LAS VEGAS -- Nearly 18 months after ousting Billy Hunter, the National Basketball Players Association elected Michele Roberts as its new executive director on Monday.
Roberts, a Washington, D.C., trial lawyer, became the first woman to lead a male professional sports league union in North America with 32 of a possible 36 votes among player representatives and executive committee members.
She defeated two other finalists, tech industry CEO Dean Garfield and Dallas Mavericks CEO Terdema Ussery. There were abstentions among the four votes that did not go in Roberts' favor, as player agents and retired players dissatisfied with the selection process tried to compel clients to abstain or postpone the vote.
"Let's be clear: I'm sure there were people that noticed I was a girl," Roberts said in an interview session with reporters after the vote. "Having said that, I frankly wanted to address that question up front whenever I spoke with any of the members of the executive committee and the union. My sense was, the only thing people cared about was my resolve."
NBA commissioner Adam Silver, who will be Roberts' adversary in the next round of collective bargaining talks in 2017 if either side opts out of the current deal, issued a statement congratulating her. Silver said he looks forward to "working with her and the NBPA executive committee to ensure the continued health and growth of our game."
"I'd like to believe, as I’ve believed for most of my career, that I’ve earned something because of who I am and what I do, not because I’m a woman," Roberts said.
Roberts is a member of the litigation group at Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom, one of the world's largest law firms and which has served as outside counsel to the NBA. She has never done legal work on the NBA's behalf, she said.
"It shows how open-minded our players are," NBPA president Chris Paul said. "With any of the candidates, it wasn’t about race or gender. It was about who was going to be the best person in that position. From day one in interviews, she tackled every question head first. ... There were tough questions she was faced with. She didn’t back away from them. She didn’t shy away from them. She told us her story, and it really sat well with us."
The union hosted approximately 117 players at the meeting at a Las Vegas hotel. In February 2013, when the player reps and committee members unanimously ousted Hunter in a 24-0 vote, only 35 players attended the meeting.
"It really is a new day for our union," executive committee member Roger 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."
But Roberts, by all accounts a talented and ruthless trial lawyer, steps into the leadership role in a union that is rife with divisions and mistrust among some segments of the agent community and retired players. Leading the dissent on Monday was Jerry Stackhouse, who was elected to the executive committee last year, subsequently stepped down, and called the executive director selection process "a joke."
"I’ve been quiet through the whole thing, but when I see this right here, they knew who they wanted to come here," Stackhouse said. "They brought in the woman; they brought in two candidates to All-Star, and everybody said the process was flawed. And they just did this to save face. They brought back one of the candidates. What happened to the other one?"
The other finalist presented to player reps at All-Star weekend in New Orleans, David White of the Screen Actors Guild, subsequently withdrew from consideration after the union restarted the search under the leadership of Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson. But in a surprise move, Johnson and his search team removed themselves from the process only days before the vote.
"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.
Stackhouse said he was asked to leave the room before the vote.
"It’s an endless pit," Stackhouse said. "It’s fertile ground. They’ve got the right person in place, someone who has no institutional knowledge of the union and how it works. It’s going to be a joke."
The National Basketball Retired Players Association, however, backed the selection of Roberts in a statement released Tuesday.
"Ms. Roberts has very impressive credentials and her selection as the first female to lead a major professional sports union is significant and historic," the organization said.
Roberts takes over at a critical time for the NBPA. Having suffered a bitter defeat in 2011 bargaining with the league, players have become emboldened by the subsequent revenue growth and escalating franchise values, capped by a record $2 billion sale of the Los Angeles Clippers. In the end, Roberts' vision for reshaping the union with a new leadership team captured the players' attention.
"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.
And it starts with her, but won't end with her, she said.
"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."