Wayne Embry: A forgotten pioneer

When it comes to civil rights history there's a hole in our collective memory. Almost all of our recall is locked in the black-and-white images of Rosa Parks, the Montgomery Bus Boycott, the March on Washington, followed by a furious fast-forward to Barack Obama's inauguration. We tend to skip right over the steps taken in the 1970s. They're missing like the 18½ minute gap in the Nixon tapes.

The same goes for sports. It's Jackie Robinson and Muhammad Ali and Bill Russell, melding to Tony Dungy hoisting the Lombardi trophy. And so it is that March 6 tends to slide by without much fanfare every year in the NBA, even though that marks the date in 1972 when Wayne Embry became the league's first black general manager.

For a sport that has become the most influenced by and exerts the most influence among African-Americans, basketball has not produced many civil rights icons. If you mention the names of Embry or Earl Lloyd (the first African-American to play in the NBA) to a 12-year-old he probably won't even bother to look up from his PlayStation Portable. Embry has given enough interviews and sat on enough panels to suit his needs, but when he reads the headlines the mission he embarked upon has yet to be completed.

Black History Month

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  • "It's been pretty well acknowledged," Embry said of his place in history. "For those who care. Having said that, a lot of people don't care. I think that's what the debate is today -- as we watch [Attorney General Eric] Holder's remarks, and the New York Post cartoon -- is that some people don't care."

    Embry referred to Holder's comment that America is a "nation of cowards" for its inability to hold frank discussions on race, and the Post's editorial cartoon that some interpreted as a comparison of President Obama to a chimpanzee. In some ways, the cartoon flap proved Holder's point; an open conversation with diverse opinions might have kept the cartoon from running in the first place, at least not in such an offensive form.

    "A lot of it's insensitivity," Embry said. "An inclusive society's the only way we can co-exist in America. That's why I regard Martin Luther King so highly, because of his comments. 'Judge me not by my color, but by the content of my character.'"

    That last statement might sound contradictory coming in a column in which we honor Embry for being the first of his skin color to do something. But we acknowledge him because that simple request, an assessment devoid of racial prejudice, apparently was too much to ask when Embry was the general manager of the Milwaukee Bucks, and later of the Cleveland Cavaliers.

    Embry had to contend with more than just scouting players and working trades. He never knew when he might open a letter containing a racist rant, including one that read, "Black people should all be dead." He once needed to be escorted out of the arena and received police protection at home after a bullet was left in his seat at the arena.

    "I just applied the same principle that allowed me to succeed as a player," said Embry, who made the All-Star team four times during his 11-year playing career. "You have to ignore it and not allow anything to get in the way of success. I was driven to succeed.

    "My grandfather and father said you have to be twice as good as the white man, and you can't let anything get in the way of your success," said Embry, who now lives in Arizona and works as a senior basketball advisor for the Toronto Raptors. "You're going to be challenged. You never know from where it's going to come, but you're going to be challenged. The important thing is to stay focused in what you want to do. Don't quit."

    You have to ignore [racism] and not allow anything to get in the way of success. I was driven to succeed

    -- Raptors senior advisor Wayne Embry

    Running a team is hard enough on its own. It didn't help that Embry was on the wrong side of two of the most pivotal moments in the history of the NBA. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar felt culturally restricted in Milwaukee and forced a trade at the peak of his career. Michael Jordan was operating under a different law of physics than Craig Ehlo and made The Shot in Cleveland in 1989. Embry won a title as a player with the Celtics in 1968, but he never got to see one of his teams win the last game of the season as a GM.

    If he didn't win, it's just as important that he didn't lose, either. He never gave in to the pressure, never lashed out at the double standards, including the time one of the Cleveland owners asked him if he would hire only black coaches. (Wonder if a white GM was ever asked the equivalent in a skeptical tone.)

    Embry had experienced both prejudice and progress throughout his life, from white families in his Ohio neighborhood that would throw away the plates and cups he used as a kid visiting their houses, to a high school that elected him class vice president even though he was the only African-American among 400 students.

    He played in an NBA that still had unwritten quotas limiting the number of black players on each team. It also meant that he played with the pioneers, such as Lloyd.

    "He told us the dos and do nots," Embry said. "'Don't be provoked into doing something stupid that's going to interfere with your success.' We listened."

    And passed it on. So even if he didn't win as a GM himself, he could take some credit when Joe Dumars put together the 2004 champion Detroit Pistons.

    "We've inspired others," Embry said. "At my age, as I see some of the younger people, I'm just gratified that people come up and acknowledge my career.

    "We've come a long way. There are still those [negative] attitudes. They probably never will reconcile to accept inclusion. I think they're the minority now."

    He said it without a hint of irony about the thought Embry could now represent the majority. He said it without a hint of bitterness that not everyone immediately recognizes his role in shifting widespread opinion to this side.

    J.A. Adande is an ESPN.com senior writer and the author of "The Best Los Angeles Sports Arguments." Click here to e-mail J.A.