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It’s a mid-January morning and the snowbirds in a Scottsdale, Ariz., pancake house can’t help but look up from their syrup as Wayne Embry folds himself into a booth and orders an egg-white omelette with grits and biscuits.The gold NBA championship ring on Embry’s right hand gives a clue of past glory, but the fine piece of jewelry offers a mere glimpse into Embry’s accomplished life that has taken him from a scrubby patch of land in rural Ohio to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. The five-time NBA All-Star was a force on the court, but Embry has made an indelible mark off the hardwood.
Embry is a 6-foot-8-inch gentle giant of a man with skillet-sized hands and a slow, easy manner. At age 76, he cuts a dignified figure as he nods to nearby diners who know he’s got to be somebody, they just can’t place the face.
After his stellar playing career with the Cincinnati Royals, Boston Celtics and Milwaukee Bucks, the trailblazing Embry went on to become the first African-American general manager in American professional sports, with the Bucks in the early 1970s.
NBA reporter John Lombardo and Executive Editor Abraham Madkour discuss the life and career of Wayne Embry.
But more important than all the victories is the road Embry quietly but boldly paved for others, not just in NBA front offices, but in all of sports. “Being the first black general manager as early as 1972 and to still be a respected adviser 40 years later tells you about his talents and longevity,” said recently retired NBA Commissioner David Stern.
It’s been a dignified, remarkable run for Embry, who currently consults for the Toronto Raptors. Yet, his accomplishments are muted outside the NBA given Embry’s low-key style and general distaste for self-promotion.
“Wayne’s impact transcends color and race,” said former NBA Deputy Commissioner Russ Granik. “He’s been a role model for so many people on the business side and for players. Wayne has just had a huge impact as a thoughtful, quality individual, but there is no question that being the first black general manager was groundbreaking.”
The sentiment extends to the NBA’s current generation of executives to whom Embry serves as a mentor.
“Before I came to Toronto I knew about him, and he is someone who always reasons so well,” said Masai Ujiri, general manager of the Raptors. “He’s got this great sense of calm and he always gives you a perfect example, and a lot of times, it is not about himself. It is his way of guiding people like me and other young, aspiring people in the business.”
Embry’s wisdom comes not just from decades of being in the NBA, beginning in the mid-1950s when he first played for the Royals, but also from his upbringing in Springfield, Ohio.
Hard work, not sports, was the rule for Embry and his younger sister, Ruth Ann. His parents’ modest house stood alongside his grandfather’s and two uncles’, and the lessons learned from his close-knit family continue to serve Embry today.
Wayne Embry, nicknamed “The Wall” during his 11-year NBA playing career, left an indelible mark off the court as the first African-American general manager in pro sports and the first to be named president of an NBA team in 1994 with the Cleveland Cavaliers.
Photo by:JIM POULIN
“My dad pushed me toward baseball, but my grandfather pushed me to getting chores done,” Embry said. “He didn’t understand sports. He understood hard work.”
The Embrys eventually built a basketball court near the family’s garden, but the game didn’t come easy for young Wayne. As a 6-foot-3 seventh-grader, he was cut from the junior high team. A couple of years later at Tecumseh High
Photo by:GETTY IMAGES
“I was scared to death,” Embry said. “Being good wasn’t good enough.”
The frustration made Embry try to quit school early in his sophomore year. It was a decision that stood until his father and grandfather got wind of the news and forced Wayne back on the bus for the 13-mile trip to school.
“My dad came home and said, ‘You’re going back to school, boy,’” Embry said. “It was as much about me and my fear and insecurities.”
Embry soon gained confidence and acceptance, and he began to excel as a student and a basketball player. Protected and yet pushed by his coach, Frank Shannon, Embry became a star player as well as vice president of his class, while along the way coping with the racial inequalities of the 1950s.
“I knew where I could and couldn’t go,” Embry said, “and you could either accept it or allow it to become an inspiration, and I chose to let it be an inspiration.”
