NBPA’s Michele Roberts Talks Business Beyond Basketball with Baron Davis

CHICAGO -- Michele Roberts had never worked in sports, and never thought she would. But when, in 2014, the Washington, D.C.-based litigator saw that the National Basketball Players Union (NBPA) was still searching for a new executive director, she envisioned a transition from law to basketball.

Nearly six years later, Michele and Chris Paul, the All-Star point guard for the Oklahoma City Thunder and NBPA president, have overseen a period of labor peace and financial prosperity unlike any other in NBA history. But that doesn’t mean that she and her constituents are without challenges. From growing the business of the league to navigating the hectic lifestyle of their profession, there is seemingly always something that’s a cause for concern for the players—and, by extension, their executive director.

During NBA All-Star Weekend in Chicago, Michele sat down NBC News’ Ahiza Garcia-Hodges and Baron Davis as part of the former All-Star’s Business Inside the Game (BIG) summit at the Ace Hotel to discuss how she arrived in her current role, what she learned from her past life as a public defender, the importance of mental health among today’s NBA players and more.

(The following transcript has been edited for clarity and length.)

Ahiza Garcia-Hodges: How would you describe your role as executive director of the players' union? And what is it like for you to work with the NBA’s players?

Michele Roberts: The players made it very clear to me that they intended to run their union, and I was to facilitate that. And so that, I think, is a better description of what I do. There are some amazingly strong personalities. It makes sense when you figure that these are the 450 guys that made it into the NBA during the season. You can't be a common kind of guy and play in the NBA. The good news is that the players have among themselves determined that while there's some hierarchy—there's some guys more talented than the others—that there is a brotherhood. They each respect the fact that each of them is a member of the NBA, that each of them has succeeded in becoming a member of the league. And so, because they internally respect each other, the work I would otherwise have to do to say, “Look, let's talk about the guy that's No. 15 on the roster,” I didn't have to do very much of that. There is a respect that comes with being a member of this brotherhood, which is refreshing. So kudos to them.

Baron Davis: I want to back up, because this is Business Inside the Game. And I would love for you to describe, pre-union, your role, your passion, what was driving you and then what made you want to take this job?

MR: This is the God's honest truth: it never occurred to me that I would work in sports. It certainly didn't occur to me I'd work for the basketball players' union. I was happily practicing law, and I had started practicing law as a public defender. I grew up poor and wanted to be a lawyer, and wanted to represent poor people that otherwise couldn't afford good counsel. That was what I was going to spend the rest of my life doing. I always loved basketball. I had two older brothers who stupidly thought that they would be in the NBA. They had absolutely no talent. I love them to death, but they had absolutely no talent. But because of them and their friends, I learned the game because I watched them playing their hearts out every day. They were older than I was. So I've always loved the game, but never thought I'd be part of this.

After being a public defender, I started doing some civil litigation. I ultimately was representing Fortune 100 companies in major, complex litigations, and then heard about my predecessor being fired. And I remember thinking, Wow, that's a cool job. It'll take 12 seconds for them to find someone to take that job. And then maybe some months later, I was reading the paper again, realized they hadn't filled it. Thank God for the internet. You start listening, you start reading, you learn more about the business. And the more I read about it, the more I said, “I think I can do this.” And the more I thought I can do this, I started realizing that I believed nobody could do it better than me. So I said, “What the hell? Let's give it a try.”

AGH: Obviously, those are two very distinct things, right? Public defender representing the poor, now being executive director of the NBPA. Very different backgrounds. Where's the common ground that you've found? What are the disparate parts of that?

MR: Again, this is the truth. When I was a public defender, the clients that I represented didn't pick me. They thought, Well, she's not a real lawyer; she's a public defender. So I had to always earn their trust and credibility. And eventually, I would do that. When I got this job, again, my predecessor had been fired, so there was a sentiment among many of the players that, Alright, well, this union, we can't trust it. And so, together with the team that I brought with me and ultimately hired, we had to spend a considerable amount of time getting the players to appreciate that we really did work for them, much in the same way I had to convince my clients when I was a public defender that I'm really here to work for you.

