History was quietly made this week by an organization that desperately needs positive publicity, with Michele Roberts working feverishly to ensure the NBA Players Association improves its reputation.
Roberts was named the first women to lead a men’s professional sports union last week after the NBPA went more than a year without an executive director. Countless times over the past six months, commissioner Adam Silver referred to the players’ lack of leadership as a reason major issues were being tabled.
Roberts was elected by 32 of the 36 player representatives, making her a barrier-breaker and also a neophyte in what has been a contentious relationship over the past several years. The NBA has sustained two major work stoppages over the past 16 years, including a 66-game lockout-marred season in 2011-12.
With those issues on her mind, Roberts said she hasn’t had time to reflect on her groundbreaking position. And she won’t. She said she’ll be too busy preparing herself for the task of representing the league’s players entering a critical financial phase in which salaries could rise significantly with a new television contract.
“I have continued professionally to reinvent myself,” said Roberts, who is a Washington-based lawyer in the firm of Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher and Flom. “At one point I thought I was going to die a criminal defense attorney. And I haven’t done any criminal work in 10 years. I cannot recall being this excited in my life as I am right now. I quite frankly wish I could start tomorrow.
“It’s exciting because you’ve got not long [but] a lot of promise and the resources to do it, but I’ve got players that are engaged that are making sure they are a part of [the process]. The energy is palpable and I couldn’t be more delighted.”
Roberts officially begins Sept. 15 and said she will meet with players over the next several weeks to eradicate any doubts about her passion for the job. Previous executive director Billy Hunter was ousted by the players for a series of alleged misappropriations shortly after the players and league agreed on a new collective bargaining agreement.
The NBPA was plagued with apathy and disinterest in the final years of Hunter’s tenure.
“I will probably end up being a pain in the [butt] because I am going to keep hanging around and make sure I can eyeball every single one of the men and women I work for,” Roberts said. “I want to meet them and I want them to meet me.”
Being an African-American woman is not lost on Roberts, but she said she is accustomed to working in male-centric arenas.
“Being a trial lawyer, being a litigator, has been historically dominated by men — and quite frankly by white men — so I’ve had to compete in an environment where I was probably the only woman in the room,” she said. “At some point you have to ask yourself, ‘Are you going to spend a lot of time thinking about the fact that you’re the only one, or are you going to go out there and just compete and be the best lawyer in the room?’ Don’t worry about that you’re the only girl in the room. That’s how I’ve lived my professional life.
“I don’t think about being the first or the only, I think about being the best. I did not seek out this job allowing the fact that I was a woman to stop me from feeling like I could compete. I want the job because I thought I could make a difference and be good at it and I thought it would a good role and a wonderful way to end my career.”
Roberts, who grew up in the Bronx and graduated from Wesleyan in 1977, understands the enormity of the position but don’t expect her to constantly broach the topic of being a woman.
“I am more mindful of the fact that I am woman because people keep telling me,” she said. “I’m happy. I’m pleased. I’m delighted. I’m proud. I love that other woman can look at me and their daughters can look at me and see yes it is the case, that even in male-dominated sports, there is room for us. But I gotta be honest, perhaps I don’t understand the full significance of it. I’ve got an opportunity to do some great work.”
Colangelo competition the key for Team USA
While Paul George’s gruesome injury sustained Friday in Team USA’s scrimmage may stir debate about NBA standouts participating in international competition, USA director Jerry Colangelo has helped popularize playing for the United States after some lean seasons.
FIBA has changed the name of the World Championships to the World Cup, and play will begin in Spain Aug. 30. While George is expected to miss the NBA season because of a broken right leg, Team USA will move on with mostly a younger roster, looking to make an impression for the 2016 Brazil Olympics.
“Well if you believe in continuity, if you believe in having a system and structure, it’s important to have competition every year for sure in terms of our youth development in USA Basketball,” Colangelo said prior to the George injury. “It’s extremely successful. Defending gold medalists in every age category. There are many, many young players who aspire to be on the national team and we need competition to give them the opportunity.”
