2018 Playoffs | Eastern Conference Semifinals: Raptors (1) vs. Cavaliers (4)

For Toronto Raptors executive Wayne Embry, franchise denied by rival a familiar story

During his playing days, early management years, Hall of Famer's teams could not get over the wall of 'greatness'

CLEVELAND – The playoff predicament in which Toronto finds itself – down 0-3 to Cleveland in their Eastern Conference semifinals series, facing elimination by the Cavaliers for the third consecutive postseason – might not be the fault of the Raptors’ players and coaches.

It might be their parents’ fault.

If all those fellows were several years younger or – this works, too – considerably older, they wouldn’t be chasing an NBA championship during the LeBron James Era.

A little older, and the Raptors might have chafed a little during the Tim Duncan Era. But the San Antonio Spurs always left a little air between their title runs, allowing other contenders to dream and occasionally win. Toronto might have done just that before James put the East into a seemingly endless headlock.

A little younger, and they’d just be getting poised to duke it out in the East with Philadelphia and Boston for long-term supremacy. Maybe Indiana or Milwaukee will bubble up, too. No matter, the key would be hitting one’s prime when James is three or four more years beyond his. Or, who knows, relocated to the West by then.

As it is, though, the Raptors are trying to break through in the teeth of the LeBron Era, during which James has built a big, beautiful wall around the NBA Finals, allowing no one else to represent the conference other than his Miami or Cleveland teams.

It’s going on eight years now, and seven consecutive Finals, since a non-LeBron team came out of the East: the 2010 Boston Celtics. With Cleveland looking revived after two games against Toronto, after laboring to survive its seven-game first-round series against the Pacers, it’s looking more and more as if those steaks will reach nine and eight.

Blaming Mom and Dad might be the best available option for dealing with James’ ever-lengthening Era. Because one can look in the mirror in abject frustration only so long without wanting to smash it.

Longtine NBA player and executive Wayne Embry knows exactly how the Raptors are feeling, in a way that goes beyond his job title as Toronto’s Senior Basketball Advisor, a role he has held since 2004.

Embry was born on March 26, 1937. Bill Russell had been born on Feb. 12, 1934.

Three years and six weeks? Too close. Tough luck, Embry.

Embry has been involved with the NBA for nearly 60 years. He is enshrined in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, and as the first black general manager (Milwaukee, 1972) and president/CEO (Cleveland, 1994), he’s been a pioneer. But as far as chasing NBA championships, like the guys on the team for which he currently works, Embry too might have been born at the wrong time.

Ironic that a fellow whose nickname in his playing days was “The Wall,” based on the numbing picks he would set at 6-foot-8 and 240 pounds, would run into a series of walls so often keeping him from the titles he sought.

Oh, Embry won one championship as a player and one more as an exec. But having come on the scene in 1958-59, he would have welcomed a few more over the years.

But nope. It was other guys’ eras. “Trying to overcome greatness,” Embry calls it.

“It started in Cincinnati with Oscar [Robertson] and the Royals,” he said the other night, a couple hours before tipoff of Game 2, Raptors-Cavaliers. “We had to overcome Bill Russell and Sam Jones and that bunch. We had some knock-down, drag-out series with them, and on a couple of occasions we had leads. We’d beat them on their home court, they’d beat us on our home court.”

The Celtics won the championship from Embry’s rookie season through his eighth year in the league. It was the natural order of things, apparently, so when Boston’s Red Auerbach traded for him shortly before the 1966-67 season, Embry thought his ship had come in.

“Finally, I joined the team we couldn’t beat, and here was my chance to win a championship,” he said. “So, my first year there, we had to try to overcome greatness in Wilt Chamberlain. They snapped the Celtics’ string that year.”

The 1966-67 Philadelphia 76ers had one of the most dominant seasons in league history, setting a record for victories at 68-13 with a killer lineup featuring Chamberlain (24.1 ppg, 24.2 rpg, 7.8 apg) at the peak of his powers, with Hal Greer, Chet Walker, Luke Jackson, Wali Jones, Billy Cunningham and coach Alex Hannum.

Fortunately for Embry, the Celtics bounced back the following spring.

“We came back from being down 3-1 against Philadelphia to beat them, then beat the Lakers in the Finals,” he said. “ So, we were able to overcome greatness then. But we had greatness on our team, too.”

The Lakers had some of their own, by the way, in Jerry West and Elgin Baylor, who lost six times to Russell’s teams in the Finals.

Embry went to Milwaukee in expansion in 1968-69, getting ground down in his final season as a player by logging more than 30 minutes nightly at age 31, while averaging 13.1 ppg and 8.6 rpg. Russell won his 11th and last ring that spring.

