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Beginnings: The Breakthrough Moment

Michele Roberts, Head of the NBA Players Union

"I said, 'Okay, I’m going to be a very good public defender.' "

When I was young — I think I may have been 9 or 10 — I started accompanying my mother to the court building. She was a fan of watching trials. She was a fan of watching arraignments; she was a fan of being in court. We didn’t have much money, so it was really her entertainment — it didn’t cost anything, right? Later she told me that it was like watching television but it was real-life drama. And I think it explains why reality TV is so popular right now. I mean, it’s real life. It was like watching a play, but it was real life and it was free.

I ended up going with her, and I started enjoying it. It was mostly in the summer, because obviously I was in school during the academic year. But that was pretty much something that she would do whenever she had some free time. I mean, because of night court, you could go to court, watch trials all day, and then you could go watch bail hearings and stuff well into the night. I recall spending a lot of time in the summers going with my mom to court.

I’m pretty sure I didn’t know what the hell I was looking at, but I thought I did, and I really rather enjoyed it and specifically enjoyed the trials. One time, when my mom and I were watching arraignments, one of my brother’s friends ended up being brought out. It was unbelievable. Because even with all the stuff I was seeing in court, I didn’t know anybody until that moment.

Not all of my brother’s friends paid attention to their little sisters, right? But this was one of the kids who was actually kind of nice to me. He would say hello — I liked him because he didn’t ignore me. He looked afraid. I can almost think I see this now — he looked afraid, as you’d expect. He wasn’t crying, but I remember thinking he was really afraid. And I remember being horrified. At that time, if you were released, then you’d be walked to the side of the courtroom and sign some paperwork and you could walk right out of the courtroom. I remember watching him and thinking that when he walked out I was going to walk out with him. And then suddenly the court deputy was bringing him back to what they now call the cellblock. I realized he was not being released. It scared me because, you know, I knew this guy. And I thought, What in the world’s going to happen to him? Is he ever going to get out? It was pretty spooky for a little girl. It scared me quite a bit.

I’m sure I was still in elementary. I was probably 10 or 11. But it was the first time that I’d seen someone who I knew and someone who I actually liked. I was mortified when he was not granted bail. And I remember my mother explaining to me that when you don’t have any money and you’re charged with a crime, you will get a lawyer free, but it might not and probably will not be a good lawyer. I said, “Okay, I’m going to be a very good public defender.”