By his senior year, Embry had blossomed on the court and was drawing interest from local schools, including Ohio State. Overwhelmed by the school’s size, Embry turned down the chance to play Big Ten basketball — and football, for that matter, after Woody Hayes took one look at Embry’s hands during his basketball recruiting trip and told Embry he’d fit in just fine on the football team.
“Ohio State was just too big,” Embry said. “I was very shy and timid, and it was just overwhelming.”
Instead, Embry had his heart set on playing for the nearby University of Dayton, except there was one problem. The school never recruited him.
“I was recruited by every school in the state but Dayton,” Embry said.
When Embry visited Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, he immediately felt comfortable in the smaller school environment, but soon after arriving on campus he realized the challenges of playing college basketball.
“Wayne had a long way to go as a basketball player when he came in as a freshman,” said Darrell Hedric, who was a senior player at Miami when Embry was a freshman and who later would become athletic director at Miami. “He always had size but he needed work and, boy, did he work every day. He made himself into a great player. It didn’t come naturally to him.”
Slowly, Embry began to demonstrate the leadership ability that would serve him so well later in life.
“Wayne led by example,” Hedric said. “It was the way he conducted himself. He was quiet but when he spoke, the players listened to him. As he matured, he came out of his shell and was very popular around school.”
After a stellar career at Miami where he set scoring and rebounding records, Embry graduated in 1958 with a degree in education along with an uncertain sense of the future.
Nicknamed “Goose” after the legendary Goose Tatum of the Harlem Globetrotters, Embry wanted to play for his beloved Globetrotters but never got the chance. He also had his sights on perhaps becoming a high school coach. The NBA seemed a remote opportunity at best.
What Embry didn’t realize was that he was being scouted by Marty Blake, then general manager of the St. Louis Hawks, who won the 1958 NBA championship. As Embry prepared to enroll in graduate school at Miami, he learned he had been drafted in the third round by the Hawks.
“I had no clue,” Embry said.
The road to NBA history
Embry never set foot in St. Louis. Soon after the draft, Blake told the rookie that he’d been traded to the Cincinnati Royals. After signing his first pro contract for $6,300 — providing that he made the team — Embry quickly learned the realities of the NBA. And it wasn’t easy.
“It was very physical and I got beat up my rookie year,” Embry admitted.
There were other aspects that made life difficult at the time, too. Though the NBA was integrated in the 1950s, Embry was one of just two black players on the Royals his rookie year. “We couldn’t live where other players lived,” Embry said.
Embry won NBA championship rings as both a player (in 1968 with Boston, above) and an executive (in 1971 with Milwaukee). Below is his Hall of Fame induction ring.
Photos by:JIM POULIN
His personal life was bolstered by more professional success as the Royals benefited from drafting Oscar Robertson, the powerful guard who played at the University of Cincinnati and would become one of the NBA’s greatest players.
Embry and Robertson meshed both on and off the court. On the court, Embry perfected the pick and roll with Robertson, who during the 1961-62 season averaged a triple double. With Embry setting the screens for Robertson, the Royals prospered, and Embry garnered five straight All-Star selections from 1961 through 1965.
Off the floor, Embry and Robertson grew close as roommates on the road.
“I wasn’t very talkative and neither was Wayne, but he became a dear friend,” Robertson said. “Wayne grew as a basketball player. He was a big person in the pivot, a very good passer and he was quicker than he looked. He had to play against Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain and Walt
But by the late 1960s, Embry was already thinking about life after basketball. The Royals could never get past the Celtics to win an NBA title, and in the summer of 1966, Embry felt he was done. He was making $17,000 in his last season as a Royal, and he decided to retire to take a job with Pepsi that paid more.
But Bill Russell, who at the time was player/coach of the Celtics, wanted the big man to be his backup center. Embry’s nickname as a player was “The Wall.” He certainly fit the bill. So even though in Embry’s eyes he had retired, he was traded to the Celtics. It took Russell to convince him to quit the Pepsi job and play, a decision made easier by the promise of a $25,000 salary.
“I got traded for a couple of dirty sweat-socks,” Embry said.
