Wayne and Terri Embry continue to impact culture for future generations

by Kevin Yeung & Shannon Coulter

A few hours ahead of a Philadelphia road game in March 1965, Wayne Embry was with his Cincinnati Royals teammate Oscar Robertson in their hotel room when the phone rang. It was Embry’s wife, Theresa (Terri), on the other end of the line, calling from their family home in Cincinnati, Ohio.

“Wayne, Yvonne and I are going to Selma to march,” she told Embry.

Shock rushed through Embry’s body. Earlier that month, hundreds of civil rights demonstrators made the 54-mile march from Selma, Ala., to the state capital of Montgomery for the right of African-American citizens to vote. That march became known as Bloody Sunday for the violence that Alabama state troopers, brandishing billy clubs and firing tear gas, inflicted upon demonstrators. Embry’s shock quickly became concern.

“No, you’re not!” he insisted. “You’ve got three kids, you cannot go to Selma!”

But Terri could not be deterred. She made the plan to go with Robertson’s wife Yvonne, and specifically forbade Embry from telling Robertson until Yvonne could call with the news herself.

At Selma, Terri and Yvonne marched alongside Martin Luther King, Jr. and thousands of others. In all, more than 25,000 made the march to Montgomery, where King made his famous “How Long, Not Long” speech on the steps of the state capital building. The violence from the march, as well as two previous marches including Bloody Sunday, sparked national outrage and spurred eventual passage of the Voting Rights Act. Dogs were sicced upon the demonstrators, and sticks and stones thrown at them.

Later, Terri and Yvonne would huddle under a tarp on the floorbed of a truck in order to safely sneak out of Birmingham. The next day, Embry and Robertson met their wives, still visibly shaken, at the airport.

“They had the courage to persevere through it,” Embry remembers now. “She took that and used it throughout most of her adult life, that experience, to make a difference and to get others through the same.”

Whether in the era of the civil rights movement or that of Black Lives Matter today, the concept of struggle is not a new one. Throughout their lives, Embry and Terri have been pioneers and are known for their fierce activism. Embry became the first Black general manager and president in NBA history, while Terri tirelessly worked as an organizer for civil rights in her local community until she passed away in August last year.

Activists and civil rights leaders such as Dr. King, John Lewis, Rosa Parks and Nelson Mandela were among those that the Embrys looked up to. They’ve endeavored throughout time to do their part, and especially to do so for the next generation.

“Unfortunately, a lot of the young [players] don’t even remember who was in the league 10 years ago,” said longtime NBA executive and owner Jerry Colangelo, who has known Embry closely over 60 years in pro basketball.

“If one has any interest in history, and they all should, about who brought them to the dance, Wayne is one of those pioneers in so many ways.”

As an NBA player, Embry was the big man carving a path through the lane for his team. He was a defiant rim protector with tremendous presence on the boards and he set raw, rugged screens for Robertson. The two players had an easy chemistry in the two-man game, with Robertson as the historically prolific point-man and Embry with his soft touch to finish plays using his signature baby hook. Along with Jack Twyman, they formed an All-Star core for the Royals teams throughout the 1960s.

But Embry never thought he could make it to the NBA originally. He grew up on a farm in Springfield, Ohio, with no preconceptions of becoming anything other than a small-town farmer. The Harlem Globetrotters were the only example of Black basketball players back then, and his father initially tried to steer him towards playing baseball; Embry was ten years old when Jackie Robinson broke Major League Baseball’s colour barrier in 1947. Unlike Robinson, however, Embry wasn’t very good at baseball — as he would be the first to tell you. He only began to learn about the NBA being a possibility for himself once he got to Miami University in Ohio.

It was in the university’s student centre that he met Terri for the first time.=

“I looked over and saw this beautiful, young lady,” Embry chuckled. Since he was too shy to introduce himself, it was Embry’s teammates who brought Terri over to start a conversation. Their first date began with a rom-com awkwardness, when he walked her from her dorm room to see a movie and couldn’t find anything to talk about.

From that inauspicious start, Embry and Terri went on to have a 62-year marriage. Wherever he travelled over his basketball career, she became a passionate and dedicated member of that community who would immerse herself in local organizing. Terri encouraged the wives of Embry’s teammates to join her in action themselves. It was no coincidence that she was with one of those women when she went to Selma, but instead one of many times that Terri, inspired by other leaders in the civil rights movement, brought others to her cause.

“We had people [who] were close to us that were with Dr. King in his efforts and they became role models. I think Terri wanted to become a role model as well,” Embry said. “We adopted the philosophy that if we can get others to team [up] and accomplish [things] within the lives we lived, we could make a difference in the world and make a world a better place.”

