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‘I made sure I didn’t fail’
NBA exec Wayne Embry broke down barriers with a low-key, dignified style
Published February 10, 2014, Page 1
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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.
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.
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.
“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
“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.
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.
“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.
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.
“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.”