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Steve Aschburner

Wayne Embry, Bryan Colangelo
Wayne Embry (left), with current Toronto GM Bryan Colangelo.
Ron Turenne/NBAE via Getty Images

Embry forged a clear path for other NBA GMs to follow

Posted Feb 10 2012 11:47AM

Where once there was one -- Bill Russell, Boston Celtics, that's it -- there now are 14 NBA head coaches who happen to be African-Americans, depending on last night's scoreboard and the moods in which their bosses woke up this morning.

Among the primary basketball decision-makers for the league's 30 teams, we've got Joe Dumars in Detroit, of course. And Otis Smith in Orlando, Billy King in New Jersey, Masai Ujiri in Denver ... and then you stop. You stop because counting --counting -- feels wrong, as if it defeats the purpose. The whole idea of equality in the workplace is to get to a place where race or gender or ethnicity has no more significance than the number of co-workers whose names begin with "W".

If what we're all striving for, then counting has to go, right? Seems so 20th Century.

"But even I do it," Wayne Embry said, his ready laugh rumbling through the telephone link Thursday. "I think it's just part of our history. Don't feel badly about counting. It's a good thing that you can count and that you can keep on counting. Because the numbers have grown that much."

In the NBA, one of the most significant countings begins with Embry: First African-American general manager in league history. First black GM in major U.S. team sports, for that matter. Baseball cites Bill Lucas, named by the Atlanta Braves to that post in 1977, as its first. The NFL got busy finally in 2002 when the Baltimore Ravens appointed Ozzie Newsome.

Embry in time had company in the executive suite -- Lenny Wilkens, Al Attles, Wes Unseld, Willis Reed, Elgin Baylor, Bernie Bickerstaff and others -- but no one particularly remembers who No. 2 or No. 3 was. The distinction comes from being first, which is why Embry has been among the "Barrier Breakers" highlighted by NBA TV and as part of Black History Month.

What matters to Embry -- still active at 74 as senior basketball adviser to the Toronto Raptors, working mostly from his home office in Arizona -- is that there was a second. And a third, and so on. "That's something that pleases most of us in the industry and the country," he said. "There has been great progress. People acknowledge it and respect it and when they still talk about the fact that someone is black or Hispanic or female, to me that means progress with more to come."

It also means Embry didn't screw up when he got his shot. That move on March 6, 1972 -- nearing its 40th anniversary -- was driven by Milwaukee's Ray Patterson, who resigned to take over as president and GM for the Houston Rockets. But it gets credited to Wes Pavalon, one of the Bucks' founders. Pavalon was a 10th-grade dropout turned hustling, self-made multimillionaire who counted tennis star Arthur Ashe and Roots author Alex Haley among his friends.

He was the one who hired Embry into Milwaukee's front office after the big man spent his final season as a player on the Bucks' 1968-69 inaugural team. A five-time All-Star as a 6-foot-8, 240-pound center, Embry averaged 12.5 points and 9.1 rebounds in 11 seasons.

Embry was key in convincing Oscar Robertson that a trade to Milwaukee would serve his desire for an NBA championship; the two had been roommates during six seasons together with the Cincinnati Royals. His value had shone through in a dozen other ways, too, so when Patterson exited, Pavalon didn't hesitate.

"Wes was a very progressive-thinking guy," said Embry,. "He was an activist in the civil rights movement. He believed in equality. A lot of it had to do with the way he was raised. So this was probably an easy thing for him. But I don't think he'd have done it if he didn't think I was qualified.

"I know he didn't care what the public reaction was going to be. But by no stretch of the imagination did he want this to fail. He was confident the job would get done."

The Associated Press news story of Embry's promotion is fascinating to read now, written in the tone of its time but quoting Embry very much as he sounds now, 40 years later:

MILWAUKEE (AP) -- Wayne Embry would rather be considered an achiever in his job than a breaker of barriers.

When the Milwaukee Bucks of the National Basketball Association named Embry general manager Monday, the former all-star center became the first black in professional sports to hold so high an executive position.

"It was in the back of my mind, probably, just because of the fact I'm black, but becoming the first black general manager never really occurred to me until everybody started asking me about it," he said.

"Over the years, I've been subjected to abuse like all blacks have, but I never stopped being a man.," he said. "I don't think our directors gave color any consideration and I think they shuld be commended for it. They felt I was qualified and gave me the opportunity. To me it's a job and I just want to work hard at it. "

Wearing a conservative, blue business suit and wire-rimmed glasses hooked in the recesses of his Afro hair style, Embry looked comfortable behind a desk...

The Bucks were at the peak of their powers when Embry ascended. They were defending NBA champions and deep into a 63-19 finish in 1971-72 before running into Los Angeles Lakers in the Western Conference finals. "When you've got Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Oscar Robertson as your foundation, you're starting out pretty good," Embry said, chuckling Thursday. "That gives you a pretty good jump start."

But Robertson soon was at the end of the line and Abdul-Jabbar was near the end of his rope with Milwaukee. That was less fun. "That's where the big challenges came," Embry said. "That's where I thought about public reaction. But I knew I had to make what I felt were the right decisions. For instance, Oscar and I had been roommates. When we came to the realization that we couldn't extend [his career] anymore, it was a tough decision for me. Then of course the Kareem trade. But I was hired to do a job."

The package of players Embry got back from L.A. -- Brian Winters, Junior Bridgeman, Dave Meyers, Elmore Smith -- laid the foundation for a Bucks team that would be one of the NBA's most entertaining and competitive (if ringless) through the 1980s. Embry got squeezed out of Milwaukee in a power play by coach Don Nelson but more than landed on his feet: He was hired in 1985 as the Cleveland Cavaliers' VP/GM, twice was named NBA Executive of the Year and in 1994 with the Cavs became the NBA's first black team president. He went to work for the Raptors in 2005.

In an odd way, Embry was just as pleased when he lost jobs as when he got them. It was like someone said when Frank Robinson became baseball's first black manager in 1975: Real progress will come the day someone fires a black manager and it's no big deal.

"That's equality," Embry said. "All we ask for is an opportunity to succeed. If we don't succeed, then we suffer the consequences. It's not a thing of 'You shouldn't be fired because you're black.' You've got to perform."

Embry said he never felt any ill effects from his status as "the black GM" in his pioneer days on the job. He wouldn't even admit to suspicions that this rival or that team might have been reluctant to deal with him, or over- or under-estimated him, because of his race.

"I don't know what people think when I'm not around. But I never saw it," he said. "From the commissioner's office right on down, I was accepted and well-respected. ... One thing that really helped with my transition into the job was that Pete Newell [of the Lakers] and some of the other veteran GMs really welcomed me and respected my position. I don't think it mattered with them one way or the other."

That's one reason Embry noticed, and cringed, during the NBA lockout when first sportscaster Bryant Gumble, then NBPA attorney Jeffrey Kessler used "plantation" imagery in talking about the labor dispute and commissioner David Stern.

"I would always defend David on that," Embry said. "David has been very progressive. There's been a conscious effort on the part of the league, institutionally, because you see the progress that's been made. There are still individuals who still have a few issues, but I'll let that be their problem. As far as an institution, the NBA has been far -- well, not far now, the others are catching up -- but at the forefront."

Embry's grade for the NBA in race relations, across his 54 years in it? "An 'A.' "

Grading is a little like counting. Maybe some day it won't be necessary. Or maybe it's a course that really is just Pass/Fail.

Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here and follow him on twitter.

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.

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