Q&A: NBA Pioneer Wayne Embry
The legendary executive reflects on his nearly 60 year NBA journey as he turns 80 on Sunday
Wayne Embry is closing in on 60 years in the NBA in one capacity or another. And if you hear him tell it, he’s been half-a-Forrest Gump, working without a plan and landing wherever the basketball winds have taken him. But that does not do the man or his career justice.
“You can say Wayne’s been persistent,” Oscar Robertson said about his friend, fellow Hall of Famer and former roommate with the Cincinnati Royals. “A lot of things were not that easy for him on his way to where he is today. There was not a plan for a lot of African-Americans in those days, to be honest. People think because they see him now, ‘Everything was so wonderful.’ But he persevered. And I’m happy for him for that.”
Wayne Richard Embry, who turns 80 on Sunday, has been a player, a scout, a team executive and a pebble-grained consigliere for so long, Bill Russell only had one ring when he arrived. Embry reached the NBA in 1958, the 22nd pick in the same draft that yielded Elgin Baylor, Hal Greer and Guy Rodgers. A native of Springfield, Ohio, and the only black student at his Tecumseh High in New Carlisle, Embry played at Miami (Ohio) before becoming a five-time NBA All-Star. He averaged 14.1 points and 10.4 rebounds for Cincinnati and, at 6-foot-8 and 240 pounds, earned his memorable nickname (“The Wall”) with bone-jarring picks and box-outs.
Embry was traded in 1966 to Boston, where he spent two seasons as a backup to Russell, earning a championship ring in 1968. Then it was on to Milwaukee via the expansion draft, with the Bucks jacking the 31-year-old Embry’s minutes from 13.9 to 30.2 in the season before they landed Lew Alcindor, a.k.a. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Soon after Embry retired as a player, Bucks owner Wes Pavalon sought him out to be “assistant to the president,” Ray Patterson. When Patterson moved on to Houston in 1972, Pavalon promoted Embry, making him the first black general manager in major American professional sports.
Embry helped convince Robertson to accept his trade to Milwaukee for the 1970-71 season, the trigger of the Bucks’ NBA championship that season. He helped rebuild the team, after Abdul-Jabbar demanded his exit from the gritty Midwestern city, into a underappreciated contender into the 1980s. Then it was on to Cleveland, where Embry became the NBA’s first black team president. The Cavaliers thrived on his watch, only to be blocked by Detroit and Chicago much as Boston and Philadelphia had been the Bucks’ obstacles.
At age 67, Embry accepted a role as senior basketball adviser with the Toronto Raptors, a job at which he continues to work nearly 13 years later. Toronto has averaged 50 victories over the past four seasons, with
Embry helicoptering in six or seven times each season and otherwise catching their games on League Pass from his Scottsdale, Ariz., home, where he lives with Terri, his wife of 57 years.
Robertson, by comparison, was only Embry’s roommate for six seasons during their travels with the Royals. “He was all right,” Robertson recalled Friday. “He slept a lot and I didn’t.”
A politics junkie and a history buff, Embry exercises daily and mostly battles some sinus issues after shedding considerable weight recently. Soft-spoken but sharp as ever, he spoke at length with NBA.com on the same day that, coincidentally, former Chicago Bulls GM Jerry Krause died at age 77. Here is an edited version of that conversation:
NBA.com: What do you remember about Jerry Krause?
Wayne Embry: He was a hard worker. Whether it be his work in the NBA or his work in baseball. Very much attended to detail, too. He was, I would think for his time, innovative in his approach, looking for things other people may not have thought to look for. Players’ extended family, that sort of thing. He was really dedicated to what he did.
NBA.com: Was it possible to have a good working relationship with him as a rival?
WE: He didn’t want to reveal any information to anybody. If there was a group of guys out on the road scouting, he would seem aloof sometimes. He didn’t want to give up any secrets or anything that he assumed the other guy didn’t know. He’d be very non-communicative. [chuckles]
NBA.com: Even Jerry West, “The Logo,” doesn’t have 60 years in the NBA. You got here a couple seasons before him or Oscar.
WE: I’ve been blessed to be involved in something like this that I have a great passion for. It’s been good for me, and to be able to still be involved at my age … I just feel blessed.
NBA.com: You have to feel proud not only to be the first black GM in pro sports but to have achieved that way back in 1972. Did you have a sense of being a pioneer back then?
