Wayne Embry: "I knew I had to succeed"
Why the decision to write this book – The Inside Game – now? What is the message you want to get across?
Wayne Embry: I have had the opportunity in my reduced involvement in the NBA to reflect back on my career. I feel as if I've been blessed and I would like to share my experiences with people around the country, particularly young people, in the hopes my story will inspire them as have stories I've read about African-American pioneers. So I've written this book, which includes history, a great social study, and I think it has some motivation effects as well.
You said in the introduction that you want the book to appeal not just to sports fans, but to the general public as well.
WE: I think what I've written in this book has appeal to the general public because it's just not confined to sports, even though that was a dominant part of my life and my career. But what I've written can be applied to all facets of life. I think there are great human interest stories, people stories, loyalty, values, betrayals. I think there is a lot of good insight into human relationships.
You are a pioneer, breaking the racial barrier as the first African-American executive of a major sports team. How does that make you feel to have led the way for others?
WE: When I was named general manager of the Milwaukee Bucks in 1972, the question was asked on several occasions, 'Did this bear any significance?' And I said only if I'm successful and it is significant to others. So having said that and taking this job, I knew that I would have to succeed because that would overcome the naysayers and the so-called – I'll flat out say – bigots who felt that we weren't qualified. So there was no way I could fail. The fact that I've had the career that I've had I think bears significance because it broke down the barrier. Like Jackie Robinson's success and Larry Doby's success, and those who preceded me in sports, but also in other endeavors. Their success I think opened the door for me.
Do you think there will ever be a day when a discussion of race won't be necessary?
WE: I have hope, but the mere fact that in the year 2004 that we are here talking about it is kind of discouraging. I think that eventually we're gonna have to reach back and disregard the color of one's skin and other biases to rely entirely on the content of one's character, in the words of Dr. King. That was his dream and certainly it's my dream in that he is such a great inspiration to me. So I hope that we will see that day, but we better hurry up.
Taking a look at your playing days, what are some of your best memories?
WE: I had a great career as a player and in the front office. I roomed with Oscar Robertson, and we had great teams in Cincinnati. Those were enjoyable, but most enjoyable was playing on the championship team with the Celtics, and the great Celtic players that I played with, and winning championships. I guess the ultimate is being inducted into the Hall of Fame. I was inducted as a contributor, which has been a combination of all the contributions I made in the sport. I said in the book that which I enjoyed in my career is the bonds in the locker room as a player. I tell players today there shouldn't be any greater bond than that with your teammates, and the friendships which you can develop. But as I moved into the front office, the joy that I have now as I look back is the success of the players that I've had the privilege of working with, and seeing their success – what they've done with their lives, hoping that I've had a little something to do with that.
Who did you match up against better, Wilt Chamberlain or Bill Russell?
WE: I'm not sure anyone matched up well with either one of those guys. Both are great players and each presented a different challenge for me. Wilt was extremely tall and strong and long, and he was a challenge. And Russell was cat-quick and had the ability to block shots like no one else, so he was a challenge.
As a GM, you'll always be remembered as the guy who traded Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
WE: That was probably the biggest trade in the history of the game, even bigger than Shaq getting traded. Kareem made it clear that he wanted to be traded from Milwaukee. He'd given Milwaukee several years of great service and a championship. His decision was based on the fact that Milwaukee just didn't fit his culture, even though he loved the fans there and all, but his lifestyle wasn't compatible with that of Milwaukee. So he asked to be traded, so we were left with the decision to satisfy his desire out of respect, but also to build a solid foundation in Milwaukee, and that proved to be true. I felt that it was good for him, and we were going to lose him either way, because he was probably going to sign with an ABA team. It worked out well for us, and great for him and the Lakers. They won five championships with him.
WE: They had a great team too. There was Scottie Pippen, Bill Cartwright. You always can think there is something else you could do differently, but nobody else beat them either. I don't know what it would have been, because I felt we were very good.
You also will be remembered for the Ron Harper/Danny Ferry trade. In the book you give the real Ron Harper story.
WE: Yes. Why we came to the decision to trade him. To make it clear, it wasn't so much what Ron was doing as it was his associations. At the time we felt it best that we eliminate that association with Ron on our team.
You mention in your book about your Hall of Fame induction and how you got word right at the same time that you were being fired by the Cavs. How bittersweet did that make that time?
WE: I was displeased. Obviously I was honored to be inducted into the Hall of Fame, but at that time I really didn't reflect much on the Cavs, other than to say I was very grateful to Gordon Gund to allow me to extend my career in Cleveland. I have absolutely no bitterness.
What's your view on today's NBA game. It seems like fundamentals are bad. Shooting is bad.
WE: I think skill has diminished in the league, and I'd like to see more emphasis placed on the basic fundamentals. It was when we came along. Somehow we've escaped teaching fundamentals and skill in favor of athleticism and that sort of thing. So I'd like to see skill come back into the game.
Has the amount of money players get had a detrimental effect on the game, getting underclassmen out early?
WE: It's had an effect, but there are those who argue that it had a good effect, too. I don't know if this trend can turn around. I'd like to think that it will, where young men will go to college and at least advance their skill and their development in all facets of life before coming into the NBA. But I can't hold promise that that trend will change now.
You mentioned that this generation has a responsibility for Generation X.
WE: To teach good solid family values, moral values to these kids. If we become tolerant as a society – and we have become more tolerant as a society – then we are held responsible.
There are some good signs of hope in NBA. At least in his rookie season, LeBron James looks as if he could become a torchbearer for the league?
WE: He's been terrific so far and I hope that continues, because he's a very unique individual.
What's your role going to be in Toronto with the Raptors?
WE: Senior advisor.
What's your view on their prospects?
WE: We've got to go there and face some issues and try to build a team. Things aren't all well there yet, but you know, we tend to make them well. I just hope that I can play an integral part in doing that. I hate to lose. I have a passion for winning, so hopefully I can have some input and make some contribution into that happening.
Bruce Meyer is a regular contributor to HoopsHype.com
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