Michele Roberts Q&A: Retirement, Finishing the Strangest NBA Season and More

NBPA executive director Roberts reflects on this season, her retirement and dealing with complaints from superstars.
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Welcome to the Morning Shootaround, where every weekday you’ll get a fresh, topical column from one of SI.com’s NBA writers: Howard Beck on Mondays, Chris Mannix on Tuesdays, Michael Pina on Wednesdays, Chris Herring on Thursdays and Rohan Nadkarni on Fridays.

NBPA executive director Michele Roberts has a very discrete definition of retirement. The search for Roberts’ successor as head of the NBA union was announced last year ... before the pandemic quickly ended any hopes of a painless sendoff. Roberts’s term as the union head extends to next summer, when she’s expected to finally end what would be an eight-year tenure.

“I believe retirement means that you don't have to do anything you don't want to,” Roberts told Sports Illustrated over the phone the day after the Lakers-Warriors play-in thriller. “I'm not going to be required to do anything I don't want to do, so the good news, I hope, about retirement is that anything that I end up doing will be because I've got a passion for it.”

Before Roberts can truly walk off into the sunset, both her and the PA have a few more hurdles to clear, including the playoff resolution to a sprint of a 72-game season, and trying to return the league to a sense of normalcy by the fall. In a chat with SI, Roberts reflected on the challenges of the NBA’s strangest season ever, from the health and safety protocols to complaints from superstars and much more.

Sports Illustrated: Obviously there was a very short offseason, and you guys start the season in December. What were your expectations headed into this year? And do you think that the season met your expectations? Exceeded them? Didn’t quite meet?

Michele Roberts: Expectations were hard to reasonably come up with because this virus has been so unpredictable. That expectation was wishful thinking, guessing and praying. But having any realistic expectation—emphasis on the realistic—was hard to suggest because we just didn't know. I was prepared for an inability to complete the season. This virus does whatever she wants to do. And I did not know that we were going to have A) a vaccine, or B) have a vaccine that was going to be available in time for us to even use. So my hope was and the best expectation I could have is that we would come up with a health and safety protocol to mitigate the risk to our players. And I fully expected that we were not going to continue to play if we discovered that the protocol that we had—that we had designed together with our experts and the league's experts—didn’t work, that we would stop playing. So again, optimistic that we would be able to perhaps finish the season but prepared to stop if it proved to be completely unmanageable.

And so I'm continuing to cross my fingers that we get through the playoffs. It's been a tough season. This compressed schedule has not been easy. But the quality of play has not taken a backseat. The games have been competitive. I was trying to be optimistic, but in the back of my mind, I was thoroughly prepared to have the season being canceled or postponed.

SI: Looking back on some of the interviews you gave after the bubble, I think it was clear that while players acknowledged the difficulty of [the bubble], they also appreciated what it took to pull something like that off. This year there were all the health and safety protocols in place. What was some of the feedback you received from players throughout the season about those protocols, about what they had to go through?

MR: Not surprisingly, it took some time getting used to. I mean, the bubble, that was probably the worst adjustment that these guys had to make in terms of conditions of play ever. They were largely separated from their families and their support system. So that was really rough. And frankly, I think they all collectively felt it can't get worse, right, because at least we're gonna be able to play in our homes? So as bad as the bubble was, it did demonstrate the extreme that we were prepared to go through. But we didn't want to replicate that. No one even seriously considered a season in the bubble. That was just out of the question.

So the health and safety protocols, like everything else, needed some adjustment. Initially, the players were concerned about the restrictions, with respect to their ability to socialize outside of the team and immediate family. I mean they were not confined to their homes. Obviously we suggested to players that they shouldn't leave their homes except to play or to practice. But we did restrict the kinds of social activities they could engage in. Large crowds had to be avoided at all costs. And so it took a while because you know, you're a player and you're a dad, and the kid wants to go to a movie and you can't. You know you're a player, but you’re a husband and your wife would like to go visit her relatives, and you can't because there are gonna be 50 people at this family reunion. But the guys came around when people started testing positive, that violated the protocol, when you ended up having to be quarantined because a teammate violated the protocols and tested positive. It sort of sunk in, O.K., this really is not just some whimsical, unnecessary restriction. They said, "This is kind of what we have to do if we want to stay healthy."