WE: At the time, it was a complete shock. I thought I’d be lucky to be assistant to Ray Patterson, who had done a tremendous job building the championship team. I came there in late ’70 and in August of ’72 I get a call from Wes Pavalon. He and two of his board members were in his office. He just looked at me and said, “You’re the new general manager of the Milwaukee Bucks.” It didn’t register. I was, what, 34, 35 at the time? There never had been any [black GMs]. I just told them I’d do the best I could in whatever capacity I was in. But to be named the man in charge came as a complete shock.
NBA.com: Pavalon was a pretty progressive guy, whose friends included tennis great Arthur Ashe and “Roots” author Alex Haley. Did he tell you later why he chose you for such a barrier-breaking role?
WE: No, not really. But I think that it had a lot to do with the fact I was with the inaugural team and was captain of that team. They drafted me at my age because they wanted leadership. And [coach] Larry Costello, whom I had gotten to know, respected my approach to the game and thought I’d be good for their young team.
NBA.com: You played only one season with the Bucks, retiring at 31. Couldn’t you have come back for another season as a mentor to Kareem?
WE: I probably could have. But my knees already were aching and my back got worse. It got very difficult to get up in the morning to go to practice. I only knew how to play the game one way, and that was all out. I said, “No, I can’t do it anymore.”
NBA.com: When Pavalon brought you back to Milwaukee – you briefly were a city recreation director in the Boston area – he was hoping to swing a deal for Oscar, right?
WE: Wes said “What d’ya think?” I said, “That would be an instant championship, if you got him with Kareem.” I think Oscar had a no-trade contract or approval, and [Pavalon] asked me if I’d pick up the phone and give him a call, and kind of push him our way. I told Oscar I was going back and it’d be great for him to win a championship after all these years. And of course I was interested in pushing it along, if I was going to go back there too.
NBA.com: Oscar understood the value of playing alongside Kareem.
WE: Well, yeah. All those great years he had in Cincinnati but he could never beat Russell and the Celtics. So for him to play with a center who was dominant – I wasn’t quite as dominant a center [laughs] – was a big step toward winning a championship. And it all worked out.
NBA.com: It worked out for you a year later, when Patterson left and Pavalon made you GM.
WE: At that point, I was trying to not screw it up. And I was always afraid that trading Greg Smith screwed it up because we were trying to get bigger at the power forward position. That’s when we brought Curtis Perry in. There were a couple years there where we got beat in the playoffs [by the Lakers and the Warriors], and then we got back to the Finals in ’74. We lost the final game in Milwaukee, which was a heartbreaker.
NBA.com: How cooperative were the league’s other GMs back then? Whether it was due to your race or the fact you were a recently retired player breaking into their ranks, was there any resistance to working with you?
WE: Not at all. They were very receptive and accommodating to me, as far as being a peer. A lot of great friendships evolved out of it. With Pete Newell and Bob Feerick, who was with Golden State at the time. Stu Inman and Jerry Colangelo. I think there was a lot of mutual respect. They helped me grow in the job.
NBA.com: Going about your job day to day, did you feel more eyes on you because you were breaking new ground?
WE: Actually, it didn’t dawn on me right away. I was asked at the time if it was significant, and I said only if it was significant to others. I just felt I had a job to do. I put pressure on myself to do the best I could, prepare myself for it and work harder than everybody else.
NBA.com: Did you like the job right off?
WE: I didn’t really know what it all entailed. It was difficult at first, because I had played with some of the guys I now was managing. As teammates, we had a different type of relationship. Then you had to change that. Instead of hanging out with you, there had to be separation. That was difficult.
NBA.com: Did you have to let Oscar know when he was nearing the end?
WE: That was one of the toughest assignments I had. It was the year of the [New Orleans] expansion draft, but he told us he wasn’t ready to make a decision. The organization certainly didn’t want to put him out in the expansion draft, just out of respect to him. We ended up protecting him. But time passed and ownership decided we had to move on. I had the responsibility of telling Oscar we were moving on, which was tough.
NBA.com: Did it impact your relationship with Oscar, at least temporarily?
WE: It may have. But we worked our way through it. We’re best friends now.
NBA.com: You also had the, er, fun job of dealing with Kareem when he wanted out of Milwaukee.
