When Behind the Buck Pass puts up a links page, it usually ties into recent headlines, news stories, and excerpts pertaining to the Bucks. Today, for an important anniversary, we’re going to go away from that. Forty years ago, the Bucks picked Wayne Embry to be their General Manager.
In 1947, the Brooklyn Dodgers made Jackie Robinson the first African-American in the modern era of professional sports. The Dodgers won the National League Pennant.
In 1966, the Boston Celtics tabbed Bill Russell as a player-coach. As such, Russell became the first African-American head coach in major pro sports history. He won two titles in three years in the position, but his dazzling resume often pushes the title of ‘First Black Coach’ from the top storylines of his biography.
During Russell’s tenure in Boston, Milwaukee was added to the NBA as an expansion team, as was the Phoenix Suns franchise. Each existing NBA was allowed to protect seven players. Among its choices, the Bucks picked ten-year veteranWayne Embry from the Celtics.
From Bucking the Odds:
Wayne Embry was a favorite from the start. Fans like a big man, and he was about as big as they come… The Bucks were forced to offer what was considered pretty big money at that time to convince him to play at least one more year, but considering what he meant to the club that year, he was worth it.
Wayne (the Wall) was one of the mainstays of the squad, among the first of the fans’ heroes. When he scored, they would go wild, especially if he scored on his special shot — getting the ball down low near the basket and tossing up a soft shot he called his “baby hook shot.”
Embry, who is now vice-president of the Bucks in a consultant’s capacity, still likes to say, “There are three things in life that are sure things: death, taxes, and my baby hook shot.”
Embry was equally important to the team off the court. He was the leader, was well respected by all the players, and served as kind of a father confessor to the younger ones.
A year later, after a last-place finish and a coin-flip victory, the Bucks had added Kareem (then Lew Alcindor), plus Bobby Dandridge. The baby hook shot was replaced by the sky hook. Embry retired and moved back to Boston to become the city’s Recreation Director.
From Bucksketball.com’s Wayne Embry: Pioneers, Betrayal and What the Hell Happened Here:
After the 1967 Milwaukee riots, original Bucks owner Wesley Pavalon took to wearing dashikis and flashing the black power sign. He was friends with Roots author Alex Haley and Arthur Ashe. Before the start of the Bucks lone championship season, he went to a tennis tournament outside of Boston to watch his friend Ashe. His trip doubled as a recruiting mission. He was looking to hire Boston’s current Director of Recreation Wayne Embry as the Bucks’ Assistant to the President.
Embry had a soft spot for Pavalon. Until Pavalon talked to him, Embry refused to go to Milwaukee after the Bucks took him in the expansion draft. And he couldn’t say no to Pavalon now.
Embryhe had been the Bucks calm, veteran leadership for the team’s inaugural season and his last as a player. In addition, Embry had negotiated his own contract when his agent proved to be unreliable. This all clearly impressed Pavalon along with Embry’s administrative work in Boston. But Pavalon had more motives to hire Embry.
Oscar Robertson’s contract gave him the power to veto any trade. Robertson and the Bucks were haggling over fifteen thousand dollars and Robertson was threatening to veto any trade without the money.
Embry and Oscar Robertson had been roommates during Embry’s eight seasons on the Cincinnati Royals. Embry’s first task was to go talk to Robertson.
Embry answered all of Robertson’s questions about the organization’s structure and finances. He told Robertson he had a great amount of respect for the people there. He told Robertson to accept a trade to the Bucks and he told Robertson that he was accepting a front-office job with the Bucks. He also said, “You’re the greatest player ever to play the game, but there’s one thing you haven’t achieved. You deserve a championship ring.”
Then Embry convinced the Bucks to pay the fifteen thousand. They traded Charlie Paulk and Flynn Robinson and never looked back.
Of course, in 1971, with a core of Kareem, Oscar, and Dandridge, the Bucks won their lone NBA championship. Nine months later, Ray Patterson, then the general manager of the Bucks, left to become the president of a San Diego Rockets franchise that was moving to Houston. And forty years ago today, on March 6, 1972, Wayne Embry became the first black general manager in major pro sports history. Interestingly, the Milwaukee Sentinel report of the story made no mention whatsoever of race.