So, no, no one liked them. Everyone hated them. I hated them, frankly, trying to pattern my life after them. When I went to the bubble I wanted players to know, I'm here with you. I followed the same protocols as the players did, I didn't have to, no one's watching me, no one cares, right? But I wanted to be able to say I don't go to meetings, I don't go to dine inside, either. Everything that they were required to do, I self-imposed. So no one enjoyed them. But everyone sort of got used to it. And it was reflected in our low infection rate.

NBPA executive director Michele Roberts

SI: So something that happened a couple of times this season, I think the charitable way to describe it would be you had some high-profile players complain about things publicly, like the All-Star Game or the play-in tournament, which are things that that the union also had a role in. When something like that happens, are you worried about outreach or communication? Or do you accept that sometimes star players also have their own agendas?

MR: The things I can control have been communicated to the players and they've made decisions. So let me start with the All-Star Game: no control. All-Star is something that's within the complete discretion of the league. It is not something that the union can veto or otherwise prohibit. Once the decision is made to have the game, we can certainly engage in the conditions of play. But the decision to hold the All-Star Game, to have All-Star weekend, we had no role in that. And if the players didn't understand that, they certainly were made to understand it by me and others. It's not our call. So all the b------- about the game—call Adam [Silver], because I had nothing to do with this. They didn't want to play. They wanted a break, but it wasn't our call. So I just wanted to make sure that the conditions under which they would play were going to be safe.

With respect to the play-in, frankly, that was something we could and we did negotiate. Players that were complaining? They had every right to complain—especially if you were a seven or an eight seed. No play-in and you would be relaxing right now, I get it. But there were teams that had a chance to be able to make it that felt differently. The only thing I'm concerned about is when we do have a voice in making decisions, those decisions are made by the governing body, not Michele Roberts. Everything is run past the players and there is a direction that's provided to the union. Will everybody in the union agree with it? Of course not. That's okay. We're not a monolith.

SI: There were definitely some players who wouldn’t have complained if they were the fifth seed.

MR: That's probably true. The players that complain about it are largely players in it. They’re saying, "If not for this nonsense I'd be at home enjoying a glass of wine." But I have no problem with that level of discontent because it's genuine.

SI: You mentioned the compressed schedule earlier. And I think as viewers, we could feel it, obviously players maybe rested or maybe took a little bit more time to come back from injuries in a way that that makes a lot of sense. The league says that injury rates are similar to years past. Do you agree with that assessment, or have you heard different feedback from players about maybe the kind of toll this season has taken on their body?

MR: Yeah, this is a tough one, because the league is pointing at numbers, and they are not making the numbers up. So if we allow for that assumption, then the numbers would tend to suggest that the injury rate is not much different from what it has been in prior years. I'm not as committed to the analytics of this stuff as the league is, because the players say to me—and this is just common sense—"if I'm playing more games in fewer days than I ever have in my life, and I’m getting older." And I'm watching fairly significant players on teams having serious injuries, some of which have been season-ending, I’m not going to dispute the players who say to me, "Look, this season has taken a greater toll on my body." Whether or not that's translated into the numbers. I don't know. Maybe more players are playing hurt than they were before. So my own personal view is this has been a more physically challenging season than prior seasons. All I know is that no one intends to ever have to go back to a season with this kind of compressed schedule ever again, if we can avoid it. Maybe we were being ambitious to think we could get 72 games in.

SI: Is there anything the union is doing in terms of promoting players to get the vaccine or providing an incentive for players to get the vaccine? We don't quite know the numbers. We know some players have said publicly they aren't taking it. Many have publicly taken it, which is great. Are you guys trying to push people in a certain direction? How do you even handle a scenario like that?