Not only did Embry go on to win an NBA title with the Celtics in 1968, he also got an on-the-job MBA in management from legendary Celtics general manager Red Auerbach. In one instance, after missing the plane on his first road trip with the Celtics, Embry learned a lesson he’ll never forget.
“I missed the plane and I took the next flight, and on that plane was Red,” he said. “I told him I would pay whatever fine he wanted, but he told me, ‘I don’t fine people, but you owe me one.’ He really knew how to motivate people.”
After playing for the expansion Bucks during the 1968-69 season, Embry retired again — this time for good — and returned to Boston to work for the city as director of recreation, fully ready to start a new life away from the NBA.
But then-Bucks owner Wes Pavalon convinced Embry to return to Milwaukee not as a player, but to work in the team’s front office as assistant to team president Ray Patterson. Embry’s biggest coup came when he nudged his old friend Oscar Robertson to play for the Bucks.
It was a huge move that instantly made the Bucks a contender considering that the all-star Robertson would be teamed with a young Lew Alcindor to create a powerhouse team in Milwaukee. They combined to win the 1971 NBA championship.
After five years as GM of the Bucks, Embry stepped down in 1977.
Photo by:AP IMAGES
“He said, ‘You are the new general manager of the Bucks,’” Embry said. “I had no idea and I wasn’t ready. But I said I’d do it and I didn’t know what the impact was going to be.”
Life as sports’ first black general manager wasn’t easy. Embry still has the hate mail to prove it.
“I thought of Jackie Robinson and what he went through,” he said. “Intellectually, I knew I was capable.”
What helped was that Embry inherited a great team led by Alcindor and Robertson.
“What a great way to launch a career,” Embry said. “It was a great team. I was pretty well insulated.”
Still only a few years removed as a player, Embry had to distance himself from his former teammates.
“Wayne was trying to find his way, and it wasn’t as smooth as people think it was,” Robertson said.
By now married with three children, Embry felt the pressure to succeed as pro sports’ first black general manager, but he was supported by other young up-and-coming executives in Jerry Colangelo, then with the Phoenix Suns, and Pat Williams, then with the Chicago Bulls.
“We spent an enormous amount of time together traveling and scouting in the early years and you get to know someone intimately,” Colangelo said. “We went through our own struggles and commiserated with one another, and Wayne broke some barriers. He brought a player’s experience to the job and he had an ability to relate to the players.”
“I was 29 years old and general manager of the Bulls and Wayne is up in Milwaukee and he has such deep roots in basketball,” Williams said. “I went to him and I needed his advice and he was so good to me. Wayne has been a trailblazer, but he doesn’t flaunt it or wave the flag on what he has done. He has opened doors in our league that now has so many minorities running ballclubs.”
Embry’s five-year run as general manager in Milwaukee was marked by the Bucks’ championship and by trading Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to the Los Angeles Lakers in 1975 in one of the league’s blockbuster trades (see related story).
But by 1977, Embry stepped down as general manager. The team was sold to a group led by Jim Fitzgerald, and Embry felt his role would change so he resigned. He continued to work as a consultant for the team, focusing on player personnel and contract negotiations. Outside of basketball, he had bought three McDonald’s franchises around Milwaukee and kept busy with consulting and selling hamburgers.
When Herb Kohl bought the franchise in 1985, Embry left the Bucks for good, but his NBA days were far from over.
A new beginning
Embry couldn’t have known it at the time, but he was about to make NBA history again. First, though, he put his focus on running his McDonald’s restaurants and starting a manufacturing company, called Malco.
But the game was never far from his mind, and when Indiana Pacers owner Herb Simon offered Embry a consulting job, he jumped at the chance, particularly because he wouldn’t have to move from his Milwaukee home. The Pacers’ job, however, was short-lived when the Cavaliers hired Embry as general manager in 1986 to help revive the struggling franchise.
