Wayne Embry was a little taken aback.
“You remember that?!” he said. “That’s not one of my proudest moments. You’re going back to that?”
Yes, because if that had not happened, then Saturday – Wayne Embry Day at Miami University – might not have happened either.
In the 1940s and early ‘50s Embry was raised on a family farm some five miles outside of Springfield. The 70-acre plot included a hill where four homes were built. His family lived in one. His grandfather – William Embry, the family patriarch – had another, as did each of his two uncles.
The Embrys raised cows, hogs, chickens and corn and, for Wayne, it was a familiar place, a place where he felt safe and embraced and loved.
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While he certainly had experienced some of the outside world while at Tecumseh High School – where he was a basketball star, but also had endured some racial insults when the team travelled – he wasn’t sure he was ready to leave when college coaches came calling.
At least not when veteran Bowling Green coach Harold Anderson showed up.
“I went in the barn,” Embry admitted quietly, “and hid behind the hay bales.”
Anderson returned to northwest Ohio empty handed, but Miami coach Bill Rohr did not.
Instead of hiding, Embry was listening.
“He talked about everything at Miami — academics, the campus, the people — except basketball,” Embry said. “Then on the way out the door he said, ‘Oh, and we might play a game next year in Florida or California.’ That impressed me and my family that he made academics No. 1.
“He invited me down for a visit and I liked the smallness of it and the way it felt. I walked through the halls of Withrow Court and saw pictures of Paul Brown and Woody Hayes, Paul Dietzel and Red Blaik and all the other Miami people who had gone on to distinguish themselves and that impressed me.
“I just fell in love with the whole campus.”
And Saturday, Miami loved him back.
He was enshrined in the school’s Hall of Fame back in 1970 and his No. 23 jersey has been retired for years and now hangs from the rafters of Millett Hall.
But Saturday — as the RedHawks trounced Ohio University 79-59 and Embry was celebrated throughout the game — a new generation of Miami students learned about the 81-year-old legend, who not only is one of the school’s greatest athletes of all time, but has long been one its finest, most-accomplished ambassadors.
Playing at Miami from 1955-58, he was a two-time All-Mid-American Conference first team selection and his senior season he was an All America honorable mention pick. That year he also was the team captain, the team MVP and led the then-named Redskins to their second straight NCAA Tournament and the school’s first-ever victory in the event, an 82-77 upset of Pitt thanks to his 21 points and 20 rebounds.
In his three seasons — freshman weren’t allowed to play varsity then — Embry scored 1,401 points and pulled down 1,117 rebounds, still second all-time.
Miami is where he also met his wife-to-be, Terri Jackson, a graduate of Jefferson High School just outside of Dayton.
They’ve now been marred 59 years and not only has she provided him with a family – they have a son and two daughters, one of whom, Jill, lives in Centerville, and a granddaughter – but she showed him an example of real social consciousness in March of 1965 when she and Oscar’s Robertson’s wife, Yvonne, joined the Reverend Martin Luther King for the march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama.
“Oscar and I were roommates on the (Cincinnati) Royals and were in Philadelphia,” Embry recalled. “Before the game the phone rings and it’s my wife. She said, ‘Yvonne and I are going to Selma to march. We’re leaving this evening.’
“I said ‘You are not! You’ve got three kids at home. You can’t go.’ It was just after the Bloody Sunday confrontation down there when the marchers were beaten, but she said, “Oh yes we are going!’ And they did. They were very courageous to do that.”
In what’s been a six-decade association with the NBA, Embry had an 11-year career as a player and now has spent 49 years in the front offices of three clubs: Milwaukee, Cleveland and Toronto, where he still serves as the Senior Basketball Advisor.
In the process he has been both a pioneer and a long-enduring pillar of African-American accomplishment in the league, all of which led to his enshrinement in Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 1999.
When he was named the vice president and general manager of the Bucks in 1972, he became the first black man in America ever to run a major sports team.
In 1994 he became the first black president of an NBA team when he took over the Cleveland Cavaliers.
While he won an NBA title as a player when he as with the Boston Celtics in 1968, he got another title in his first year in the Milwaukee front office (1971), after he convinced his old friend Robertson and Bob Boozer to come to the Bucks and team with their young center, Kareem Abdul Jabbar.
Twice in his career Embry has been named the NBA’s Executive of the Year.
Before coming back to Miami this weekend, he was in Toronto the past few days helping the Raptors through trade deadline operations which landed them Marc Gasol from the Memphis Grizzlies.
That he’s still in the business – still helping a team look toward its future – is testament in a big way to lessons from the distant past. Lessons first learned on that farm outside Springfield.
“My grandfather was an inspiration,” he said. “He always stressed you should be proud of who you are. You should face up to adversity and look at it as an opportunity. Some of the scariest unknowns can become wonderful things.”
The 80-20 principle
Embry said his first hoop was a peach basket he nailed to a tree on the farm. Later he remembers Tecumseh teammate Bill Burkhardt having a hayloft court in the barn on his farm in Medway.
