This post might pack a little extra meaning for NBA GMs Masai Ujiri, Joe Dumars, Rod Higgins, Billy King and Dell Demps.
Forty years ago, the Milwaukee Bucks made Wayne Embry the first black general manager in NBA history. In fact, they made him the first black GM in U.S. pro sports.
That’s one of the reasons Embry will be honored Aug. 17 with the Legends Award at the annual Fellowship Open golf tournament in Milwaukee. That award goes to citizens who have demonstrated a personal commitment to helping others. Previous recipients have included baseball’s Hank Aaron, football’s Willie Davis and former Bucks player-turned-fast food entrepreneur Junior Bridgeman.
Embry, 75, a Naismith Hall of Famer, has been in and around the NBA for more than a half century, beginning in 1958 — 11 seasons as a player with Cincinnati, Boston and Milwaukee, and almost without interruption since in front-office roles with the Bucks, the Cavaliers and the Raptors. In Cleveland in 1994, Embry became the first African-American president of a sports team and twice was honored as NBA Executive of the Year. He is in his ninth year in Toronto as a senior advisor.
“Wayne’s legacy is best defined by his leadership and the example he sets for others,” NBA commissioner David Stern wrote in a letter to Fellowship Open board chairman John Daniels. “In addition to acknowledging his position as a role model whose career is an inspiration to younger generations, Wayne recognizes the importance of giving back to the game and to the community. He has taught players to use the values they have learned while competing to make a positive impact on society. The NBA has benefited greatly from Wayne Embry’s commitment to the game of basketball. I am honored to join with you to celebrate his career and to thank him for all he has given us. He is a true pioneer.”
Embry’s early masterstroke was convincing Oscar Robertson, with whom he played for the Royals, to accept a trade to Milwaukee in 1970. It was there Robertson teamed with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar for what remains the Bucks’ — and The Big O’s — only championship season. But his biggest moment came two years later when he was called into a meeting by Milwaukee owner Wes Pavalon. It was Pavalon — an eccentric who was sympathetic to and active in black causes, who wore dashikis and counted Roots author Alex Haley among his pals — who had a vision for Embry.
Congrats, big fella. You’re the Bucks’ new GM.
Embry recalled in his biography, The Inside Game: Race, Power and Politics in the NBA, written with The Plain Dealer’s Cavaliers beat writer, Mary Schmitt Boyer, that he was speechless.
Wes took note of my state and asked gently, “Do you have any questions?”
I could not tell him my number one question was, “What in the hell just happened here?” I could not articulate the other questions running around in my brain: “Am I ready? Can I do this? Will I be accepted?”
Soon enough, the smoke cleared and Embry got to work. His driving motivation: “We as blacks should be given the same opportunity to fail as whites.”
Embry didn’t do a whole lot of failing. He barged through a door that needed opening, and remains open at least to the point that no one really counts the number of black GMs these days. And it was a tribute to Embry’s work and acceptance even before he got the promotion — and a great source of pride to him — that the Milwaukee Journal news story that afternoon didn’t note his race.