“We felt he was a great judge of basketball and management talent,” said former Cavs owner Gordon Gund. “We wanted to make a business out of it and not go overboard in terms of what we were paying until we had a chance to be competitive. Wayne was sensitive to that. He was also very thorough and he had to make final decisions on the compositions of the team.”
Embry, with consultant Pete Newell (center) and assistant Greg Stratton during the 1999 NBA draft, was president of the Cavs from 1994 until ’99.
Photo by:AP IMAGES
Someone had left a bullet along with a hate letter in Embry’s suite.
“The security guy came in and said, ‘Where is your wife?’ and so he had a detail take us home,” Embry said. “For the rest of the year I had two FBI agents in my suite.”
It’s an incident that Embry prefers not to discuss in detail.
“There are a lot of nuts out there,” he said.
Undeterred by the threats, Embry began to build the Cavs into a competitive franchise with savvy draft picks and trades. Within a few years, the Cavaliers made regular appearances in the playoffs, but they couldn’t get past the Michael Jordan-led Bulls during their string of championship runs in the 1990s.
These days Embry, 76, splits his time between Toronto, where he consults for the Raptors, and Arizona, where he lives with his wife of 54 years, Terri.
Photo by:JIM POULIN
“I felt the pressure, but pressure doesn’t have any color,” Embry said. “There was self-imposed pressure because I refused to fail. I wasn’t afraid of failure or to take a risk, but I made sure I didn’t fail.”
By 1998, Embry’s reputation
Embry left the organization in ’99, resigning the same day head coach Mike Fratello was fired.
“I had been there long enough and Gordon wanted a successor,” said Embry, who was in his early 60s at the time and had hand-picked Jim Paxson to succeed him. “So in my final contract I was to hire someone to work under me for a year and then I retired.”
The early 2000s were a quiet time for Embry.
He had sold Malco and thought he was out of the game of basketball completely. That was until 2004 when Larry Tanenbaum, chairman of Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment, which owns the Raptors, needed advice on how to grow the franchise.
“Wayne was hired as our senior adviser, and he has been my personal counsel because of his expertise,” Tanenbaum said. “He’s a mensch. His strength of character has been an inspiration to all of us.”
Today, Embry still is an active adviser with the Raptors, helping evaluate players and give guidance. Typically, he spends much of the fall and early season in Toronto and then decamps to his Scottsdale home with Terri, to whom he has been married for 54 years.
His three children are grown, and on this mid-January day his immaculate Arizona house, located in an upscale, gated community, is church quiet.
But Embry isn’t idle. His cellphone suddenly buzzes with a call from Raptors head coach Dwane Casey, no doubt looking to lean on the longtime NBA executive for counsel. These types of calls are common as the Raptors often turn to Embry for a variety of things.
“There isn’t much I haven’t experienced,” Embry said. “And there isn’t much left for me to experience. I can give sound advice, but I know my place and I don’t try to interfere. I have had my career. My greatest joy is seeing others succeed.”
“Wayne was a trailblazer. Over the past 40 years, he very much wanted the players to improve themselves and appreciate the game. He was very collaborative but wasn’t afraid to express strong views on both talent and character.”
— David Stern, recently retired NBA commissioner
“His strength of character has been an inspiration for all of us. Wayne understands both the game and how important the community is. For us, it has been an honor having him be part of our organization. Aside from being a role model, there is his tremendous history. He really teaches our players the values they learn in competing on the floor and makes them have a positive impact on society.”
— Larry Tanenbaum, chairman, Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment,
which owns the Toronto Raptors
“Wayne was always checking and rechecking character. He is a very character-oriented person. He always was very concerned about the character makeup of the team. It was something that I really respected. That is who he is.”
— Gordon Gund, former owner of the Cleveland Cavaliers
“Wayne is a unique individual. He has done a lot and I admire him. I’m sure that a lot of people would take that adversity and put it to the forefront, but he has never done that. He is just good to be around. I can tell that when he’s talking to people, he has thought a lot about what he says and how he says it, which is a great quality.”