And so that much is absolutely the same. I know who I work for, I know who I'm supposed to impress and I know who I'm supposed to live and die for. Obviously, there are differences in that; these aren't people who aren't able to afford lawyers. My members, my bosses, are very wealthy men. And so I have to appreciate that their world view is different. And I'm not wealthy, so I'm learning from them how to manage to be wealthy, but at the same time have the right to say, “I can be wealthier because this game makes a ton of money. And if they don't get it then, that means the owners get it.” So yeah, we want it.

BD: Yeah, I want it, please [laughs]. The union as we know it has always been a union. When I was there, when I was playing, it was a union. Tell us about how you have taken the union and created this new vehicle, and what that means to build out. It's almost like a new startup, and what's that philosophy in people, in management, in vision?

MR: I don't mean to brown nose and blow your ego up any more. I'm not gonna do it. It's big enough [laughs]. But frankly, because of our players watching you and other former players like you be engaged in activity unrelated to bouncing a ball and being successful at it, the professional basketball player of today is different than the players that I used to watch when I was growing up. The players that I used to watch—again, I'm painting with a bit of a broad brush—your life was playing basketball, and the concept of doing [something] outside of that was not even considered. Today's player, even as he's playing, is thinking about tomorrow. Today's player is not accepting the fact that they are a basketball player and a basketball player only. They're businessmen. I call them CEOs of their own brand, and they're behaving that way. So they're creating companies, they're creating ventures, they're engaged in investments, separate and apart from basketball.

And the good news is, we try to facilitate that because we think it's a good thing. What's different about the union is, one of the things that I discovered when I got to the union is that, unlike other sports unions, we were not managing our own group licensing rights. The league was doing that for us—not because the league said we're gonna do it for you, but because we essentially said, “Would you do it for us?” Now, when I asked the question, “Why are we doing that?”, the answer was, “I don't know.” So we have since then formed a for-profit, wholly owned subsidiary. It's the National Basketball Players Inc. Some people call it THINK450. And we're now in the business of generating revenue. You're right, it is a startup. You've been helping us to manage those and navigate those waters. But we are now in the business of making money, both to support our union, but to frankly put more money in the players' pockets.

AGH: There's so many demands for players' money and time and energy. How are you guys working to ensure that there's some guidance for them when they're deciding to invest their money?

MR: I get solicited consistently by people who are trying to use me to get to players, so I can only imagine the kinds of things that they're hearing about and seeing. What we try to do is help get them in touch with people that we know are successful. And so one of the things we're doing right now, literally as we speak, is we have a bunch of players in the Bahamas on their vacation, and we're engaging them in alternative investing seminars, just so people know what the language is, what the risks are—there's a lot of risk—and having them appreciate who the various personalities are. I can't tell a player, “Invest here or don't invest here,” but I can at least arm you with the questions to ask, the ability to identify the red flags. So we do a lot of financial literacy. And then we keep them in touch and expose them to players who are there and are doing it right. So they've got that ability to ask the questions of the players, and frankly—and Baron, you know this—players listen to players. I can speak until the cows come home, but when Baron walks in the room and he's addressing our guys, he's got their attention in ways that those of us who've not been a part of this fraternity simply do not.

AGH: With the passing of Kobe Bryant and the other passengers on that helicopter, what does his loss on this side, from the union perspective, signify?

MR: First off, our players were devastated. I've done this job for over five years now. I was shook by how many of our players were absolutely devastated by Kobe's loss. Of course, I respected and appreciated the significance of Kobe, but what I didn't appreciate, unfortunately, until his passing is how much of an impact Kobe vs. Michael [Jordan], Kobe vs. Bill Russell had on this current player population, because he was their guy. He was the guy that the current players, when they were younger, were saying, “I want to be not like Mike, I want to be like Kobe.” Its effect really shook me. There are players that couldn't talk because they were so horrified by his loss.

