After 18 months, 306 candidates were chosen, and 68 of them interviewed for the job of leading the NBA's players association. Then, late Monday night in Las Vegas, Michele Roberts was named the NBPA's new executive director. The renowned trial lawyer from Washington, D.C., earned 32 out of 36 votes, from a group of 27 team reps and nine union executive members.
Bleacher Report spoke with players association first vice president Roger Mason Jr. from Las Vegas on the historic selection of Roberts, whose firm, Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher and Flom, has provided outside counsel to the NBA; what the search process was like; next steps for the union; and preparing for the pivotal summer of 2017.
Bleacher Report: What were the deciding factors that led to Ms. Roberts' hiring?
Roger Mason Jr.: The qualities for Michele were apparent when we first met her: high integrity, her proven track record as a winner and somebody our players could identify with because of her beginnings; she's from New York and a single-parent home, and she had to work hard to get to where she's at. She's someone that can be a manager of talent.
Her vision is the union being a team of gladiators—not just one person who is coming in here dictating, but really working with us on player marketing and programming, IT and Web, and really making our brand and organization that much stronger. Ultimately, our players agreed [on her] and we couldn't be more excited. We think this is a historic day in sports unions overall, and we think, specifically for our union, this was game-changing for us.
B/R: She's the first female to lead a major sports union. Was there something about her female perspective that won over the voters?
RMJ: At the end of the day, we all said as an executive committee that when we make our analysis and recommendation, we're not going to look at gender, race, background or anything. We're going to look at all the qualities of the job that we know this role should have, and Michele stood out above the rest. She was somebody that had a check mark under all the criteria for the job. Is it obvious that she's a woman? Yes. But I think she attacked the elephant in the room very early, addressed it and that was that.
B/R: After she was selected, Ms. Roberts said, "I am a bad woman." That says, to me, "Don't mess with me; I'm here to stay." What do those words from her mean to you?
RMJ: She is a bad woman (laughs). It's not just lip service. I think when you meet her, you're drawn to her. She's got an energy about her, she's a clear leader and I think that comment is really telling of who she is. She's going to create a more transparent player culture within the union—more meetings and phone calls with players, she'll listen to new ideas. She's also a fighter and she's somebody that has been extremely successful, and that's very attractive.
B/R: Reflecting on the past 18 months, after former executive director Billy Hunter was fired, describe the process of finding a replacement.
RMJ: [Acting executive director] Ron Klempner's role was to really get us through day-to-day operations within the union. Ron ended up being the guy to push us through over the last 18 months, and he did a phenomenal job. We enlisted a search committee last September, which was Reilly Partners, to work with us through the selection of our new executive director. Then we went through that first phase.
Then this year, agents and some players wanted [the selection] to be done during this offseason, and they also wanted transparency. We said, "OK." So [in April] we brought in the Sacramento mayor [former NBA player Kevin Johnson], and we ended up creating this fantastic advisory search committee. Once we had the search committee, I didn't miss one meeting with any candidate and we always had a player rep there.
In many instances, we had six or seven players from the executive committee flying across the country for 7 a.m. meetings for about three hours, sometimes before a team's practice. It was a very rigorous travel schedule, but as executive committee members, we take our roles seriously and spend a lot of time on it because we have a duty to do what's in the best interest of our players. We wanted to find the best candidate, so we worked very hard to consider all of our players and what they would have in mind.
B/R: How did the search committee come to realize what it needed?
RMJ: We spoke to and looked at what other sports unions had done and how CEOs in corporate America were chosen. We hired Deloitte, which is one of the most reputable HR consultant companies in the world, to handle our restructuring.
They looked at the three other major sports unions, and then how other unions in corporate America were positioned and staffed their organizations. They also looked at the Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton and Garrison LLP report [examining the business practices of the union under Billy Hunter's leadership], and it was clear to Deloitte how understaffed we were and what new roles needed to be included in our union.
Before, it was pretty much Billy Hunter and everybody else. He made every decision. This is no longer that day; this is now a day where we have a CEO, we have someone who's under the CEO and so forth and so on. There's actual structure and there are 17 new roles that we will be filling overall.
We knew that this would be a long process, and it was very thorough. We brought candidates to All-Star Weekend this year, but the players and agents felt like they needed more time to look at other candidates. At the end of the day, you have to listen to your players. Ultimately, once we got through that process and we got the three candidates from the search committee, we flew them to Vegas for the actual voting.
