http://www.celtic-nation.com/interviews/wayne_embry/wayne_embry_page1.htm

 

Wayne Embry: CENTRAL CHARACTER

The Wayne Embry Interview
By:  Michael D. McClellan | Monday, January 11th, 2004

 

Spend a few minutes talking to Wayne Embry, and it isn’t long before you realize that this former NBA All-Star is far more than a link to the days when legends such as Russell and Chamberlain ruled the basketball universe.  Embry is as relevant now as he was then, only in areas that extend far beyond the hardwood. Backboards have morphed into boardrooms.  Bone-rattling picks have given way to civic stewardship.  From trading elbows with Willis Reed to rubbing elbows with Alan Greenspan, Embry is that rare athlete who has eclipsed his own star power in terms of off-the-court accomplishments.

Born and raised in Ohio, Embry began his basketball career at Tecumseh High School before starring at Miami of Ohio, where his number has long since been retired.  As a pro, Embry was a five-time All-Star for the Cincinnati Royals, playing alongside such legendary stars as Oscar Robertson and Jerry Lucas.  An NBA championship proved elusive, however, as the Royals routinely failed to supplant the Boston Celtics as kings of the East.  In a classic case of ‘If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em’, Red Auerbach acquired Embry in 1966 as a backup to the incomparable Bill Russell.  After being dethroned by Chamberlain and the Philadelphia 76ers in 1967, the Celtics – with Embry – were back on top, winning a league-best 10th NBA championship.

In 1972, Embry became the first African-American general manager in professional sports when he was named vice president and general manager of the Milwaukee Bucks.  To even mention this fact is something of a disservice to Embry, because his accomplishments as an NBA executive transcend race.  Two major transactions stand out during Embry’s association with the Bucks:  Oscar Robertson’s decision to join the franchise, this based largely on his close relationship with Embry (and a decision that helped the Bucks win the NBA championship in 1971), and the trade of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar from the Bucks to the Los Angeles Lakers.

Embry was named general manager and vice president of the Cleveland Cavaliers in 1985.  In 1994 he became the NBA's first African American team president, also with the Cavaliers.  Embry’s was honored as the Sporting News NBA Executive of the Year in both 1992 and 1998.  On October 1st, 1999, Embry was both recognized and immortalized for his accomplishments by being inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.

Today, Embry serves as a board member for the Bank of Cleveland, a prestigious position that reports directly to Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan.  Celtic Nation was fortunate to spend time with Embry in September, 2003, and is pleased to share his story with all of Celtic Nation.

CELTIC-NATION
You were born on March 26th, 1937.  Please tell a little about your childhood, and what it was like to grow up in Springfield during 40s.

 WAYNE EMBRY
I grew up in a rural area, basically poor, but we were a proud family with strong values and a strong work ethic.  My parents instilled these things in me at a very early age.  They were also very good at setting goals, which is something else that has helped me tremendously, both in my life and career.


 

CELTIC-NATION
You were eight when the United States dropped the atomic bomb on Japan.  Do you have any recollection of that event, and did World War II touch your family in any way?

 WAYNE EMBRY
I really don’t have much recollection of that specific event, but several of my relatives were in the service during the war.  I gained a sense of sacrifice from them, and respected them greatly.



 

CELTIC-NATION
Your grandfather, William, played an important part of your life.  Please tell me about him, and about the role he played in your education.

 WAYNE EMBRY
William was a very demanding person who stressed the value of education, and someone who also imparted a real desire for learning.  It really helped to have him take an interest in my life.  He constantly reinforced the importance of going to school and getting a college degree.  He was always there to keep me from getting discouraged, especially whenever things got tough.


 

CELTIC-NATION
Goose”, and “The Wall” – what do these mean to you?

 WAYNE EMBRY
These are two nicknames that I was given at different points in my basketball career.  “Goose” came from a high school teammate of mine.  We saw the Harlem Globetrotters play a game in New York, and Reese “Goose” Tatum palmed the basketball with those huge hands of his.  We’d never seen anything like that before.  Then it wasn’t long before I was able to do it.  My teammate started calling me “Goose”, and the nickname stuck.
 

 

CELTIC-NATION
And “The Wall”?

 WAYNE EMBRY
Celtics’ radio broadcaster Johnny Most was the one who gave me that nickname.  He liked the way I set picks [laughs].

 CELTIC-NATION
You were an honorable mention All-State performer at Tecumseh High School, where your team won 48 of 51 games during your junior and senior seasons.  What was high school like for you, and how did you first become interested in basketball?