The good news is, Adam Silver, too, encouraged the teams to appreciate this. This wasn't just an accident. This wasn't just some dude that died. This was a loss that was being felt by our players in a major way, so he encouraged the teams to appreciate that just as the PA appreciated it. We did what you might imagine. We had some wellness people available. We tried to reach out to guys that we thought were in distress or heard were especially in distress, and we're still recovering from this. It's one of those things that is just horrifying, but it taught me more about my players than I frankly knew at the time. I just did not know. This brotherhood among these guys ...

BD: It's crazy.

MR: It really is.

BD: I was gonna piggyback off that because it hit me. It's, like, when he got to the Lakers, I was already semi-the man in LA in high school, so our lives and our stories and growth in LA was parallel. But he was always the measuring stick, right? And it was, like, Damn, Kobe, you gonna win the championship? Damn, Kobe, I'm busting your ass, but you gonna hit the game-winner? Damn, Kobe, I'm making movies, you're gonna win an Oscar? Dude, for real. I wrote a whole little speech about Kobe about how we really feel, you know what I mean? Because it's, like, we used to hate Kobe, and Kobe did not care. But at the same time, you wanted to be, like, Damn, dawg, can I just work out with you? Like, what the fuck are you eating? What are you doing? And so, I think that we, as players, are so emotionally wound to go out to perform and play in front of crowds and things like that, to actually take those emotions into real life becomes a real scary thing. I think that this death, somehow, someway, just made people want to gravitate towards each other. So this All-Star Weekend, I can imagine what the dudes in the Bahamas are doing. It's, like, Yo, that's my brother, that's my sister. Like, you start to miss people. You start to really appreciate, and I'm fortunate. David Stern and then Kobe, I think it kind of woke everybody up, like, Yo, we got to start living now and doing it now.

MR: One of the things that I've been struck in conversation with players about is, a lot of our players are dads. Their relationship with their daughters was already off the charts, but now, they talk about their appreciation of Kobe's relationship with his daughter and they look at their daughters—they love them anyway, of course—but love them more, hold them even closer now because of what's happened. It's been very difficult.

AGH: There's been such a history, from Bill Russell on, of social activism and in turn, or maybe as a reaction to, fans have embraced and have these progressive ideals as well. Chicken or the egg here, do you think the progressive players making statements attracts a certain fan? Or do you think fans and their outlook are demanding player activism?

MR: I think a little bit of both. Coincidentally, I was watching a movie about Muhammad Ali, and saw that whole press conference with Bill Russell and other players a couple of days ago. And then there appeared to be a bit of a lull historically after that happened. My own theory, and again it's just me, is that the players’ belief in both basketball and otherwise, that they are able to use their voices and use their platforms has everything to do with social media. It continues to amaze me, especially when a rookie comes in who's already got like five million followers. I mean, five million people really give a damn about what you have to say? If I had that kind of audience, I'd never stop tweeting, right?

So I think a lot of it is just a recognition among our players that there are people that are listening to what they have to say, and that brings with it a certain modicum of power. If I feel passionately, if a player feels passionately about an issue and he knows that there are five, 10, 15 million people that are listening, of course he's gonna say, “This is what I think is right, this is what I think is wrong.” And so, I give players credit for appreciating the power that comes with their social media. I don't know that if we didn't have Instagram and Twitter and all these other platforms that our players would be as emboldened. But when you make a statement and you've got 10, 15 million people who are saying, “Right on,” or, “I agree,” or, “I love that,” and liking it, you've got an army that's got your back in the event someone's gonna say you shouldn't have said that. I think it's remarkable. The good news is that Adam has not allowed the league to get ahead of itself and decide that they've got to somehow clamp down on players. It would be a mistake. But the good news is that he knows it would be a mistake.