MR: What we have done, which is what I think that everyone should do, we've given the players as much information as we can, and answered as many questions as we were able about the efficacy and safety of these vaccines. And so we've met with every team, and had our experts on call with every team, had our experts available to speak with any and every player that wanted to talk about these vaccines. So the players could make an informed decision about whether or not it was in their best interest and their families’. And that's, I think, as far as a union should go. Our governing body determined that this was going to be voluntary.

And so the numbers, I think we're at 80%, maybe even more than that. We're beating the national average for sure. The players have made responsible choices based on what they believe to be again, in their best interest of their families. And many players, frankly, who were otherwise reluctant to be vaccinated, did end up being vaccinated because of their team. I'm not ashamed of any of the choices that the players have made, because they were made intelligently. They were not made in the dark. I just told our players not to be relying on innuendo and that kind of crap. I wanted them to be armed with the knowledge and the information that allows them to make a choice that makes sense for them. And I think we've done that.

SI: It's hard to describe the emotions the day of the Derek Chauvin verdict, when the league and the players’ union come out with a statement, and it's both landmark, and then you think about how it should never be controversial to make a statement like this. Something that's been incredible during your tenure is seeing players find the use of their platforms, the union supporting them, and the league supporting them to a degree as well. At the same time, there's often a dichotomy between owners’ political contributions and the issues the players are talking about. I don't expect you to have an answer for how we're going to solve systemic racism overnight. I'm curious if there's something that you would like to see in the future—what is it that you would like to see moving forward when it comes to the league and its efforts in social and racial justice?

MR: I've never believed that everybody needed to be on the same page about everything all the time. But I also have always believed that people should not be hamstrung in their ability to express themselves. I feel very strongly about that, and I don't care if you are a fireman or a professional basketball player; you're an American. And you therefore have the right to an opinion, and you have the right to express it. Now, nothing is completely limitless and without some boundaries. But overall, one of the beauties of being an American is that you do have this otherwise just largely unfettered right to expression and to protest. And so what I will allow that is a good feature of being in the professional basketball community in the U.S. is that we do have a league that maybe not as consistently historically—but thank goodness, certainly since I’ve been here—has largely appreciated that while this is a for-profit business, the league has managed to allow that it would not stifle free expression. And while some people are not of the view that there is systemic racism in this country that needs to be addressed—and there are people in our league that feel that way—those voices have not suppressed those of us who feel otherwise. So my hope is that the league will continue to honor the rights of our players and coaches and owners, who do think it's incumbent upon the business to allow for the continued expression of people's views.

And I hate to see us go backwards. S---, I remember when the [WNBA] women were fined for wearing warmup shirts. It was rescinded and that's never happened again. The fact that we have gone from a period of four or five years ago, when basketball players were fined for being “out of uniform” to where last summer, guys were able to express themselves on their jerseys. In my view, that is nothing other than progress. I think in some ways, we've even maybe pushed football a little bit further than they had been before. The NBA players should take credit for, frankly, being the most progressive sports league on the planet.

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SI: How do you plan on enjoying retirement when you finally end your term as the PA director? Do you want to travel? Do you want to binge-watch a Netflix show? Do you want to go back to work right away?

MR: Whoa, whoa, whoa. Oh, no. I'm considering a couple things, none of which involve having a job. That’s why I’m retiring. There's obviously travel if COVID will go away and places I want to be able to visit. I am passionate about certain social justice issues, which I'd like to spend more time and attention devoted to, and I look forward to that. I also want to spend more time with my family, And I want to sleep late. I want to be able to do some gardening and act like an old woman. I always said that I did not want to die behind my desk. And all my friends are retired and they're all saying, ‘Hey, Michele, come in, the water feels great.’

SI: I was really hoping to hear you had a Netflix, guilty-pleasure show. Like you're just gonna watch Bridgerton all day or something like that. But that sounds pretty fulfilling.

MR: That may have been on the list, but to be honest with you being stuck in the house for 15–16 months, I kind of got my Netflix thing. I want to get out and about the world. That's what I really want to do. Basketball will always be part of my passions and I’ll be spotted at games every now and again. But I also want to be spotted at beaches, museums, ruins and old churches. 

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