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Wayne Embry’s basketball wisdom helped get Toronto to the NBA Finals

After six decades in the NBA as a player and executive, his story is one of pain and progress

Wayne Embry is an ever-present reminder that progress is a matter of perspective.

Embry, the senior basketball advisor for the Toronto Raptors, made history in 1972 when he became the NBA’s first African American general manager with the Milwaukee Bucks. Years later, with the Cleveland Cavaliers, Embry became the NBA’s first black team president in 1994.

Yet, 25 years after his second historic achievement, there are still only two black team presidents in a league where more than 70 percent of the players are black. Earlier this week, I asked Embry if he was troubled by the lack of progress. While the NBA eliminated the quotas that kept the black presence on the court in check decades ago, obstacles to the executive suite remain.

Embry chooses to look at the numbers from the perspective of where the NBA was when he entered as a rookie. The league was not welcoming to black players in 1958 when Embry, now 82, broke in. Today, the NBA enjoys a reputation as the most progressive and diverse professional sports league.

“I have had my day. Where I take a great deal of pride is seeing these young men have success.” — Wayne Embry

“The NBA has become and remains very progressive in diversity,” Embry said, “not like back in the day when I came into the league. We could spend the next day going over what we went through.”

Embry was part of the second wave of black players who entered the NBA, after Chuck Cooper, Nathaniel “Sweetwater” Clifton and Earl Lloyd. Cooper was the first African American player to be drafted, Lloyd was the first to play in an NBA game and Clifton the first to sign a contract.

“We always felt there was a quota system on the teams, that you couldn’t have more than three black players,” Embry said. “I had ownership tell me that they couldn’t have too many because we had to sell season tickets.”

There were eight teams in the NBA when Embry was a rookie.

In this Dec. 20, 1969, photo, former Milwaukee Bucks center Wayne Embry is honored for his leadership contributions to the Bucks’ first year with 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

“So out of 80 players, you’d maybe have 24 black players in the league. If you had that,” Embry said.

Proud, highly competitive African American athletes were compelled to accept humiliation as a condition of playing pro basketball. One white Boston Celtics fan called Embry a gorilla. Red Auerbach, the Celtics’ legendary head coach, told Embry to take his anger out on the opponent.

We typically have these uncomfortable conversations about the past and fast-forward to now, the contemporary NBA, a league composed largely of young black players, many of them millionaires.

Meanwhile, each generation’s pioneers are left to deal with the emotional scars left by their early experiences with racism. “Some of the conditions we had to play under and travel under, when you stop and think about it, you can’t help but become emotional,” he said. “I become teary-eyed thinking of some of the things we went through: the humiliation when your teammates sit down at a restaurant and you can’t be served, hotels we couldn’t stay in. But that’s the way it was.”

Embry survived and prospered thanks to the mental and emotional toughness that distinguished his generation of African Americans.

​Just 22 when he entered the NBA, Embry never could have envisioned how the league would grow, how the black presence would grow and how the league would become a global entity. Over the intervening six decades, he has played a pivotal role in that growth as a player and pioneering front-office executive who mentored aspiring young executives such as Mark Tatum, deputy commissioner of the NBA, and four black general managers: Elton Brand in Philadelphia, Cleveland’s Koby Altman, the New York Knicks’ Scott Perry and the Phoenix Suns’ James Jones. Tayshaun Prince recently was named vice president of basketball affairs for the Memphis Grizzlies.

Inductees into the Basketball Hall of Fame pose together after a news conference in Springfield, Massachusetts, on Oct. 1, 1999. From left to right: Wayne Embry, Kevin McHale, Billie Moore, John Thompson and Carl Bennett, who accepted the award for Fred Zollner.

AP Photo/Charles Krupa

“It’s gratifying,” Embry said, “to see that African American coaches have been an integral part of the growth of the game, winning and carrying on the legacies of John McLendon and Big House Gaines, men who didn’t have the opportunity that we had. That’s been very rewarding.”

One of the most dramatic shifts Embry has seen is the increased social awareness of black athletes, especially high-profile athletes bringing attention to social and political issues. “That’s a great thing,” Embry said. “I admire LeBron [James] stepping forward and making statements.”

The second dramatic shift he’s witnessed is the extraordinary level of freedom that players enjoy in choosing where they want to play and for whom or with whom.

The cloud hanging over an otherwise glorious Raptors season is whether Kawhi Leonard, the team’s free-agent-to-be superstar, will stay in Toronto after the season. Players of Embry’s generation could never have envisioned the freedom to dictate where they might play​.

Embry had a similar situation decades earlier when he was a front-office executive with Milwaukee. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar led Milwaukee to an NBA title in 1971 along with Oscar Robertson. By 1975, he wanted out and forced a trade.

“We wanted him to stay,” Embry recalled. “He told us Milwaukee did not fit his temperament.”

Abdul-Jabbar’s contract was over with the Bucks, but he was not free to go to the highest bidder. While there was no free agency, there was the American Basketball Association. Abdul-Jabbar threatened to play with the New York Nets of the ABA if the Bucks did not meet his demand to be traded to one of three teams: Washington, the Knicks or the Los Angeles Lakers.

“We accommodated him out of respect for what he’d done for the franchise,” Embry said.

Abdul-Jabbar was traded to Los Angeles in a blockbuster deal.

Are there parallels with Leonard?

“Times have changed over the years,” Embry said. “Kawhi, KD, others, all we do now is try to make things player-friendly, try to establish mutual respect between players and management and even the city. I don’t know if it’s that much to do with players wanting to go home now as there was back in those days. We don’t know what’s going to happen. We’ll just play it out and see what happens.’’

Regardless of whether Leonard stays or goes, Embry can survey his career, which includes his work in Toronto and as a player: Embry won an NBA title with the 1968 Celtics. In 1999, he was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. This season, he’s watching as the Raptors make the franchise’s first NBA Finals appearance.

“It’s been a good ride,” Embry said. “What’s happened here really makes me proud.”

Perhaps most gratifying of all, Embry has watched team president Masai Ujiri, one of the NBA’s two black team presidents, become one of the NBA’s most respected front-office executives. Ujiri is one of several front-office executives whom Embry has mentored.

Progress means pulling the next generation along.

“I have had my day,” Embry said. “Where I take a great deal of pride is seeing these young men have success.”

William C. Rhoden, the former award-winning sports columnist for The New York Times and author of “Forty Million Dollar Slaves,” is a writer-at-large for The Undefeated. Contact him at william.rhoden@espn.com.