No matter what organizations she was working with or where she devoted her time, Terri always created a lasting impact.

“Wherever she’s been, she’s changed the culture.”

In the NBA of Embry’s era, basketball was still exclusionary towards Black players. He was the only Black player on the Royals for his first two seasons in the league, until the team made Robertson the first overall pick in the 1960 NBA Draft and signed 1959’s No. 1 pick, Bob Boozer, that same year. The Royals also briefly rostered a fourth Black player, but he was soon traded.

“It was told to me that during that era, you couldn’t have more than three Black players on a team,” Embry said. “There was somewhat of an unwritten quota system.”

Things began to change in the mid-60s when the Boston Celtics became the first team in the league with a starting lineup composed entirely of Black players — the dynastic core including Bill Russell, Sam Jones and K.C. Jones. Toward the end of his career, Embry would join the Celtics for a successful title run in 1968.

“They kept winning championships, so they broke down that unwritten rule,” he said. “Fast forward to where we are today, where the best players play.”

These days, Embry is a staunch advocate for equal opportunity employment, and he is pleased with how the NBA has been at the forefront of improving that opportunity for traditionally underrepresented groups, such as women and people of colour, over the years.

In his post-playing career, Embry famously became the first Black general manager in NBA history. Just like his start as a player, it mostly came unexpected. After retiring from the NBA in 1969 following a single season with the Milwaukee Bucks, Embry intended to pursue a business career in Boston when Wesley Pavalon, the owner of the Bucks, happened to be in town and requested a visit.

Pavalon wanted Embry back with his team in the Bucks’ front office, and invited him to become an assistant to the president. Early on, Embry was instrumental in bringing his former teammates, Robertson and Boozer, to Milwaukee, culminating in a championship for the Bucks in 1971. The next year, he was asked into Pavalon’s office, where many of the team’s board members already sat. 

“I didn’t know why I was being called into his office,” Embry laughed. “I was apprehensive at first, because I thought I was going to be fired.”

Instead, Pavalon told Embry that he was going to be the new general manager of the Bucks.

“It was a situation I thought could never happen,” he said.

Since the NBA of his playing days with its informal limit on Black players, Embry has been witness to the way that the demographics of basketball have changed. These days, it’s almost the norm that NBA players — now a predominantly Black group, and an especially outspoken one — will take activism into their own hands.

“I think it’s nonsense that people say that we, as athletes, should stay out of politics. I think it’s the most ridiculous statement ever made,” Embry said. “We’re human as well, and politics affects us. If we see something wrong, we have every right to expose it and every right to try to fix what we feel is wrong.”

That traces back to last year, when players participated in the Black Lives Matter movement en masse in opposition to the killing of George Floyd. Many shared their thoughts and public statements over social media, while others took to the streets in protest. To see so many people of different backgrounds coming together for racial justice, all these years after the civil rights movement first began, was something that Embry found uplift in.

“How young people came together after the George Floyd incident... to protest, and looking at the diversity of those protesting, it was just encouraging,” he said. “There is hope, renewed hope.”

Growing up, Embry’s daughter, Debbi, would sit and watch Terri talk for hours on end about everything from local activist organizations to the basics of treating others with dignity. Whether it was their neighbours in the area, housekeepers that cleaned the house or CEOs and board members, Terri would approach them all the same way.

“She knew how to navigate into new cities,” Debbi said. “She felt comfortable in a corporate setting and she felt comfortable in a grassroots organizing setting.”

Terri pushed for equity towards Black doctors as a board member at the Cleveland Clinic, and was a delegate for Jesse Jackson during his presidential run. She was the board chair for two different National Urban League affiliates in Milwaukee and Cleveland, fighting to improve the material conditions of African-Americans within those communities. 

With the Milwaukee Urban League, Terri founded the Black and White Ball, a formal fundraiser that aimed to unite community leaders from both Black and white neighbourhoods for a night of entertainment and dance. This was a source of great pride for her; the 35th Ball was held in December, and it has inspired similar events at Urban League affiliates across the United States.

As parents, neither Embry nor Terri expected any of their three children to follow in their footsteps. The only expectation was for each to obtain a master’s degree; both parents valued education as a pathway to success. Still, they’ve inspired their children to work on behalf of their community. For the past 20 years, Debbi has been a CEO of two Urban League affiliates and a YWCA herself, while her sister Jill has a background in engineering and is developing an innovation centre to provide STEM opportunities for minorities and women. Their brother, Wayne Jr., also uses his education to provide job opportunities for those in his community.

“I never thought as an engineer, apart from just coming up with things that were useful to people, that I would be able to give back to a community past that,” Jill said. “But that’s what they taught us to do and that’s what I’m trying to do.”

