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Wayne Embry: Raptors’ anthem stance similar to Selma-to-Montgomery march

As the first black general manager in NBA history, the Raptors’ senior adviser is proud of his team

The Toronto Raptors players locked arms Saturday and stood side by side in solidarity while The Star-Spangled Banner played during their preseason opener in Vancouver, Canada. Sitting nearby and proudly watching was Wayne Embry, the first black general manager in NBA history.

“It’s unity. United we stand. Divided we fall,” Embry, who is now a Raptors senior basketball adviser, told The Undefeated.

Embry, 79, was a five-time NBA All-Star who once played with fellow Hall of Famer Oscar Robertson for the Cincinnati Royals. During his 11-season NBA career, Embry averaged 12.5 points and 9.1 rebounds. Known as “The Wall” for setting solid screens, he also won an NBA championship with the Boston Celtics in 1968.

Embry, however, is much better known for what he accomplished off the court in the league than on it. After his NBA playing career concluded, he returned to Boston for a year as the city’s director of recreation. He became an assistant to the Milwaukee Bucks president in 1970. He was promoted to GM of the Bucks immediately following the 1971-72 season.

Embry was instrumental in persuading Robertson to sign with the Bucks. Robertson teamed up with a young center named Lew Alcindor, now Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, to win Milwaukee’s lone NBA title in 1971.

In 1972, Embry became the first black general manager in all professional sports with the Bucks. He held that position with the Bucks from 1972-79, and went on to hold the same position with the Cleveland Cavaliers (1986-99) and the Raptors (2006). He also won the NBA Executive of the Year honors in 1992 and 1998. He is also the author of an autobiography, The Inside Game: Race, Power and Politics in the NBA.

Cleveland Cavaliers former general manager Wayne Embry speaks during the jersey retirement ceremony for Zydrunas Ilgauskas (not pictured) at Quicken Loans Arena.

Cleveland Cavaliers former general manager Wayne Embry speaks during the jersey retirement ceremony for Zydrunas Ilgauskas (not pictured) at Quicken Loans Arena.

David Richard-USA TODAY Sports

“He’s been phenomenal for us,” Raptors general manager Masai Ujiri said to The Undefeated. “To have somebody who has been like a father figure that has basically seen it all, he comes into the room with a great perspective for us. His knowledge, his experience, his calmness, it’s everything you want … We’re blessed to have him as an adviser.

“He’s going to teach us to be respectful, but know that we have to have a voice. We appreciate that.”

The Raptors’ anthem action was in response to a movement started by San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who has either sat or kneeled during the national anthem before games this season in protest against what he views as injustices against black Americans.

Embry supported the idea of the Raptors players standing arm in arm during both the American and Canadian national anthems before their 96-92 preseason opening win over the Golden State Warriors on Saturday. He said that the team’s actions reminded him of when Martin Luther King Jr. and other protesters locked arms in 1965 during the famed March from Selma, Alabama, to the state capitol of Montgomery and during other civil rights marches.

“I gave them a little history about the early years in the NBA and what we went through,” Embry said. “I took them through the civil rights movement and what we did. If you recall during the marches, we were united, locked arms, all different ethnic groups or religious groups, all genders marched. ‘We shall overcome,’ we used those words.

“Our players wanted to show a sign of solidarity and unity. So that was the result and what we did.”

Kaepernick’s actions have sparked protest, debate and controversy nationwide. Countless athletes supporting Kaepernick’s cause have done their own protests in high school and college sports, the WNBA, pro soccer and on other NFL teams. While there has been both support for and criticism of Kaepernick, his stance gained increased notice amid recent fatal police shootings of black men in Tulsa, Oklahoma, Charlotte, North Carolina, and of a Ugandan immigrant in El Cajon, California.

“He exercised his First Amendment rights,” Embry said of Kaepernick. “We ought to live by the Constitution … I told our guys that I had incidents where I was stopped by the police and unfortunately experienced a lot of injustices.

“I was asked by a reporter if I would stand for the anthem, and I said, ‘Yes, I would.’ I choose to honor our anthem and our Constitution for what it stands for.”

Embry also recalled how his wife, Terri, took part in the first march from Selma to Montgomery, known as “Bloody Sunday” on March 7, 1965.

On that day, 600 marchers assembled in Selma planning to walk across the Edmund Pettus Bridge over the Alabama River en route to Montgomery. Just before walking onto the bridge, the marchers were blocked by Alabama state troopers and local police, who ordered them to turn back. When the protesters declined, the officers shot tear gas and beating them with billy clubs. Over 50 people were hospitalized. Embry did not go because he was in the midst of the NBA season.

“It was quite emotional and quite daring,” Embry said of his wife. “She described what all went on during the march. Oscar Robertson and I were roommates and I was on the road. And I get a call from her saying, ‘I’m going to Selma.’ And I said, ‘I don’t think you should because we have young kids.’ She said, ‘I’m going. That’s it.’ She told me not to tell Oscar because his wife was going to call and tell him she’s going as soon as we hung up.

“They weren’t injured, but it was a humiliating experience. She talked about the march, the hatred, the people observing the march. And coming back, they laid on a flatbed truck with a tarp on them to get to their plane before it took off. They had a lot of courage.”

CORRECTION: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Embry became an assistant general manager with the Milwaukee Bucks in 1969, and that the Bucks won the team’s lone title in 1972. Both errors have been corrected.

Marc J. Spears is the senior NBA writer for The Undefeated. He used to be able to dunk on you, but he hasn’t been able to in years and his knees still hurt.