Milwaukee Bucks: Wayne Embry remains an unsung hero

MILWUAKEE, WI - JANUARY 5: (Photo by Gary Dineen/NBAE via Getty Images)
MILWUAKEE, WI - JANUARY 5: (Photo by Gary Dineen/NBAE via Getty Images) /

One of the most important and influential figures in Milwaukee Bucks history, and a pioneer in the wider NBA, Wayne Embry very much remains an unsung hero.

Compared to other NBA franchises, the Milwaukee Bucks’ eight retired jerseys show a great willingness to honor and remember the legacies of their former players.

Over time, though, the Bucks have become incredibly selective when it comes to dishing out such honors. Having retired seven jerseys between 1974 and 1993, only Bob Dandridge’s jersey has ascended to the rafters in Milwaukee in the quarter of a century since.

As the ultimate honor a franchise can bestow on an individual, it’s right for teams to be wary of cheapening the accolade with frivolous inclusions, but turning to the opposite extreme can also make something of a farce out of the system when incredibly deserving individuals remain unrecognized.

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Among the most notable of those is Wayne Embry, who played just a single season for the Bucks in the first year of the team’s existence.

Embry had already compiled a decorated NBA career at that point, with five All-Star appearances and a championship to his name, and he produced a very solid season in Milwaukee with averages of 13.1 points and 8.6 rebounds per game.

Of course, that production alone isn’t grounds for any kind of greater honor, but in Embry’s case it just marked what was essentially a jumping off point for a front office career that leaves him as one of the most successful executives in NBA history.

After a brief spell back in Boston post-retirement, which included some commentary work on Celtics’ broadcasts, then Bucks owner Wes Pavalon approached Embry with an offer to return to Milwaukee and work in the front office. Speaking to On Milwaukee in 2012, Embry described it as “the defining moment in my life”.

It proved to be a defining moment in the history of the Bucks too. Before even ascending to the role of top decision-maker in Milwaukee, Embry was essential in ensuring the completion of the most significant trade in the franchise’s history.

Having played alongside and even roomed with Oscar Robertson during their time with the Cincinnati Royals, Embry acted as a consigliere of sorts as the Bucks looked to push through a deal for the former MVP, in spite of his no-trade clause, to pair him alongside a young Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, then known as Lew Alcindor.

"“After I was asked back here in the front office – Wes Pavalon said to me when he came to Boston to talk to me, ‘Oh by the way we’re negotiating a trade for Oscar Robertson, would you mind giving him a call and give him a little bit of encouragement since you’re coming back? What do you think of that?’ I said if you get Oscar Robertson it’ll be an instant championship. So I was kind of a prophet as well!He said, ‘do you mind calling him,’ and I said, sure, ‘I’ll call him.’ I called Oscar and told him the great experience we had here in Milwaukee and that I think he deserves to win a championship and you hadn’t won anything until you won a championship and I said, by the way, I’m coming back to the front office and it’d be great. So we moved back here together.”"

Perhaps influenced by Embry’s role in finalizing a deal that delivered the Bucks a championship in 1971, Pavalon promoted Embry in 1972, making him the first African American executive in the four major pro sports. Reflecting on that moment in conversation with’s Steve Aschburner in 2017, Embry revealed the change of role caught him completely off guard.

"“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.”"

In the years that followed, Embry oversaw the greatest period of sustained success the Bucks have ever seen. Embry spent almost 14 seasons working with Milwaukee, doing so in the capacity of general manager through to 1977, and in that time the Bucks made the playoffs 11 times.

That period wasn’t without significant challenges, though.

Embry was the man tasked with dealing with Abdul-Jabbar’s trade request, and miraculously pulled off a deal that served his team well going forward, while also doing all he could to convince his star to stay, showing him respect with how negotiations were handled, and managing the press through what was an undoubtedly challenging time for the Bucks.

It was also under Embry’s guidance that the Bucks were forced to find a replacement for Larry Costello, then the franchise’s first and only coach, and the man who delivered a championship to Milwaukee. Bringing in Don Nelson, who he had previously lured to Costello’s staff as an assistant, ensured continued success for the Bucks, a complete reinvention in the team’s style of play, and the addition of a strong basketball mind who would ultimately assume the general manager role then filled by Embry.

The challenges of being a general manager were also never removed from the challenges of being a black general manager in 1970s America for Embry. As J.A. Adande outlined in a profile of Embry for Black History Month back in 2009:

"“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.”"

It’s to Embry’s immense credit that he battled through that hate with dignity, and continued to perform in his job at an exceptionally high level.

On the whole, his influence on Milwaukee basketball can’t be looked back on as anything other than a great success. By the time, Embry took on the role of Cleveland Cavaliers general manager in 1986, the Bucks could look back on the best part of two decades spent contending at the top end of the NBA, and their former GM’s fingerprints were on much of that success.

As well as his time with the Cavaliers (where he won the NBA’s Executive of the Year award in 1992 and 1998), Embry’s post-Bucks career took in a spell with the Toronto Raptors, an organization he still works for to this very day in his role as a Senior Basketball Advisor.

in 2012, Embry was honored with the Fellowship Open’s Legends Award, which is awarded “to citizens who have demonstrated a personal commitment to and vision for helping others“, yet a significant celebration of his work from the Bucks officially has still yet to materialize.

In a piece for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel in February 2017, Andy Bachmann argued it was time for the Bucks to retire Embry’s jersey, in a fashion similar to how the Bulls honored their former executive Jerry Krause. There would be little cause for complaint in that scenario, but there are definitely others who should be on a waiting list of sorts for that honor too.

Marques Johnson stands out as the most obvious former Buck in that regard, but a case could certainly be made for others as well — Ray Allen, anyone?

In such discussions, there’s also a need to consider whether the current system is broken, though. Perhaps a jersey retirement isn’t for everyone, but a more concerted effort to honor franchise greats and promote and acknowledge the key contributions of many couldn’t hurt. Taking another Wisconsin sports team as an example, the Green Bay Packers may only have six retired numbers, but they have 161 players honored in their own Hall of Fame.

A similar approach wouldn’t go amiss for the Bucks, who have no end to influential figures who could and should be honored in a manner that also complements the jersey numbers that hang from the rafters of the team’s arena.

There’s no question that Embry would belong in a Bucks Hall of Fame, but along with a wide range of players, so would so many other key figures who may not have played a single game for the team. Former owners like Pavalon and the much celebrated Herb Kohl, coaches like Costello, Nelson and Del Harris, and broadcasters like Eddie Doucette and Jim Paschke, all stand out as obvious inclusions.

As a franchise, the Bucks have improved in so many ways in recent years, yet one area where they remain inadequate comes in recognizing those who’ve made the franchise what it is over the past 50 years.

Moves should be initiated to change that in the not so distant future, and without doubt, they should start with a figure like Embry. Not only was Embry crucial to the franchise’s success, but his time in Milwaukee also represented a moment of greater cultural significance. In Embry, the Bucks have a pioneer to be proud of, and it’s long overdue that they celebrate his legacy.

Next. Milwaukee Bucks: The franchise’s forgotten Hall of Famers. dark

For more on the Bucks’ great figures and the franchise’s rich history, check out the rest of our extensive Bucks History work here.