Colangelo encourages competition to make the roster and 20 players, including George, participated in camp and that number is expected to be reduced to 15 by coach Mike Krzyzewski by next week.
“In each competition, we need to have some fluidity to the roster,” Colangelo said. “There should be half a roster that turns over every competition. It didn’t happen early. In ’08, we had our 12 players that won in Beijing and in ’10 for the World Championships, we had 12 different players. [The competition] has served as part of the process.”
Of those 20 players participating in camp this summer in Las Vegas, 19 have USA Basketball experience. LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Kevin Love, and LaMarcus Aldridge are among those who decided to skip camp and the World Cup because of free agency or rest.
“The reality is, between injuries, personal issues, contract situations, there have always been a few players who are not able to participate, so we’re prepared to adjust,” Colangelo said. “I think the players are better for the experience. They take this cultural change about their teams and, ultimately, the NBA is the ultimate experience.”
While the George injury has dampened the camp, the previous highlight was the play of point guard Derrick Rose, who has missed most of the past two years with separate knee injuries.
“There was such a question mark coming in here having not really played much the last two years, what to expect from him, and we knew this would be a very important summer for Derrick to find out for himself where he is, and also for the Bulls,” Colangelo said. “Certainly of the immediate situation, it was whether or not we could count on him. He’s been terrific. He doesn’t look like he’s missed a beat and that really is great.”
Colangelo’s emphasis is adding depth to the frontcourt, especially with the absence of Dwight Howard. He’s got that in mammoth center Andre Drummond and athletic Miles Plumlee, along with Anthony Davis.
Five solid NBA players will be asked not to return to the club, likely causing even more controversy and bruised feelings.
“For the most part, players will accept the results,” Colangelo said. “There might be disappointment, but we haven’t had any players who have been in this position who have been extended an invitation to some future competition that has turned us down.”
While Colangelo said he wished every player targeted by USA Basketball would participate, he added that the program realizes that NBA comes first. It is uncertain how George’s devastating injury will affect how NBA clubs view international competition or whether teams will look to discourage their players from participating in the future.
“Do I understand? Absolutely. Relative to injuries, I’m right at the top of the list of knowing how important they are, how valuable they are as assets,” Colangelo said. “They have careers here. If they need a rest. If they have an injury that’s not healed, it’s in their best interest not to participate.
“Certainly if you’re in a situation where there’s an awful lot of money involved and Love falls in that category with the proposed trade [to Cleveland] . . . when he called me and said he was advised not to play under those circumstances, he was remorseful, it broke his heart. He loves playing for us.’’
Offseason finds Fisher in a very Melo mood
Derek Fisher needed a boost entering his first season as the New York Knicks head coach, and he received that when Carmelo Anthony decided to rejoin the club on a near-maximum contract, making a long-term commitment to the rebuilding organization.
“I don’t know if any of us understand how difficult of a decision this was for him,” Fisher said. “All of the concerns about which situation would be best for him. For him to finally decide that our team, our city, our organization is where he’s going to trust where he’s going to take this part of his career, that says a lot about what he wants to accomplish. So I’m thankful. I’m excited, and, as a new coach, to have that type of anchor to who your team could be, it’s a great feeling. It makes everybody’s job easier.”
The Knicks are a team looking to improve after a miserable final season under Mike Woodson. New president Phil Jackson fired Woodson, made some astute draft-day trades to upgrade the roster, and hired Fisher. Anthony will be the lone superstar on a team of aging players such as Amar’e Stoudemire and underachieving Andrea Bargnani on the final year of their contracts.
“My job as a coach would not have changed had he not come back,” Fisher said of Anthony, who considered offers from the Bulls and Lakers. “I still would have had to try to figure out how to take the guys that are on the roster and try to help us be as competitive as possible. I’m glad I don’t have to think about that anymore.
