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Pathbreaking NBA exec Wayne Embry honored at MLK Day in Memphis

A five-time All-Star, he made his biggest mark in the front office

North of Dayton, Ohio, in the small town of New Carlisle, there’s a stretch of U.S. 40 called Wayne Embry Way. It runs in front of Tecumseh High School, where the 6-foot-8 future Hall of Famer spent his teen years as the only black player on the team — and the only black student at the school.

His climb to the highest ranks of basketball has earned him many accolades over the years. On Monday in Memphis, Tennessee, he’ll earn one more. Embry, 81, is one of four former NBA and WNBA players who will receive the 14th Annual National Civil Rights Museum Sports Legacy Award. Along with Chris Bosh, Candace Parker and Bill Walton, Embry is being recognized for “significant contributions to civil and human rights and for laying the foundation for future leaders through their career in sports in the spirit of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.”

Known as “The Wall” because of his stature and his ability to block shots and set screens at the center position, Embry also reached the highest executive level in the sport, becoming the first black general manager in the NBA.

“It’s indeed a great honor to be honored on this occasion because I have a great respect and admiration to Dr. King and what he meant for this country and for all Americans,” Embry told The Undefeated.

“Having lived through ’40s, ’50s, ’60s and having to go through what we went through back before the civil rights movement and all with Dr. King — and of course there were others, John Lewis and others, that we should include — it’s just an inspiration to be able to have achieved and contributed to a lot of what Dr. King stood for and efforts and sacrifices that he made to make it possible. That’s inspired me to want to make things better for others.”

Embry attended Miami University, near his hometown, and earned a bachelor’s degree in education. He was selected by the St. Louis Hawks in the 1958 draft and was traded to the Cincinnati Royals shortly thereafter. Over his 11-year NBA career he was a five-time All Star with the Royals and won a championship in 1968 with the Boston Celtics.

In this Dec. 20, 1969, file photo, former Milwaukee Bucks center Wayne Embry is honored for his leadership contributions to the Bucks’ first year and looks over a trophy made from his basketball shoe as the Boston Celtics played the Bucks in Milwaukee. Embry fought racism for decades by refusing to let it defeat him. Drafted into the NBA in 1958, when quotas limited the number of black players, he was the only African-American on the Cincinnati Royals, and he later became the NBA’s first black general manager. AP photo/File

AP Photo/File

He was taken by the Milwaukee Bucks in the 1968 expansion draft, and just a year later he was in their front office as an assistant to the team president. He helped create a Bucks team that included Oscar Robertson, Bob Boozer, Bob Dandridge and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. The Bucks won their only NBA title in 1971, sweeping the Baltimore Bullets in four games.

In 1972, Embry was named general manager.

“I was stunned,” Embry said. “I had no idea because back in those days I never gave it a thought that anyone would even think about considering me as a general manager — it never happened before. I just vividly recall being in my office in Milwaukee and I got a call from ownership, and they called and said they’d like to meet with me at 4 o’clock that afternoon.

“I went to their office and they said, ‘Sit down,’ and I sat there kind of wondering why I was there. I didn’t know if I was going to be fired or what was going to happen. And they said, ‘You’re the new general manager of the Milwaukee Bucks.’ And I just sat there. I didn’t respond one way or the other. And then it finally hit me that they were dead serious, and I said, ‘Well, what happened to the current general manager?’ And they said, ‘Well, he’s taken the job in Houston. And so we’re naming you the general manager to succeed him.’

“Of course the media and others took the story and made a big story and they asked me what significance I saw in it. I was just kind of nonchalant about the whole thing, but I was really excited inside. I just wanted to make sure that I would be successful and hopefully be a general manager for a long time. And inspire others.”

Abdul-Jabbar left for Los Angeles in 1975, and Embry’s days in Milwaukee were numbered. Off the court, his community activism includes mentoring youths and young adults. He’s held board positions at the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland and several companies, including Kohl’s, Centerior Energy Corporation, PolyOne, M.A. Hanna and Ohio Casualty Insurance Company. Embry is a member of Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity and the author of the autobiography The Inside Game: Race, Power, and Politics in the NBA.

Wayne Embry announces his resignation as general manager of the Milwaukee Bucks during a news conference on Nov. 23, 1976. In 1972, Embry became the first black general manager in professional sports.

AP Photo

“I think for us athletes we’ve got to just step back and think that we are blessed to have the opportunity to play professional sports,” Embry said. “It’s just important that we give back and encourage others.

“Hopefully I set an example,” he said. “All that we’re talking about is the inspiration of those like Dr. King and others who inspire me. And I attribute a lot of my success and opportunities that I’ve had to them and the efforts that he put forward. I think that when I was named general manager, my intentions were to not fail. … I was asked at the time that if I saw any significance or found any significance in being the first. And I said, ‘Only if it’s significant to others. And hopefully I’m not the last.’ ”

Since 2004, Embry has been the senior basketball adviser for the Toronto Raptors, and he continues to encourage players.

“I try to tell them to keep thinking positively and to realize that they might have to persevere through certain circumstances,” Embry said.

After his tenure with the Bucks, he eventually became a general manager for the Cleveland Cavaliers and accomplished another first when he was promoted to president of the team in 1994. In 1992 and 1998, he was honored as NBA Executive of the Year. A trustee of the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame since 1974, he was enshrined in 1999.

Kelley Evans is a general editor at The Undefeated. She is a food passionista, helicopter mom and an unapologetic southerner who spends every night with the cast of The Young and the Restless by way of her couch.