The Milwaukee Bucks made an odd bit of NBA history in the 1971-72 season when they accepted president and general manager Ray Patterson’s resignation in February, effective April 30. Postdating a personal check is one thing, but a resignation letter?
The awkward situation got resolved three weeks later. That’s when the Bucks’ 11-member Board of Directors unanimously promoted Wayne Embry to fill Patterson’s spot. The announcement was made on March 6, 1972 – 50 years ago – and Embry immediately got to work in his new position, becoming the first Black GM in the history of professional sports.
Not just the NBA. Across all sports. It happened in little Milwaukee, with virtually no fanfare.
“Actually I hadn’t even thought about it,” Embry said that day, asked about his role as a pioneer. “It never occurred to me.”
In recalling that moment more recently, Embry, now 84, said being first crept up on him over the next few days.
“I started thinking what it meant to me and I realized, ‘It’s only significant to hire me if I’m not the last,’” he said. “But I had a job to do regardless of what ethnic background I was.”
The meaning of Embry’s milestone promotion wasn’t, and hasn’t been, lost on others.
“Without a Wayne Embry, there’s no Masai Ujuri,” said Johnny Davis, who was 16 and playing high school ball at Murray-Wright in Detroit in March 1972. Now, after 10 seasons as an NBA guard and 24 more coaching in the league, Davis is president of the National Basketball Retired Players Association.
“Without a Wayne Embry, there’s no Billy King, who used to be in Philadelphia. There’s no Isiah Thomas with the Knicks and the CBA. No James Jones in Phoenix. Or Doc Rivers getting to be GM and coach with the Clippers,” Davis said. “He was in an area that, at that time, Black people weren’t very involved in. But he was sitting in the board room where decisions were being made. And he was actually involved in the process.”
As with most big, round anniversaries, it’s hard for many to believe how much time has passed. Fifty years ago? Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was the face of the Milwaukee franchise, wrapping up his third NBA season after leading the Bucks to the 1971 championship in his second. Oscar Robertson, Embry’s teammate and roommate from their days in Cincinnati, was in Year 12 of 14.
Jim Chones, an All-America selection as a junior at Marquette, recalled being home in Racine, Wis., 25 miles south, when he learned of Embry’s new position. A 6-foot-11 center, Chones had left the unbeaten Warriors weeks before to sign with the New York Net of the American Basketball Association. His coach, Al McGuire, supported the move despite Chones’ value to his team.
“I looked in my refrigerator and it was full, I looked in his and it was empty,” McGuire had said, referring to the Nets’ $1.5 million offer and the Chones family’s struggles.
What Chones recalled from 50 years ago was a photo in the morning paper of Embry “sitting in the stands with his big Afro and his rich-man glasses, and he took up two seats,” said Chones, now 72, a longtime analyst for the Cleveland Cavaliers.
“I had no idea that a Black man could rise to such heights other than playing in sports,” he said. “Yet here he was, a former athlete – not a star but a role player – who because of his intellect and his ability to bring people together gets this great gig and becomes the first.”
Chones added: “We all know that the first catches hell. It was a non-traditional move, it was a gutsy move. But apparently it wasn’t based on color because no one was pushing for Wayne to be a GM. It was the relationship that he built with Wes [Pavalon, original Bucks owner] that made Wes say, ‘Y’know what, this is my best candidate. He can do the job.’”
Embry already had handled plenty. A native of Springfield, Ohio, whose father worked at an auto body shop, Embry was the first Black student at Tecumseh High. “I heard them saying ‘n—- this, n—- that.’ I wanted to quit,” he told the New York Times a week after getting the Buck GM job. “But my parents told me that you have to believe in yourself as a man, that if you don’t, nobody will. Ever since then, that’s been my attitude in life.”
After earning his degree from Miami (Ohio) University in education with a minor in business, Embry was drafted by the St. Louis Hawks in 1958, then traded over the summer to the Royals. The burly center earned a nickname, “The Wall,” for the picks he set, but when Robertson arrived in 1960-61, Embry went to five straight All-Star Games with his amazingly talented teammate. And every offseason, he worked at a marketing job at Pepsi-Cola.
Red Auerbach brought Embry to the Boston Celtics in 1966 to back up center Bill Russell, who became sports’ first Black coach while continuing to play. After two seasons – including a championship in 1968 – Embry was selected by Milwaukee in the expansion draft and, at age 31 in his final season, his body aching, saw his minutes jump from 13.9 in Boston to 30.2 with the deprived Bucks.
Embry returned to Boston to become the city’s recreation director but quickly grew frustrated by the politics that slowed projects to a crawl. When Pavalon came to town to attend his friend Arthur Ashe’s tennis tournament, he also sought out Embry to woo him back to Milwaukee.
One of his earliest duties as Patterson’s administrative assistant gave him on-the-job training for what was to come: Embry was asked to nudge along the Bucks’ desired trade for Robertson. He finessed the Big O’s no-trade rights, got the Hall of Fame guard an extra $15,000 he required and sealed the deal that led to Milwaukee’s 1971 title.
Certainly Robertson wasn’t surprised when Embry was named GM. “Wayne is qualified, and if a man is qualified, he should be doing the job,” Robertson said back then. “To hear some people talk, you’d think a Black man had a third arm.”
On Embry’s watch, the Bucks drafted Marques Johnson, Sidney Moncrief, Julius Erving (who opted for the ABA) and Alex English (traded after two years when Embry was gone). He propel Don Nelson into his first head coaching job to replace Larry Costello.
Before exiting in 1979, Embry built the Milwaukee team that roared through the 1980s, failing only in being unable to get past either Boston and Philadelphia in the rugged Eastern Conference playoffs.
Even when he had his hand forced to trade an unhappy Abdul-Jabbar, Embry managed to a) keep the great center’s demand quiet through the entire 1974-75 season, and b) get the best possible return from the Lakers in Brian Winters, Elmore Smith and rookies David Meyers and Junior Bridgeman.
“We got a good nucleus,” Embry said of making lemonade from lemons.
Embry recalled that his transition to GM generated occasional hate mail and catcalls from fans. But he said his peers in rival NBA front offices welcomed him without a hitch.
“As a matter of fact, I was pleased with how everyone embraced me. Pete Newell [Lakers], Bob Ferrick [Warriors], everybody,” he said.
By the time Embry joined the Cleveland Cavaliers in 1985 – and became the NBA’s first Black team president – his reputation preceded him. He wound up being named NBA Executive of the Year in 1992 and 1998, and went into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame as a contributor in 1999. Since 2004, Embry has been a senior advisor to the Toronto Raptors.
But the news of his Bucks job 50 years ago still resonates.
“That changed everything,” Chones said. “I don’t think he ever understood – you might not know the magnitude when it’s happening to you. We were looking for something. Remember, this was the ‘60s, the early ‘70s: open housing, civil rights movement, marching in the streets. If you didn’t have an Afro, you weren’t Black.
“All of a sudden out of nowhere, this guy becomes the general manager and later on the president of the Milwaukee Bucks. Think about that. That was huge.”
While most media reports led with the milestone being established, the morning Milwaukee Sentinel’s story did not even mention Embry’s race. Had the reporter and his editors whiffed on a significant angle? Or, being so familiar with Embry, his NBA background and his work to that point for the Bucks, did they simply treat it like a logical promotion?
Six days after landing the job, Embry told a reporter: “Over the years, I’ve been subjected to abuse like all Blacks have, but I never stopped being a man. I don’t think our directors gave color any consideration, and I think they should 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.”
Fifty years later – with nearly 64 in the NBA overall – Embry’s still working. And still inspiring.
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Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.
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