He said since there had been no school in the township he lived in, he could have gone to one of the city schools in Springfield, but chose rural Tecumseh because that’s where most of his middle school classmates were headed.
When he got there, he and a young girl were the only black students.
It was tough in the beginning. He said many of the country kids had never been around black students before and a few resorted to name calling and racial slurs.
The girl left school and soon after Embry came home and announced he was leaving, too. His granddad promptly told him, “No!’ and talked to him about being proud of who you are.
And that’s when he first embraced the guideline he calls the 80-20 principle:
“If 80 percent is good, 20 percent can’t rule.”
And at Tecumseh it didn’t.
Embry faced up to the adversity and things did change. He proved himself in the classroom and on the basketball court, became the vice president of his junior and senior class and made many lifelong friendships.
He attributes much of this to his high school coach, Frank Shannon, who he described as “a wonderful man.”
The team followed the coach’s lead and backed Embry when he was faced with racial injustices.
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Once the team stopped at a Springfield restaurant to eat before playing a game at Wittenberg University. Embry wasn’t just served last, his meal arrived in a paper bag and he was told he’d have to leave the premises to eat it.
The whole team walked out behind him.
Another time the team was playing a regional tournament game in Cincinnati and planned to stay overnight in a hotel there. When the manager told Embry blacks weren’t allowed, the whole team threatened to leave and the guy changed his tune.
Back home one summer, Embry and some other kids got a job working for a farmer who provided them lunch. After Embry finished using his glass, he said the farmer broke it rather than use it again.
One of the biggest snubs though came from the University of Dayton.
Embry said he “loved the Flyers.” He grew up listening to them on the radio and used to be able to recite every UD starting lineup from his childhood.
“I wanted to play for UD in the worst of ways,” he said.
Even though Embry had led his high school team to a 48-3 record his last two years and twice got All Ohio recognition – even though Ohio State was actively recruiting him – he never was contacted by UD coach Tom Blackburn.
While Blackburn was no pioneer when it came to adding black players to his team, Embry gave him a pass when I brought the subject up with him.
“One day I asked my coach (Shannon,) ‘Why didn’t Dayton recruit me?’
“He said, ‘This is no disrespect to you. Please take it the right way. Blackburn said they had teams on their schedule and upcoming schedules that were in the South and he didn’t want to expose you to what could happen.’
“I respected that.”
Miami – like other schools during that time – seemed to be able to handle the situation and Embry blossomed in Oxford. The place made such an impact on him that he spent 14 years on the Board of Trustees, including one as the chair, and just served on the Steering Committee that raised $80 million for RedHawks’ athletics.
He graduated from Miami in 1958 and was drafted in the third round by the St. Louis Hawks (there were just eight NBA teams then) and immediately traded to the Royals.
It didn’t take long for him to pick up the nickname “The Wall” because at 6-feet-8 and 240 pounds, he could set bruising, impenetrable screens, as well as box out any rival rebounder inside.
In his eight seasons with the Royals, he had five straight All Star seasons and was the team captain. Once he joined the Celtics, primarily as Bill Russell’s backup, he won an NBA crown and then finished his playing career with the Bucks
The nearly half century in NBA front offices that has followed has cemented his stature as one of the league’s all-time treasures.
And yet during that time he faced some of the same racial nastiness he did as a high school kid back home.
There was the time in Milwaukee where he received a letter that read: “Black people should all be dead.” Then a bullet was left on his seat in the arena. Authorities escorted him from the game and provided police protection at his home.
Incidents like these are detailed in the book he wrote with Cleveland journalist Mary Schmitt Boyer: “The Inside Game: Race, Power and Politics in the NBA.”
Last month he was honored on Martin Luther King Day at the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis.
Saturday he said he’s always drawn on the lessons of his childhood hero Jackie Robinson and especially those his dad and grandfather taught him back on the farm.
In the process he has come up with what he calls the 6 Ps of success.
“They are pride, perception, preparation, perseverance, persistence and passion,” he said. “As a general manager in the league, the perseverance one sticks out the most to me. That and passion. You always need passion.”
‘Best four years I ever spent in my life’
As Embry sat courtside at Saturday’s game, the Miami pep band was just a few feet away and everyone was wearing one of the No. 23 souvenir jerseys that were handed out to the first 450 people to enter Millett Hall.
He talked about how great it felt to return to the school that forever changed his life:
“At first, as I got better in basketball (at Tecumseh) I didn’t know what my next step would be. ‘Would I go back and work on the farm or go on to school?’
“I was the first in my family to ever go to college and it ended up maybe the best four years I ever spent in my life.”
During the first half Embry was twice brought onto the court to receive honors. Fans held up likenesses of his face – as he looked in his college days – that also had been given out at the door.
His hair is white now and he walks with a bit of a tilt from age, but the thing you noticed most were his hands.
They’re huge. He gripped a basketball as if it were a volleyball.
The other thing that struck you was that constant smile. He was moved Saturday by the cheers and the love from fans old and new.
“This feels really good being back here,” he said. “This is quite an honor.”
No more hiding in the hay bales. He was in the spotlight.
It was another proud moment in what has become a lifetime of proud moments.
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