In 1970, Embry moved into a front-office role with the Bucks, who by that time had drafted game-changer Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Embry was assigned to talk his old Royals roommate, Robertson, into accepting a trade to Milwaukee. He did and the Bucks won big, taking the title in 1971 and reaching the Finals again in 1974.

“I came into greatness when Kareem was there, and Chicago was on the other end,” Embry recalled of a strong Bulls squad that included Walker, Bob Love, Jerry Sloan and others. “They couldn’t overcome us. It just drove [coach Dick] Motta crazy.”

Milwaukee might have been able to keep it going, even with Robertson retiring in 1974, except that Abdul-Jabbar decided he wanted to live and play elsewhere. He and his rep, longtime UCLA booster Sam Gilbert, made a trade-him-or-lose-him-to-the-ABA ultimatum, so after a final Bucks season, Kareem was sent to the Lakers.

Embry, arm twisted, at least laid the foundation of a Milwaukee contender with players and picks he got back. That team – came to include Brian Winters, David Meyers, Junior Bridgeman, Marques Johnson, Sidney Moncrief and Bob Lanier, coached by Don Nelson – won between 50 and 60 games for seven consecutive seasons in the 1980s.

Yet those Bucks never could get past Julius Erving’s (greatness) Philadelphia teams or Larry Bird’s (greatness) Boston teams in the same postseason. And the ‘80s wound up being defined either by the Celtics or Magic Johnson’s (greatness) Lakers.

Embry had moved to Cleveland by the middle of that decade – just in time for the Michael Jordan Era. As the good as the Cavaliers got with players such as Brad Daugherty, Mark Price, Ron Harper, Larry Nance and John (Hot Rod) Williams, they never overcame Jordan, Scottie Pippen and the Bulls.

“We thought, one through 12, we were better than the Bulls,” Embry said. “But part of what defines greatness is having the ability to make other players better. It manifests itself in different ways, and that’s what Michael did with those Bulls.”

Don’t Charles Barkley, Patrick Ewing, Karl Malone, John Stockton, Dominique Wilkins and another dozen stars from the Jordan era know it.

A native of Springfield, Ohio, Embry grew up as a fan of the Cleveland Browns (“when they were good”) and the Indiana, who in 1948 had made Larry Doby the American League’s first black player. He attended Miami (Ohio) University, played his first eight NBA seasons in Cincinnati and had his longest, most decorated tenure as a team executive with the Cavaliers.

So, with these recent playoff clashes between the Raptors and the Cavaliers, Embry felt conflicted when he had a speaking engagement in Cleveland a few months ago. He knew what likely was coming again this spring.

During the appearance, Embry was asked to sing the Cavaliers’ fight song along with the fellow who wrote it. He declined, saying, “My allegiance is to another team that’s competing against the Cavs.”

But Embry did keep a place in his heart for Cleveland’s 2016 championship, which ended the city’s long championship drought.

“I became very emotional when I watched the parade on television,” he said. “Because of all the years we tried to get there and had to overcome Michael, had to overcome greatness. To see them finally get there and win a championship was just great for the city.”

You don’t get intimidated and you play the very best you can. If you let greatness intimidate you, you don’t belong on the court. You let greatness inspire you.

Wayne Embry on facing tough competition

The Era of LeBron James began soon after Embry left some 15 years ago. He and the team he’s rooting for now have been stymied to this point.

“I tell these guys, we’ve had a great season. We won the top seed. But we haven’t won anything yet, so let’s respect our opponents,” Embry said. “If you don’t respect your opponent, you don’t prepare. You’ve got to be prepared mentally each time you go out on the court.”

As daunting as the task might be, it doesn’t help to be demoralized, Embry said. Or for that matter, too deferential, the way some took DeMar DeRozan’s memorable comment after the 2017 sweep.

“If we had LeBron on our team, too, we would have won,” DeRozan said then.

No one said it would be easy, playing in the same space and time as legends. But it can be special.

“That’s what competition is all about,” Embry said. “There’s no greater joy than to beat those guys. So, you should be inspired every time you step on the court. That’s the way I always felt when I played Russell or Wilt or other guys – I wanted to beat ‘em.

“You stay focused on what’s right in front of you, you don’t get intimidated and you play the very best you can. If you let greatness intimidate you, you don’t belong on the court. You let greatness inspire you.”

And if greatness happens to roll an ankle at an inopportune time in a best-of-seven series? No apologies necessary, Embry said.

“Nope, not at all,” he said. “Because that’s all part of it. Injuries are one of the variables that go into winning and losing.”

Having your own era is the biggest variable of all.

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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