 WAYNE EMBRY
I was like any other youngster at that age.  I liked to play sports, and not just basketball.  It just turned out that basketball was my best sport.  I liked football a lot as well, but Tecumseh didn’t field a football team until I was a junior.  I went out for the team and played one season.  Basketball, because of my height, was where I really excelled.  Our teams won all those games and I was able to go on and play at the college level.

 

CELTIC-NATION
A perfect lead-in to my next question.  You played your college ball at Miami of Ohio.  You were a two-time honorable mention All-America selection, scoring 1,401 points and grabbing 1,117 rebounds in three seasons, as well as being named team captain and MVP in 1957 and 1958.  Please tell me about your career at Miami.

 WAYNE EMBRY
Well, today you see guys go from high school directly to the pros, which is something that just didn’t happen when I played.  Even if that had been the trend during my era, I simply wasn’t prepared to play professional basketball.  College was the best route for me.  I was a somewhat of a slow developer – as a freshman I wasn’t even the best player on the team – but by my sophomore season I’d improved in every aspect of my game and had much greater confidence in my ability.  I blossomed during my junior year, and things really took off from that point on.

 

CELTIC-NATION
In 1958, your Miami squad played the Indiana Hoosiers.  You connected on 15 field goals in that game, the most an opponent had ever scored against IU.  Forty-five years later that record still stands.  Were you aware that your name is still in the IU record books?

 WAYNE EMBRY
I remember playing against Indiana – it was an away game, I believe – but I wasn’t aware that I held that distinction.  That’s a very interesting piece of trivia.  You certainly do your homework!


 

CELTIC-NATION
You were drafted in the third round by the St. Louis Hawks, who immediately traded you to the Cincinnati Royals.  Please tell me about the great Oscar Robertson, and what it was like playing alongside him for five seasons.

 WAYNE EMBRY
Oscar Robertson, in my opinion, is the best player ever to play the game of basketball.  We were roommates when I was with the Royals, and it was an honor to be on the same team with him.  He certainly enhanced my career.  He had a great impact on me, but his influence extended beyond basketball and into the bigger picture of life.  As you can tell, I have a tremendous amount of respect and admiration for Oscar Robertson.

 

CELTIC-NATION
You were a five-time NBA All-Star, from 1960-61 to 1964-65.  In terms of personal success, do you have one All-Star season that stands out from the rest?

 WAYNE EMBRY
It’s hard to say which year was the best.  We had some very good teams, but we just couldn’t seem to get past the Celtics.  We had talent – Oscar, Jerry Lucas and Jack Twyman jump to mind – but Boston was always a little bit better.  So if I had to pick one season, it would have to be 1963-64.  We won 55 games that season and really played the Celtics tough.

CELTIC-NATION
In 1966 Red Auerbach acquired you to provide backup support to the great Bill Russell.  The Celtics had just won their eighth consecutive NBA championship and Auerbach had retired as coach.  What was it like coming to Boston, and how did you feel when the Celtics failed to win a ninth consecutive title?

 WAYNE EMBRY
The first word that comes to mind is ‘joy’.  It was difficult to leave my friends behind in Cincinnati, but it was a pure joy to join the Celtics – especially after being beaten by them for so many years.  Just being there gave me an opportunity to win a championship, so I was very excited to be a part of that great tradition.  Of course we didn’t win it all that first year.  Still, I was struck by the way the team carried itself afterwards.  Everyone from Bill Russell to Sam Jones had the same mindset.  In their eyes they still considered themselves champions, and that had a tremendous effect on me.  Because of that confidence, we were able to go out the next season and reclaim the title.

 

CELTIC-NATION
Did you learn anything from Red in terms of running an NBA franchise?

 WAYNE EMBRY
Yes.  Red had a tremendous management style – it was at the foundation of his success as a coach and general manager.  I emulated that style in both the sports and business worlds.

 

 

CELTIC-NATION
Bill Russell and Sam Jones – what is the first thing that comes to your mind when you think of each of these individuals?

 WAYNE EMBRY
Russell was the greatest competitor and the greatest winner in the history of professional sports.  The Celtics won eleven championships during his thirteen years with the team, which, in my mind, ranks as the greatest dynasty ever.  The New York Yankees may have won more championships, but those are spread out over decades.  To win 11 in 13 is an incredible accomplishment.

Sam Jones’ greatness continues to be one of the most underrated aspects of that dynasty.  He was superior to the vast majority of his contemporaries, but his greatness tended to get lost in the shadow of Russell and some of the other players on the team.

 

CELTIC-NATION
How did Russell the player differ from Russell the coach?