“I got my master’s degree in business and thought I was going to be an investment banker,” Debbi said, “but realized that my purpose was to carry on their legacy.”

At the height of the civil rights movement, there would be days when Embry would come home only to find Terri already on her way out to local actions in Cincinnati. She would organize protests in the community and get neighbours involved. Just as Embry blazed a trail for Black players and front office executives in the NBA, Terri shared the same commitment to racial justice in her professional and personal life.

“People, especially younger people, don’t realize that it’s their shoulders that we are standing on,” Debbi said. “Because of them, that’s why we’re here today.

Throughout his career in the NBA, Embry always wanted to contribute to his team in any way he could. Some say he had to work three times as hard to accomplish that goal, but he did it.

“Each day at practice, I was going to be the best I could be at practice, and each game, I would be better than the guy I played against,” he said.

He carried that same mentality into his work in the front office.

“I wanted to outwork and be better than anyone else.” 

Embry came to the Toronto Raptors in 2004, initially paired with rookie general manager Rob Babcock as a senior advisor, and has remained with the team since. His decades of experience in basketball are a resource that he makes available to anyone in the NBA.

“He spent a lot of time with players in the league, and not just his own players,” Colangelo said. “He always shares his knowledge. Bottom line is, I don’t know anyone who doesn’t have amazing respect for Wayne Embry.”

These days, Embry has taken a specific interest in seeing young people grow and pursue successful careers. To do this, he has partnered with the Raptors to create a fellowship experience for youth aspiring to work in sports.

“I’m proud that it’s in Toronto. I think that it’s an example to the other teams and other people that have fellowships,” Embry said.

“This is one way of encouraging others to be successful and pursue the careers that they love. If they have a passion, they need to pursue it.”

Now in its fourth year, the Wayne and Theresa Embry Fellowship provides young Canadians with the opportunity to gain first-hand experience in basketball operations with the Raptors. From coaching, scouting, player development and more, the fellowship recipients receive a year-long mentorship to learn the role of each department within an NBA organization. This year, the fellowship has added a second position specifically for candidates from historically marginalized groups.

Aleem Hassanali, who won the fellowship for the 2019-20 season, felt encouraged by how Raptors leadership provided him with opportunities to share his opinion, enabling him to become a leader in the program.

“Providing this opportunity for someone in a marginalized or racialized group is important because you’re giving them an opportunity to get access to people and resources that people in our communities don’t typically have access to,” Hassanali said. “I think if you can hit the right chord with people who have a passion for this game, they can do great things.”

During the course of his fellowship, Hassanali built a personal relationship with Embry by carpooling to and from Scotiabank Arena for home games. Sometimes the two would chat about basketball, and other times Hassanali would pick Embry’s mind and ask him as many questions as he could.

“It was never lost on me that here I was, an Ismaili Muslim with Indian roots, East African roots, in this basketball world walking through a door that [Embry] opened for me,” Hassanali said. “That was one of the most impactful things is being able to see someone who opened up the door for a lot of people of colour, [and] to be able to interact with him every day and build that relationship, that was really important to me. It’s a relationship that we still have to this day.”

It is important to both Embry and Terri to give back to today’s youth. Since the era of the civil rights movement, opportunity in all kinds of career paths have become more equitable towards underrepresented groups. The paths that Embry and Terri took in their lives are woven into the arc of progress over the decades; their fellowship provides an opportunity to push those efforts forward.

In Toronto, Embry was part of a group within the Raptors organization that would go to eat at Lee Garden, a Chinese restaurant that was a staple in Toronto's Chinatown neighbourhood for almost four decades. That group, a mishmash of folks from across the team, includes front office executive Courtney Charles, who is of Jamaican and Antiguan descent; former assistant general manager Maurizio Gherardini, who is Italian; assistant trainer Ray Chow from Myanmar; American scouts Jim Kelly and Bob Zuffelato; and Roven Yau, the team’s Chinese Canadian media relations manager.

At one of their dinners, Yau turned to Embry: “Did you think, 40 years ago, that you would be sitting in Toronto in the summer, eating Chinese food with someone from the Caribbean, somebody from Hong Kong and a couple Americans?”

Embry fell silent. A farm boy born in small-town Ohio, coming from a time when Black kids could scarcely imagine playing in the NBA, sitting around a table with fellow basketball lifers of such different backgrounds and walks of life as they ate fried rice and mango chicken?

“I think it kind of hit home at that time,” Yau said.

In order for change to happen, there needs to be one person willing to take a step forward and open the door. Embry may not have considered the NBA a viable career path when he was growing up. But thanks to his legacy, youth around the world have the opportunity to pursue their passion in the world of basketball.

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