B/R: It sounded like there was a healthy turnout of 117 players on the day of the vote. Was that surprising?
RMJ: We pretty much had a third of our players, which had never happened. It's never even been this close. This is a different day in our union, it really is. Our young guys want to know. Other guys realize their value, realize the value of our league. There's a renewed interest in the NBA players association, and I think that showed with getting a third of our players to Vegas for such an important meeting.
B/R: What was the vibe like in the conference room? Were there a lot of voices heard? Was there some contention as reported?
RMJ: It was a very professional and finely planned meeting. We needed to be efficient with time and we wanted to hear from our players. Were there players that had questions about the process? Absolutely. Were there players that questioned the process and challenged certain things? Absolutely. And that's what you want in a business setting like this. It's not going to always be hunky-dory.
Ultimately, I think all of our players got the answers they were looking for, when you look at how Michele was voted in. I think we took a step forward as players because to have over 100 players come and find out about our business, I think it signals a change in the paradigm of our players. It's a change in the guard because before, we were told things and that was that. Now, we have players that want to know why and that's very important. That's growth for our generation of young players coming into the league.
B/R: Was there any talk about why Kevin Johnson removed himself from the search committee just three days before the vote? Was that a concern during the final meeting?
RMJ: Absolutely. I don't want to speak about specifics of the meeting, but it's the first thing that [NBPA president] Chris [Paul] addressed and it needed to be addressed. He explained how Kevin Johnson became involved and the fantastic advisory committee that he put together. We went our separate ways, but they did their job and we're very appreciative of it. I think everybody was good with the three candidates that we brought and how we got there.
B/R: I read a quote of yours [via USA Today's Sam Amick] where you said, "I think what we wanted to do is to make sure we had a leader in place who understood that vision." What's that vision?
RMJ: There are short-term solutions that we need to get on now. She's got to get to work immediately with building our infrastructure and building our union back up. Long term, we know where we want this to be, and that's to be the model union and a brand that our players are proud of and has the protection of our players.
Inside of that long-term pocket, the obvious thing is collective bargaining. In my mind, we can now start preparing for a possible work stoppage. We can start preparing for the day that we have collective bargaining, because like commissioner Adam Silver has said, it's not going to be a situation where we wait two, three years and then start a dialogue. I think that Michele understands that's something that's in front of us right now.
B/R: The summer of 2017 will be critical, as both the players and owners can opt out of the current CBA. What's the union's stance on this now?
RMJ: Unlike any time before, our players are more engaged in this process. What our players realize is that in a couple of years, we're going to have an opportunity to look at the deal and see how we feel about it. There's going to be plenty of talk about what's going to happen when that day comes, but one thing our players know is we have to prepare for the worst—the possibility of not playing that season [in 2017-18].
That's not something that you wish for, that's not something that you hope for; that's something that you prepare for. And it doesn't start a few months before you're at the table. It starts now. We put money to the side years and years in advance, and we'll continue to do so now so that we're prepared.
B/R: Potentially three major developments, in discussions now, will spark debate in 2017: one, the notion of max salaries being lifted; two, a midseason tournament getting consideration; and three, the recent lucrative sale price of the Los Angeles Clippers irking some players. What are your thoughts on these topics?
RMJ: Everything is going to be discussed. The obvious stuff is when a team [the Clippers] is sold for $2 billion, you can't continue to hide the value of a team rising year to year without players getting any kind of participation in that.
That's an interesting proposition to consider, and that's something that our economist [Kevin Murphy] was trying to explain during the last collective bargaining. Everything you said, and obviously many more issues, are going to be a part of the discussion when we have conversations on collective bargaining.
B/R: Adam Silver has brought momentum to the league. He's innovative and forward-thinking. Do you think Michele will bring a similar energy in working with the league?
RMJ: You couldn't have a better commissioner for where we are than Adam Silver. He's progressive-thinking, I love what he stood up for in that [Donald] Sterling matter and he's obviously done a great job. Michele Roberts is similarly progressive-thinking. This is one of the world's most popular games and growing; it's global now. We've got some of the most recognizable faces in the world and there are opportunities for us to really impact the game overall.
There are opportunities for us to bring ideas to the league that maybe they hadn't even thought of that can add value. So the way that we approached [finding a new executive director] is bringing in a leader that can grow the pot for everybody. I think when you bring somebody like Michele Roberts in, her talent and her work ethic alone is going to create value for the league.
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