WE: I think it was the fall of ’74, I got a call that Sam Gilbert – representing Kareem – wanted a meeting. We had no idea what it was for. So Wes and I and Kareem and Sam met at the Sheraton out in Brookfield [western suburb of Milwaukee] and weren’t in the room five minutes when Sam said, “Kareem wants to be traded.” We didn’t want to trade Kareem, obviously, but we knew we were in for a long evening as we tried to hammer this thing out. The reason Kareem gave was, he wanted to go to New York or L.A., larger markets. Actually, Washington was his first choice. But there was that event at his house there…
NBA.com: That’s right. In January 1973, a house that Abdul-Jabbar owned in D.C. was targeted in a home invasion. [Terrorists murdered several people in an attack on the player’s spiritual teacher Hamaas Abdul Khaalis, a rival of Nation of Islam leader Elijah Muhammad. Abdul-Jabbar was not present at the time.]
WE: That took Washington out, so it got down to the Lakers or the Knicks. We did everything we could do to talk him out of wanting to be traded. But he said, “Nope. If you don’t, I’ll become a free agent or I’ll sign with the ABA.” Of course we didn’t want that to happen. So we decided to keep it quiet. “Let’s not go public until we have a deal.”
NBA.com: You wound up keeping it quiet for most of that ’74-75 season.
WE: New York made their pitch but there was nothing [acceptable] they could do – they wanted to give us aging players and money. Then I got a call from Pete Newell [of the Lakers] who said, “Can we meet in Denver?” We met in Denver and hammered out a trade.
NBA.com: Considering your hand was forced, were you satisfied with the return on that deal?
WE: Yeah, we felt we got a good nucleus. And I told the board that, once it was clear Kareem wanted to be traded, I said, “This may be good for the franchise. We’re going to hold out to get young players who can be part of a solid future.” We got [David] Meyers and Junior Bridgeman as draft picks, and Brian Winters and Elmore Smith as players. Of course there was cash involved – that wasn’t my area – but that was a pretty solid foundation.
NBA.com: Where did your satisfaction come from as a GM, compared to winning games and chasing titles as a player?
WE: Pretty much the same. Our jobs in the front office are to create an environment for the players to succeed. My philosophy was, let the coaches coach and the players play. I always felt it was a players’ game. So let’s do the best we can there. Very seldom did I interfere with a coach coaching.
NBA.com: Well, there was that one time in Cleveland when Lenny Wilkens noticed you coaching up Brad Daugherty…
WE: He said, “I’d appreciate if you’d let us coach the team. I saw you over there talking to Brad and giving him some instructions.” I said, “Well, Lenny, I played the position. I just thought I’d give him a little tip.” He said, “Just pass that on to us and we’ll do it.” I thought about that, and I said, “You know what? You’re absolutely right.” You have to hold your coaches accountable, and if you’re going to do their jobs, you can’t hold them accountable.
NBA.com: With those Milwaukee teams of Marques Johnson, Sidney Moncrief, Bridgeman, Winters and eventually Bob Lanier, do you ever second-guess any moves you made or didn’t make?
WE: No, I think we were the best we could be. I thought Don Nelson did a tremendous job in developing those teams to where we were contenders. I had a great deal of pleasure in watching those teams grow, because it came after I had to tell Larry Costello he no longer would be our coach.
And when I told Don Nelson – my roommate in Boston – that he was going to take over, he said “I’m not ready to coach.” I told him, “Nellie, you’re the coach. So let’s go for it.” He grew with the team and became obviously a Hall of Fame coach. That’s the reward, when you make decisions like that and they turn out well. That’s the pleasure I get now in an advisory capacity with Toronto. I tell the team when I speak to them before the season, my greatest joy is seeing others succeed.
NBA.com: How much better prepared were you when, after a year consulting with Indiana, you went to Cleveland as vice president and GM in 1986?
WE: I had learned a lot by then, a lot of valuable experiences. Managing in the ‘70s wasn’t easy for any of us. That was an era of the post-civil rights, Vietnam War protests, and it affected the sports and the country in general. We had the drug culture in the NBA. It was all part of the post-Sixties era. We were confronted with situations we never thought we’d face. It was trying, to say the least. Young people were protesting a lot of issues. We all respected others’ First Amendment rights. But we also had to be protective of the brand. So it was more a matter of how we did it. We had to protect the image of the franchise, but at the same time, we realized, “This is the time we’re living in. How can we affect change?” We had to think about how we expressed ourselves, and dealt with adversity and the various attitudes that prevailed. And still prevail. Quite frankly, I a little concerned about today.
