Michele Roberts, the newly elected head of the NBA players' union, knows something about being the only woman in the room.
Roberts broke into the legal profession a little more than three decades ago as a public defender in the District of Columbia. The profession was dominated by white men, and at the end of the week, they would gather in the supervisor's office, drink Wild Turkey out of their coffee cups and discuss cases.
"It was truly a testosterone festival,'' said Roberts, 57. "I was not much of a drinker and I certainly didn't know how to drink any of that brown stuff, but they were in there talking about litigation and trials and judges and strategy, all the things a young lawyer wants to know about. No one told me I couldn't go in, so I did, and I spent every Friday there until the day I left.''
Roberts is not afraid to go after what she wants, which goes a long way toward explaining how two weeks ago, she became the first woman to head a major men's sports union when she was elected the executive director of the NBPA. Though Roberts' salary was not announced, ousted NBPA director Billy Hunter made $3 million his final year in office. If Roberts' salary is anywhere in that ballpark, she would be the highest-paid woman executive in sports, easily topping Lesa France Kennedy, who made $1.14 million last year as the CEO of International Speedway Corporation.
A Washington-based trial lawyer who has taught at Harvard Law School, Roberts received 32 out of 36 votes at a meeting of the players in Las Vegas, beating out tech industry CEO Dean Garfield and Dallas Mavericks CEO Terdema Ussery in the final vote. Roberts is said to have impressed players with her resume and personal story.
"I never played basketball, but many of the players have similar backgrounds to mine,'' Roberts said. "I was raised by a single mom who was very strict and pushed me. She didn't allow me to believe I was not as good as anyone else. A lot of these guys have similar stories about their moms or their moms and dads.''
Roberts grew up in the projects in the Bronx. She had four brothers and sisters and one television, which explains how she became a hard-core Knicks fan.
"My two older brothers made it clear that basketball was what we were going to watch during the basketball season,'' she said. "It wasn't long before my sisters and I were yelling at the television with them. We all loved the Knicks.''
Later, when she moved to Washington after attending law school at California Berkeley, Roberts became a Bullets season-ticket holder. She still has tickets to the Wizards. Nevertheless, she had never met a professional basketball player before deciding to go after this job after seeing a couple of the players talking about the union on television after Hunter's ouster.
The players considered more than 300 candidates during their drama-filled 17-month search before picking Roberts, who has been called the finest trial lawyer in Washington by "Washingtonian Magazine.'' After her selection was announced, a number of players seemed to realize the historical significance of picking a woman. Union president Chris Paul called the move monumental.
"Even though she's a female, she's very relatable to a lot of our players,'' Paul said. "I think that's what really hit home for not only myself but some of these other guys as well.''
Roberts said she realizes the historical significance of her selection but added that it is not something she is dwelling upon.
She went on to tell a story of a photograph she has hanging on her office wall from late in her career as a public defender. By then, she was chief of the trial division -- and everyone was gathered in her office.
"We're drinking wine and beer. There's 12 lawyers and nine of them are women,'' she said. "I think you don't find yourself paralyzed when most of your colleagues are men. You do your best, and then all of a sudden, the world just gets a little fairer.''