“For me as a coach, it’s not about providing all the answers, but it’s doing the best job I can as being as successful as they want to be.”
When asked whether coaching Anthony adds pressure to his first coaching job, Fisher said, “Whether it’s player to player or coach to player, it’s about the relationship. So I’m not nervous about building the type of relationship that we both need in order to be successful. I’m the coach and he’s the player, but we’re grown men. We’ll talk. We’ll work together. We’ll find ways to be successful, but it won’t just be my job. I’m not nervous about being myself, about being committed and helping us win.”
Fisher’s biggest challenge is implementing Jackson’s staple, the Triangle offense. Second-year guard Tim Hardaway Jr. said the team’s summer league entry became more comfortable with the unusual formations as they repeatedly practiced. Fisher has no concerns about his veterans learning the offense.
Fisher was teammates with Kobe Bryant when Jackson came to the Lakers and earned three consecutive titles using the Triangle.
“Kobe was a rare person from the standpoint where I think he had watched so much NBA basketball film and he studied so much Michael Jordan and the players and teams, he knew a lot about the system even before we were running it,” he said. “So when Phil brought the system to Los Angeles, I think [Bryant] was a step ahead of a lot of us, but he was willing to buy into it because of the success that has been had with the system previous [with the Bulls].
“Everything that I’ve heard, even before Carmelo re-signed, they all want to play in that type of system where the ball moves, players move, and everybody getting a chance to play the game.”
It’s difficult to determine whether the hiring of Fisher swayed Anthony to return to New York, but the two did share a mutual respect during the 11 years they faced off as players.
Fisher’s primary concern is encouraging Anthony to trust his teammates again and feel less responsible for the fate of the franchise because he has more talented support than in the past.
“It will be important that we don’t just put him there [in the post] and watch him play, which is easy to do with great players,” Fisher said. “We want him to raise the level of his teammates around him. I think really just a place of confidence and trust with each other. We don’t question our teammates’ ability to play the game because we trust the work we’ve put in.”
It appears that former Bucks coach Larry Drew, fired in controversial fashion last month when Jason Kidd decided to pursue the job, is making progress in joining David Blatt’s staff with the Cavaliers. Drew has ties with Blatt, who contacted him soon after he was fired by Milwaukee. Drew would join the staff that features associate head coach Tyronn Lue, who was an assistant with the Celtics under Doc Rivers. Former Celtic James Posey was on the Cavaliers’ summer league staff after coaching in the NBADL last season . . . The Grizzlies named former Celtics general manager Chris Wallace to the permanent position of general manager, completing his resurrection after being reassigned following the team’s ownership and coaching change last year. Wallace signed Vince Carter to a contract and re-signed Zach Randolph and Beno Udrih this offseason, and drafted UCLA swingman Jordan Adams. Wallace will have money to sign a major free agent next summer when the contracts of Marc Gasol and Tayshaun Prince expire. The Grizzlies, like the Celtics, have had trouble attracting major free agents and have done most of the player acquisitions through drafts or trades . . . An NBA source said the Celtics are working to clear roster space over the next few weeks in order to make room for Evan Turner in the rotation. The Celtics aren’t expected to announce the signing until those moves are made, although the sides have reached an agreement. The Celtics have 18 players on their roster, including the nonguaranteed deals of Keith Bogans, Chris Babb, and Chris Johnson. The Celtics really like Johnson’s work ethic, but he averaged just 6.6 points in the five summer league games and shot 30.6 percent from the field and 18.8 percent from the 3-point line. The fact Johnson and Babb each played in all five games was a testament that team officials were taking a long look as to whether they would make a contribution next season. The Celtics would love to use Bogans’s contract in a trade that would perhaps net a draft pick and create salary-cap space and have been holding onto that option. It is uncertain if the Celtics would waive Bogans before the season or offer a camp invitation since he has been away from the team since February.