NBA.com: What’s your take now on the social and political issues that have crept – or been invited – into sports.
WE: We’ve got to count on the 80 percent. I use the 80/20 philosophy, and if 80 percent is good and 20 percent is bad, the 80 percent has got to influence what happens with the other 20 percent. I think we still do a lot of good in sports. We can’t let the 20 percent rule.
NBA.com: Was the NBA of its times or ahead of its time in race relations in the ‘60s and ‘70s?
WE: We come from different backgrounds, different points of views. But I think once you’re in the locker room, the whole concept of winning is built on respect. You built a mutual respect in the locker room, you work toward a common goal, and that’s to win. You saw how the Celtics got along internally. Now we’ve got a lot more African-American players … and that’s a different challenge. Plus the NBA has become global, putting us at the forefront of bringing together different cultures, different ethnic backgrounds to work toward that common goal of winning championships. It’s great to see how we’ve been able to integrate Europeans, Asians, Africans all into the NBA. We’re a model for how it can bring about change and mutual respect, which I think we need more of in the world.
NBA.com: Your teams in Cleveland had players and coaches who had the misfortune of being born into the era of Jordan.
WE: Obviously, you want to win championships. But if you can get to the final four, you’re a real contender. We were able to do that on one occasion. But we had to play against greatness in those other years. We consistently won 50 games or more, but we couldn’t overcome Michael Jordan. I talked to somebody yesterday who brought up “The Shot” again. [Laughs.] I wish they’d let that go. They keep playing that damn thing on television.
NBA.com: How do you feel about one man serving both as chief basketball boss and head coach, like Stan Van Gundy in Detroit or Gregg Popovich in San Antonio?
WE: My philosophy is having two people. But I can’t take issue with what Pop does, because he relies heavily on R.C. [Buford]. As long as someone has a person to rely on, as a check-and-balance, it can work. But I’m really an advocate of [splitting the duties].
NBA.com: Did you ever want to coach?
WE: No. I wanted to be as far away from the action as possible because I was too fierce a competitor. One of the most regrettable things in my career was when I came on the court in a game in Detroit – I was sitting about 10 rows up – and the Pistons were having their way with our players. That was the late ‘80s or early ‘90s when the Bad Boys were at their best – or worst. The referees weren’t calling it the way I saw it, there was something happening underneath the basket and suddenly I found myself out on the court. I got the call from Rod [Thorn, NBA VP] the next day, saying “We’ve got to fine you $10,000.” I said, “Fine me more.”
NBA.com: I want to ask about your thoughts on the league today, about the way the game is played and the current hot topic of resting players.
WE: I am fearful that the big men are becoming an endangered species because of the emphasis on 3-point shooting. And I was in the room when we adopted the 3-point shot. I voted for it, I agree with it. But I am concerned about the use of these 6-11, 7-footers who we’ve seen over the years – centers don’t dominate anymore. You don’t see the development of the bigs as we once did. They’re used primarily in high pick-and-roll situations and very little in low-post play. I think there’s very much a need for a big, but the push now is for stretch-fours and stretch-fives. I can understand the analytics of it all, because we all can do arithmetic. But playing the game, you take what the defense gives you. There’s got to be a place for bigs – they want to play the game too.
NBA.com: And as far as resting players?
WE: I think that’s contrary to what the game should be about. [Commissioner] Adam Silver and the owners are going to address it, which I commend them for, because they have to address it.
NBA.com: The broadcast partners have wound up with some lousy games because of it. And we’ve heard fans complain when they’ve spent hundreds of dollars, months in advance, and maybe driven for hours to see the stars around whom the NBA markets itself. Do you share those concerns?
WE: Just as important is the whole competitive notion of why we play the game. We can’t compromise competition. If your team is vying for playoff position to get homecourt advantage, you look at the schedule and you think “Cleveland should beat that team” or “Toronto should beat that team.” But when they go in there and their three best players don’t play, that compromises competition. You can talk about being tired, but part of competition is about fatigue. You have to manage off days and manage lifestyle, manage all the things that contribute to fatigue. Physically and mentally. There are a lot of ways they can address it.
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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