BD: It seems like, for the first time, the business of the NBA is aligned with the business of the union and the players, knowing that this pot is going to continue to grow, right? Will we approach something like a lockout again? Are you gonna grow the pie together? Or at some point, do we have to come back and have another discussion?

MR: I always think it's a mistake to comment on something when you haven't been in the room, so I'm not gonna say why Stern and [former NBPA executive director Billy] Hunter had the issues that they had. I do know this ...

BD: I was in the room, though. I know something about what happened.

MR: I wasn't there. I have my opinions, but I'm not gonna dare. I do know this, and you made the point: it makes no sense for Adam and I, the league and the PA, not to agree on one thing: grow the pot. We can fight about the division of the pie, but let's grow the pie. Frankly, if the pie is huge, people are happy because you know you're getting paid, because the pie is so large. So the one thing that we try to do is work on identifying anything that threatens our business together, so that we can grow our business together. Now, if anybody decides to get too greedy, then we're going to have a problem. But what I have observed is that, as long as people are making money, no one wants to fight. Because you know what happens when there's a lockout? Players don't make it, nobody gets paid and the bigger that amount of money that no one's getting paid, the more likely you're willing to say, “Well, let's see if we can work this out.”

BD: The lockout was scary because you don't know when your next paycheck is coming. And that's the first time for a young athlete who's walked into millions of dollars and no instructions.

Baron Davis Ahiza Garcia-Hodges

Baron Davis hosted a series of panel discussions at his Business Inside the Game (BIG) summit during All-Star Weekend in Chicago. (Griffin Harrington)

MR: People look at LeBron [James] and he's been there 17 years, and Vince [Carter] 22 [years]. You assume that players are gonna play for a lengthy period. No, the average is about 4.2 years. So a lockout for the average player, that's a substantial amount of his earning capability that's just gone because you don't get that money back. So it's in no one's interest to have that happen. Our fans hate it, but it's in no one's interest to have that happen, and I'd like to think that that's not gonna happen on my watch.

BD: I don't think so, either. I mean, the pie keeps getting bigger. As long as I can get a slice [laughs]. I wanted to just dive in on philanthropy and the work that the union is doing to not only increase its brand, but increase the players' brand by supporting them.

MR: I can't take responsibility for it. Our executive director of our foundation, Sherrie Deans, is magnificent. We've always had a foundation, but we didn't spend the money. Sherrie Deans has come on board, and not only are we spending the money, but what's fascinating to me is where the money is being spent. We have a matching program that Sherrie is shepherding. Our players have been incredibly generous in all sorts of places. There's not a single disaster that's happened in the last five years where you've not seen our players lend a hand. We've been talking about what's going on in mainland China right now, so if there's anything you recall hearing about, I guarantee you that our players have been there with their bodies and their wallets, and Sherrie has matched every single dollar that they've put in. We have been giving across the country, so I am incredibly proud of our players and our foundation. My job is to make my players rich and to keep them rich. But what's great about their perception of their jobs is to give back—the most generous group of men I've had the pleasure of working with, and I couldn't be prouder of them, and I couldn't be prouder of Sherrie's work in facilitating that process.

AGH: With that topic in mind, what are some of the initiatives you're finding that players want to support?

MR: I can't think of what we don't support. We're having a meeting in the Bahamas right now, and when the Bahamas were hit by that hurricane, the line was too long. Obviously, anything that's happened here. We've had a couple things in Puerto Rico where our players have been there. What's going on in Australia right now, the fires in Australia. I mean, it's everything, it's everywhere. Our players love to, in their communities both where they grew up and then the communities they play in, they're very invested in children and very invested in tech for kids. You name it, they're doing it. Sherrie sometimes will circulate a list of the most recent events. They just span every range you can imagine. And it's all over the planet.

BD: In the NBA now, mental health is a huge issue, and the NBA and the teams are now starting to hire doctors or people to assist. Can you just speak on the union's role and what you guys are doing? And just mental health, for our guys, explain to them what you see a lot of times going on in our lives as basketball players.