Wayne Embry, director of player personnel for the Milwaukee Bucks, Monday was named the club’s general manager.
The Bucks’ parent organization, Milwaukee Professional Sports and Services, also appointed local attorney William Alverson, counsel for the organization as interim president.
The two appointments were made to fill a void formed when Ray Patterson, former club president, resigned to take a similar position with the Houston Rockets. Patterson will assume his duties with the Rockets in May.
The old days of the NBA — chock full of things that would never happen today. Patterson resigned in March to take a job with another team, but got to wait two months before getting back on the job.
(Embry) rejoined the Bucks in September, 1970, as an administrative aide and has remained with the National Basketball Association team ever since.
He has been responsible for scouting, drafting, training, and all player personnel as well as assuming general manager duties.
“I’m grateful for the opportunity to keep working for the Bucks,” said Embry. “I ended my playing career here and I was so impressed with the organization and the people here: Ray (Patterson) and Wes (Pavalon, chairman of the board). I can’t honestly say I had aspirations for a front office job, but I had thought about it. I had realized the problems of the players, and of management, and was familiar with the many aspects of the job.
“During the past year, Ray delegated a lot of responsibility to me, so I’m not coming into something new,” he went on. “Everything is in my lap now. Right now winning the championship is the thing.
Later, the piece added,
A spokesman for the Bucks’ board of directors said Embry’s selection was unanimous and was based on his successful performance with the club in the past. Embry will assume his new duties immediately.
While the original news bulletin did not refer to race, Embry did take the time to reflect on his pioneering position less than a week later.
“It was in the back of my mind, probably, just because of the fact I’m black, but becoming the first black general manager never really occurred to me until everybody starting asking me about it,” he said.
“Over the year, I’ve been subjected to abuse like all blacks have, but I never stopped being a man,” he said. “I don’t think out 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.”
Wearing a conservative, blue business suit and wire-rimmed glasses hooked into the recesses of his Afro hair style, Embry looked comfortable behind a desk. An NBA player from 1958 to 69 and an all-star player from 1961 to 65, he spent 11 offseasons as a soft-drink marketing representative…
Embry said appointing blacks to high executive positions in sports “probably should have happened 100 years ago; but, being realistic and understanding how our society operates, I’m not surprised.”
“The right timing must be involved in everything,” he said. “When I came into the NBA, there weren’t many blacks; and, through the years, there have been more. Some graduated into coaching, and now it’s management. It’s a gradual process.”
As one step of an NBA career that spanned over 50 years, Embry remained general manager of the Bucks until 1979. During his tenure, he made an obscenely high number of shrewd decisions to set up the Bucks’ fine run during the 1980s (including the first Dwight Howard-like case of an impending free-agency with Kareem).
Again, back to the Bucksketball piece by Segovia:
What was in his control was getting Brian Winters and Junior Bridgeman in the Kareem trade. He also drafted Sidney Moncrief and Marques Johnson. He also drafted Julius Erving and Alex English. Too bad Erving chose the ABA instead and English was traded away (not by Embry). He was the chief architect of the extremely successful 80s Bucks.
And Embry was successful in the face of astounding racism, as noted in an article by J.A. Adande,
Embry had to contend with more than just scouting players and working trades. He never knew when he might open a letter containing a racist rant, including one that read, “Black people should all be dead.” He once needed to be escorted out of the arena and received police protection at home after a bullet was left in his seat at the arena. “I just applied the same principle that allowed me to succeed as a player,” said Embry, who made the All-Star team four times during his 11-year playing career. “You have to ignore it and not allow anything to get in the way of success. I was driven to succeed.
“My grandfather and father said you have to be twice as good as the white man, and you can’t let anything get in the way of your success… You’re going to be challenged. You never know from where it’s going to come, but you’re going to be challenged. The important thing is to stay focused in what you want to do. Don’t quit.”