 WAYNE EMBRY
He was still Russell.  After Red retired in 1966, Russell convinced Red that he could handle being both a player and coach.  Red was smart enough to know that not just anyone could come into that situation and coach the Celtics in general, and Russell in particular.  Russell understood that, too, which is why he lobbied for the job.

 

CELTIC-NATION
The Celtics were back on top a year later, winning a tenth NBA championship.  What was it like for you to finally reach that pinnacle?

 WAYNE EMBRY
There was a great sense of relief.  After playing the game for so long, and after being frustrated by Russell and the Celtics all of those years, it was just a great relief to finally be able to win a championship.

CELTIC-NATION
You finished your playing career with the Bucks, and then directed the negotiations with Oscar Robertson which brought Mr. Robertson to Milwaukee.  The move helped propel the Bucks to the 1971 NBA championship and establish yourself as a rising front office talent.  Please tell me about that 1971 Bucks team, and your role in shaping it.

 WAYNE EMBRY
The owners knew that I had a close relationship with Oscar, so they asked me to make a call on their behalf.  So I made the key inquiry for them.  Having Kareem [Abdul-Jabbar] and Oscar on the same team was an unbelievable combination for us.


 

CELTIC-NATION
As the Bucks vice-president and general manager of the Bucks, you handled one of the biggest trades in league history.  The deal sent Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to the Los Angeles Lakers for Junior Bridgeman, Brian Winters, Elmore Smith and Dave Meyers.  Please explain the mechanics behind that trade, and what it meant to both teams.

 WAYNE EMBRY
Kareem requested to be traded.  He had one year remaining on his contract, and it was my intention to honor his request.  The ownership felt the same way.  We knew that Kareem was going to leave as soon as his contract expired, so it was my job to create the best trade on behalf of the Milwaukee Bucks.  The Lakers simply had the best deal on the table.

 

CELTIC-NATION
As vice-president and general manager of the Bucks, you squared off against the Celtics in the 1974 NBA Finals.  How did it feel going up against some of your old friends, and what stands out most in your mind about that series?

 WAYNE EMBRY
It was a great series, and would have been even greater had we beaten them.  I don’t remember many details, but Kareem’s skyhook to win Game 6 stands out in my mind.  That, and neither team could seem to maintain homecourt advantage.


 

CELTIC-NATION
In 1985 you were named vice-president & general manager of the Cleveland Cavaliers, and it wasn’t long before you once again crossed paths with Red Auerbach.  The issue this time wasn’t a championship, but instead the Number 1 pick in the 1986 NBA Draft.  Please take me back to that draft – were the Cavaliers ever interested in drafting Len Bias?

 WAYNE EMBRY
Yes, the Cavaliers seriously considered drafting Bias.  When I arrived there was an ongoing debate about whether to take Bias or Brad Doherty.  Fortunately, I had enough influence to swing the choice to Doherty.


 

CELTIC-NATION
Your tenure at Cleveland was highly successful.  In addition building the Cavaliers into a consistent playoff contender, you were named The Sporting News NBA Executive of the Year in 1992 and 1998.  Where do these honors rank in terms of your overall accomplishments?

 WAYNE EMBRY

It’s nice to be recognized.  It’s also very rewarding to see all of your hard work pay off.  As far as ranking them, it’s really hard to say.

CELTIC-NATION
On October 1st, 1999 you received basketball’s highest honor.  Please take me back to your induction into the James Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.

 WAYNE EMBRY

It was something I never dreamed of, and on that day it makes you realize that not many people get that kind of recognition.  My goal was simply to do a good job.  I ended up being nominated – and later inducted – as a contributor, in which the Hall of Fame recognized my achievements both as a player and as a front office executive.  Obviously, I'm very honored to be included in such an elite group who have already been enshrined into the Hall of Fame.  I'm pleased and I feel privileged to be part of that group.  It was definite the highlight of my career.

 

CELTIC-NATION
You currently serve on the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland Board of Directors.  What is your role with the Federal Reserve, and what role do the reserve banks play in shaping the nation’s fiscal policy?

 WAYNE EMBRY

The Bank of Cleveland reports to the Central Bank, and we play a large role in shaping monetary and economic policy.  It’s quite interesting work, and a great honor to serve.  My term lasts for five years, and I currently have one year remaining.

 

 

CELTIC-NATION
Final Question:  You’ve achieved great success in your life.  You are universally respected and admired by many people, both inside and outside of the NBA.  If you could offer one piece of advice on life to others, what would that be?

 WAYNE EMBRY

I’m a big believer in words that begin with the letter P:  Persistence, preparation, perseverance, and pride.  Stay true to those words and you can’t go wrong.

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