MR: The perception is that being a basketball player is just so glamorous. You're playing in front of these huge arenas and then you've got all the women you want and you've got all this money and you can go party, and it's just a hell of a life. They're very, very blessed men. But it is a difficult life in many ways. Most of them are separated from their families. They don't have the luxury of being able to live with their wives or, if they're not married, with their parents. It's an isolated existence in many ways.

It's super competitive because no matter how good you are, that one injury can end it all. And there's always someone who wants your job, right? You may be starting today, but [if] you keep having those games, you won't be starting tomorrow. And then you've got 60 new rookies coming in every year. You're traveling like a nut, and the expectation is that you're gonna maintain your body in superior shape. That's a tough thing to do, especially when you're young. I mean, at some point when you're in your 40s, you figure it out. But these are guys in their early 20s, mid-20s, and most of all, it was forbidden to suggest that I'm anxious, I'm depressed, I'm worried, I can't sleep. You can't handle it, you're out of here.

So a lot of the men were suffering in silence, and that is ridiculous. Especially in the black communities, that's a sign of weakness to suggest that you may need to talk to somebody. And so, the good news is that the league—frankly, catching up to us—has mandated that every team have a mental wellness provider of sorts available to the players. They're catching up to us because two years ago, we realized that we had an issue and started our own mental wellness division. One of our former players, Keyon Dooling, he had all sorts of issues he was trying to contend with as he was playing. He essentially had a nervous breakdown. He is our mental wellness counselor and he, together with Dr. [William] Parham, is engaged in helping guys that need help confidentially to find help for themselves, for their families. Bottom line is, we take it very seriously and we want to empower players to be able to say not to your team—you don't have to tell the team if that's an issue—but you have a place to go where you can get some help. Because I'm not embarrassed to say that I've needed help during the years.

BD: Me, too.

MR: But it's okay to say that. What I noticed in the NBA, among our players, is it was just not talked about.

BD: It's definitely a sign of weakness because, like you were saying, everything is about competition. And if I say I need help then you may say, “I've got an advantage,” you know what I mean? Or, I found something out about you that I can ultimately use. It's sad. I remember, even when I came in the league, you couldn't even get injured. If you were young and you sprained your ankle and you're on the training table and a vet walked in, you better get your ass up, you gotta go, because you couldn't perceive to be hurt. You couldn't show any form of weakness. And then the old-school NBA mentality was, like, Man, you'll be alright, and you never say nothing.

I think it's brilliant and I think it's honest and it's truthful that these guys have the opportunity to now express themselves, because that's how you figure out what all these medical terms and all these medical words mean, to really be able to internalize it. I didn't know what dementia meant. I didn't even know dementia was a thing until after my grandmother passed. And then when I figured it out, I'm, like, Damn she wasn't crazy, she didn't have the crazies. And so, I think that the work you guys are doing and the work that you're championing is something that is extremely important.

MR: We're really proud of that because it was something that was just being ignored.

BD: We have to end on a couple words of advice because we have a bunch of entrepreneurs in here, investors, creatives. How can they get some money from the PA? [laughs] What kind of words of wisdom inspires and pertains to our business and our core values that we can impart on them?

MR: Without knowing the specific that people engage in, I think one thing that's just true, it's been true in my life and it's been true, as best I can tell, in the lives of every single player that I've met that's been successful and any business person that's been successful: this shit is hard work. You have got to work hard. There's a saying—Cookie from Empire says this and I love Cookie. She says, “Everybody wants to be Beyonce, but nobody wants to do the work.” It's hard work. No one that's successful has not worked hard unless he won the lottery. But if you're not gonna win the lottery, then it's just hard work. Just keep at it.


Josh Martin is the Editorial Director of CloseUp360. He previously covered the NBA for Bleacher Report and USA Today Sports Media Group, and has written for Yahoo! Sports and Complex. He is also the co-host of the Hollywood Hoops podcast. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram.