Milwaukee Bucks: On Wayne Embry’s legacy and the work that remains

MILWAUKEE, WISCONSIN - NOVEMBER 16: (Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images)
MILWAUKEE, WISCONSIN - NOVEMBER 16: (Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images) /

Nearly 50 years since the Milwaukee Bucks appointed Wayne Embry as the first black general manager in league history, the NBA’s efforts to diversify front offices still remains a pressing issue.

Over the course of the Milwaukee Bucks‘ history, plenty of figures have managed to transform the franchise on the court. In the case of Wayne Embry, his most significant contributions certainly came off the floor.

It’s been nearly 50 years since the Bucks’ groundbreaking move to appoint Embry as the first black general manager not just in NBA history, but in all major sports in North America.

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Embry had originally come to Milwaukee via the 1968 expansion draft and even served as the Bucks’ inaugural captain for what ended up serving the final stop of his 11-year NBA career.

While Embry initially pursued other interests outside of the game of basketball following his retirement, he came back to Milwaukee to take on an advisory role just as the Bucks’ rapid rise was going into full effect.

Of course, Embry’s influence in the Bucks’ front office played a central role in orchestrating the trade for Hall of Fame guard, Oscar Robertson. And it was through that, along with Embry relationship with original Bucks head coach Larry Costello, that he felt led to his groundbreaking appointment as he told’s Steve Aschburner in a Q&A published in March of 2017:

"“But I think that it had a lot to do with the fact I was with the inaugural team and was captain of that team. They drafted me at my age because they wanted leadership. And [coach] Larry Costello, whom I had gotten to know, respected my approach to the game and thought I’d be good for their young team.”"

Embry’s stewardship of the Bucks overlapped with significant landmarks throughout their early years, whether it was the Bucks making their second and most recent NBA Finals appearance to date, the trading of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar shortly thereafter and building hope for a new era with head coach Don Nelson on board in 1976-77.

Beyond the success the Bucks accomplished throughout Embry’s tenure, the significance of being the first black general manager in a sport that it predominantly black didn’t come without its own trials and tribulations, including receiving racist letters such as one reading that ‘Black people should all be dead.‘ And for it to come in Milwaukee, a city that has historically been embroiled by long-standing racism and segregation, wasn’t lost on anyone either.

Yet, throughout it all, and well after Embry’s stint came to end, the humility of the Hall of Famer has remained as he told Jim Owczarski of On Milwaukee in August of 2012 of being thought as a pioneer all these many years later:

"“I feel that way only because people tell me I was! You just accept things as they come and you try to do the best you can and as you get older you reflect back and say “Wow, guess I was.” I have that kind of attitude.”"

Nearly a half century after his pioneering appointment, though, and it’s hard to declare that the new dawn that one would have thought would have followed with Embry’s hire is here in the NBA, both within coaching and management levels. For example, NBC Sports’ Tom Haberstroh recently wrote that “only 27 percent of NBA head coaches, 27 percent of general managers and exactly one owner, Michael Jordan of the Charlotte Hornets, are black.”

Toronto Raptors president of basketball operations Masai Ujiri, whom Embry serves as a senior advisor for and has done so for the Raptors since 2004, expressed his dismay at being one of two black team presidents in North America during a recent appearance on The Woj Pod with ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski:

"“I might be one of two Black presidents in all of sports. How is that possible? That distinction is disgraceful. It’s embarrassing. it’s not something that I should even be talking about.”"

In recent years, the NBA has certainly been at the forefront of tackling bigger social issues involving racism, police brutality and social unrest, just as we’re seeing during this time without basketball amid the coronavirus pandemic. For all of the work they and NBA players continue to do in pushing things forward by preaching inclusion and equality, representation still lags behind on significant fronts within the league.

That goes beyond just African-Americans as all people of color and women have looked to break barriers both within the coaching ranks as well as management and ownership throughout the NBA in recent years. Before hiring Mike Budenholzer more than two years ago, the Bucks reportedly interviewed San Antonio Spurs assistant coach Becky Hammon for their coaching vacancy, which made her the first woman to interview for a head coaching position.

Taking such steps in casting a wide net of diverse and deserving candidates for any position should, in theory, result in more groundbreaking hires to the point where they eventually become more commonplace. As it stands, we’re significantly far away from that point.

As we’ve all seen over the last few months, the center of such significant issues pertaining to race and equality is rapidly changing in front of our eyes and rightfully so. And for as much as some may push back on it, it’s long been said that sports is a reflection of society and the more we see diverse figures hold prominent positions across sports makes for more freedom of thought and practices.

For as progressive as the NBA has been compared to its counterparts such as the NFL, MLB, NHL and so on, they aren’t exempt from dealing with such issues. Embry himself recently talked about the strides that the NBA can continue making in being able to  as he recently talked about with ESPN’s Brian Windhorst:

"“The NBA has been at the forefront in diversity in sports. It doesn’t mean we can’t move further,” Embry said. “When it comes to hiring, those things go in cycles. But the NBA always looks to improve and we will still have the incentive to continue doing that.”"

Next. Meet the 2000s All-Decade Bucks Team. dark

It’s been nearly 50 years since Embry broke new ground by becoming the first black general manager of any major sport in North America. And with another hiring cycle ramping up in the NBA, though under unusual circumstances, we’ll have to wait and see how much ground still has yet to be made.