of interest and placed his himself ahead of the union.

“It’s a new day. They’ve got their union back,” she told reporters early this morning in Las Vegas, where Roberts received 32 of 36 votes in the first round of balloting. “I am a bad woman, but I’m not that bad. 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.”

Owners or the union can opt out of the labor agreement reached in 2011 after the 2016-17 season. Players in the last round of labor talks accepted 50 percent of basketball revenue, down from 57 percent.

Tellem’s Support

Roberts, who according to her Skadden bio graduated from Wesleyan University and the University of California at Berkeley Law School, has the support of player agent Arn Tellem, who in January was the first to call for Hunter’s firing. Hunter was replaced a month later.

“The players made an excellent choice,” Tellem, whose clients include former Most Valuable Player Derrick Rose and Pau Gasol of the Chicago Bulls and LaMarcus Aldridge of the Portland Trail Blazers, said in a text message. “Michele is an experienced, well-regarded trial lawyer who will be a passionate defender and advocate of players rights.”

Harvard Law Professor Charles J. Ogletree, Jr. recalled hiring Roberts to serve in the office of the Public Defender Service for the District of Columbia.

Roberts, he said, regularly showed up in court to watch how he would address the jury, adopting some of his methods.

“I never saw anybody work harder, longer or engage more actively with her clients,” Ogletree said in a telephone interview.

Team Builder

One of her greatest strengths, Ogletree said, is Roberts’s ability to not only inspire others but solicit input and make everyone feel as if their opinions matter.

“She believes in involving everybody in a process of good ideas,” Ogletree said. “She’s willing to hear the voices of others. She’ll do the same thing in her new role.”

Most importantly, Ogletree said, Roberts’s new position should give her access to game tickets, leaving something for him.

“She loves basketball,” he said. “I’d have a hard time getting my friends tickets whenever the Wizards are playing in D.C. because Michele wants all those seats.”

Access to tickets -- and even the locker room -- will no longer be difficult for Roberts, who when told of Ogletree’s quip had a message for her former boss: “Ogletree will have to get his tickets the old-fashioned way!” she said.

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