— Oscar Robertson, NBA great and former teammate of Embry’s
on the Cincinnati Royals and Milwaukee Bucks
“Wayne has so much wisdom, but you can also confide in him. His message is so rich. He has such great explanations that come not just with his experience but also from his demeanor. His advice on all aspects, not just basketball but on other things in life, is just remarkable.”
— Masai Ujiri, general manager, Toronto Raptors
“Wayne is very well-liked and very humble. He was the first black general manager in sports. He is in the Basketball Hall of Fame. He was on the Miami University Board of Trustees for 14 years. He never lets on that he has done it all. He is the same guy now as he was then.”
— Darrell Hedric, former Miami University athletic director and
former scout for the Cleveland Cavaliers
“Wayne has a great influence in the league and basketball. He is a basketball man through and through. Whenever we had an issue in the league office, I’d call and get his feedback and perspective. He can give perspective on behalf of teams and players, and I always knew that with Wayne, he would give a thoughtful response with an objective that was for the good of the league.”
— Russ Granik, former NBA deputy commissioner
“People within the business and the game know what his contributions have been. He was a real pioneer in many ways, but what really makes him special is with all the success he’s had as a player, an executive and a contributor to the game, he has given so much back to the game. With all of that, the best thing about him is that he is a great person.”
— Jerry Colangelo, chairman of USA Basketball and former owner of the Phoenix Suns
“Wayne has a wonderful perspective of the NBA and every facet of basketball because he has been there as a player and as an executive. He is not a boisterous, flamboyant guy. He is rock solid and is not going to pop off just to stir things up or hear his own voice. He is always prepared before he takes action, and he has served as a mentor to young executives both white and black.”
— Pat Williams, senior vice president, Orlando Magic
“Wayne has had a big influence on my life, and he was always a very supportive guy. He also believed in trying to get players with character and he felt that would carry him a long way. He always preached that.”
— Brian Winters, former Milwaukee Bucks player and former assistant coach
for the Cleveland Cavaliers
— Compiled by John Lombardo
Wayne Embry has engineered dozens of player trades over the course of his career, but he will forever be linked to one of the biggest trades in NBA history.
NBA reporter John Lombardo and Executive Editor Abraham Madkour discuss the life and career of Wayne Embry.
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar won one title and appeared in two NBA Finals with the Bucks in the 1970s.
Photo by:GETTY IMAGES
“I told Kareem, ‘You are the franchise,’ and I wasn’t anxious to trade the franchise,” Embry said. “I told him, ‘If it’s me, I can go.’”
But it wasn’t Embry who was chasing Abdul-Jabbar out of town. The NBA’s best center, who had grown up in New York City and starred at UCLA, wanted out of small-market Milwaukee. After secret meetings with Abdul-Jabbar and his agents, Embry knew he had little choice.
“Kareem was respectful,” Embry said. But his decision had been made.
Los Angeles was actually the Bucks’ third choice, with Washington and New York Knicks the two early front-runners.
According to Embry, the bombing of a house Abdul-Jabbar owned in D.C. ruled out a trade to Washington, and the Knicks weren’t offering enough in return.
So Embry looked west to Los Angeles and began negotiating with Pete Newell, who was running the Lakers for owner Jack Kent Cooke.
After flying to Denver, where both teams could negotiate in relative secrecy, Embry flew back to Milwaukee and announced the trade on June 16, 1975.
“We got the deal done and the rest is history,” Embry said.
In return for Abdul-Jabbar and backup center Walt Wesley, the Lakers sent Elmore Smith, Brian Winters, David Meyers and Junior Bridgeman to Milwaukee in a deal that forever changed the NBA landscape.
“It was a different time,” Winters said. “I was visiting a girl I was dating in Delaware and she told me that she heard on the radio that Kareem got traded. I called home and my sister said I got two calls; one from Wayne and one from Pete Newell. Wayne was terrific to me. It was a good trade for both teams. We laid the foundation for good Bucks teams in the future.”
Abdul-Jabbar went on to win five NBA titles with the Lakers and is considered the greatest center in NBA history.
The Bucks have not made the NBA Finals since, let alone win another title.