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Wayne Embry still striving for Black front-office progress as he receives NBA honor

Basketball Hall of Famer is one of six Black former players whose names will be on division winners’ trophies

Wayne Embry’s basketball resume speaks for itself. Inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 1999, a five-time All-Star as a player and a two-time NBA Executive of the Year, Embry also broke barriers in the front office.

In 1972, just three years removed from his final season as a player, Embry was promoted to general manager by the Milwaukee Bucks, making him the first Black general manager in American sports history. Embry would go on to work in the front offices of the Cleveland Cavaliers, where in 1994 he became the first Black team president in NBA history, and the Toronto Raptors.

Yet, Embry never saw himself moving into a front-office role after his playing days.

“When I was asked to come back to join, I had no intention of joining because I didn’t think it was possible,” Embry told Andscape.

Thanks to his unique contributions to the league, Embry is once again being recognized by the NBA.

On Monday, the NBA announced the creation of new trophies to be awarded to winners of the league’s six divisions. The trophies are named after six pivotal Black former players in the NBA’s history: Nat “Sweetwater” Clifton (Atlantic Division), Earl Lloyd (Southeast), Willis Reed (Southwest), Sam Jones (Northwest), Chuck Cooper (Pacific) and Wayne Embry (Central).

“It’s a deep honor, because I do know what they [first Black players] went through in the early stages of the NBA, and integration of the NBA.”

— Wayne Embry on what it means to have division winners’ trophies named after Black NBA pioneers

Clifton, who spent eight seasons in the league with the New York Knicks and Detroit Pistons from 1950 to 1958, was one of the first Black players to sign a contract in the NBA when the Knicks signed him on May 24, 1950. Lloyd, taken in the ninth round of the same 1950 draft as Clifton, and an eventual champion with the Syracuse Nationals (1954-55), is credited as the first Black player to play in an NBA game when he suited up for the Washington Capitols, the team that drafted him, on Oct. 31, 1950. Cooper was selected 14th overall in 1950, making him the first Black player to be drafted into the nascent league. Cooper would go on to play six seasons with the Boston Celtics, Milwaukee/St. Louis Hawks and Fort Wayne Pistons.

(Harold Hunter, who was selected in the 10th round of the 1950 draft along with Clifton, Cooper and Lloyd, signed with the Capitols on April 26, 1950, a month before Clifton, but was waived during training camp.)

Reed, the 1965 NBA Rookie of the Year for the Knicks, a team he won two titles with between 1964 and 1974, is the only graduate of a historically Black college and university (HBCU) to win both the MVP and Finals MVP awards. Jones, another HBCU product (North Carolina Central University), owns the second-most NBA titles in league history (10), trailing only former teammate Bill Russell (11).

After graduating from Miami (Ohio) University in 1958, Embry played 11 seasons in the NBA with the Cincinnati Royals, Celtics and Bucks, winning a championship in 1968 with Boston.

The Wayne Embry Trophy will be awarded to the champion of the NBA’s Eastern Conference Central Division, composed of Milwaukee, Chicago, Cleveland, Indiana and Detroit.

Andrew Kenney/NBA

The division trophies, designed by artist Victor Solomon, are part of a larger effort by the league to create or redesign some of its championship trophies. Solomon’s team has also been responsible for the G League, All-Star Weekend and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar Social Justice Champion trophies this year.

It has also served as an opportunity to attract attention to the stories and contributions of NBA pioneers like Embry.

“I’m deeply honored that the NBA would consider me for it,” said Embry, who turned 85 last month. “It’s a deep honor, because I do know what they [first Black players] went through in the early stages of the NBA, and integration of the NBA.”

The same could be said for his early years in the Bucks’ front office. In comparison, MLB’s first Black general manager was hired in 1976, the NFL chose its first Black general manager in 2002, and the NHL has yet to hire a Black general manager.

In Embry’s time as an executive with the Bucks — which began in 1970 after then-Bucks owner Wes Pavalon approached him when he was director of recreation for the city of Boston about returning to the franchise as assistant to the president of the team — he was instrumental in two pivotal transactions in the team’s history.

As Royals star and former Embry teammate Oscar Robertson was pushing for an exit from his team during the 1969-70 season, Pavalon asked Embry what he thought of possibly bringing the disgruntled All-Star to Milwaukee.

“I said, ‘You’ll be instant champions,’ ” Embry recalled.

So, Embry called Robertson, told him to come join him with the Bucks, and the team won the championship the very next season.

But four years later, after growing tired of playing in Milwaukee, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, by then a three-time MVP, asked to be traded. Embry and the Bucks obliged, sending the big man to the Los Angeles Lakers, which eventually kicked off the Lakers’ dynasty and brought on a 50-year title drought in Milwaukee.

He still doesn’t regret the decision.

“I just simply said [to the team board], ‘Given what he’s done for the city — bringing a championship in ’71 and also being a contender a couple years later — I think out of respect to him, grant him his wish.’ ”

In 2021, Wayne Embry (right) was presented with the 2020 Mannie Jackson — Basketball’s Human Spirit Award, given for his decades-long commitment to social justice.

Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

Embry says that the other general managers, including Boston’s Red Auerbach and the Lakers’ Pete Newell, who were white, embraced him as they did the first Black players in the league, eventually having Embry serve as chairman of all general managers.

That being said, this was the 1970s, just a few years following the turbulent civil rights movement of the 1960s.

“There [was], of course, some dissonance — not so much general managers or management, but there were coaches and even some of my own staff who said that I was incompetent and didn’t deserve to be in the job, but that’s their problem,” said Embry, whose teams made the playoffs four times when he worked with the Bucks and who was instrumental in promoting Don Nelson, now the second-winningest coach in NBA history, to his first head-coaching job in 1976.

The low number of Black general managers has persisted over the years. In 2016, there were just two Black general managers in the league — Dell Demps, then of the New Orleans Pelicans, and Steve Mills, then of the Knicks. That number has increased to 11 during the 2021-22 season.

“I think we’ve made tremendous progress and I think it runs in cycles, coaching, front office,” Embry said. “I think that we should be pleased with the progress we’ve made in the NBA, and continue to work towards making it even better.”

Martenzie Johnson is a senior writer for Andscape. His favorite cinematic moment is when Django said, "Y'all want to see somethin?"