27 February 2017

#GiveWayneABanner

from today's Opinion Section of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

He is a five-time NBA All-Star.  He was twice named the NBA Executive of the Year.  He won an NBA title as a player with the 1968 Boston Celtics and was assistant to the president of the Milwaukee Bucks in 1971 when they acquired his former teammates Oscar Robertson and Bob Boozer, both instrumental in earning Milwaukee’s only NBA championship.  A year later he was honored by being named the NBA and professional sports first African American General Manager.  Leading the Bucks during that time period, for nearly 14 seasons, Wayne Embry’s Bucks were in the playoffs 11 times.  And it’s not like the city of Milwaukee hasn’t honored his legacy before:  More than a decade ago he was honored with the city’s Legends Award, joining fellow Wisconsin sports greats Willie Davis, Henry Aaron and Junior Bridgeman.
There’s only one honor missing:  Wayne Richard Embry’s name and number should be hanging from the rafters at the new Bucks arena when it opens in 2018.  Based upon his overall accomplishments as a leader in the Bucks franchise for more than 15 years, his complete dedication to the game and its integrity over a storied career, and his leadership as a businessman and civic leader, capped by the historic achievement of being the first African American in professional sports to be GM of a team, Wayne Embry deserves this long overdue honor.  In fact, Wayne’s achievement as the first Black GM in sports paved the way for others to follow suit, with Major League Baseball naming Bill Lucas of the Atlanta Braves the first black GM in baseball in 1977 and the NFL Baltimore Ravens naming Ozzie Newson as the league’s first Black GM in 2002.

There is a precedent for honoring general managers' names and jerseys alongside those of players in the rafters of NBA arenas.  Jerry Krause of the Chicago Bulls, Jack McCloskey of the Detroit Pistons and Carroll Dawson of the Houston Rockets have all had such ceremonies.  Bob Lanier, who played only five seasons in Milwaukee, and Brian Winters, who played eight seasons in Milwaukee, both have their numbers retired.  The GM who brought them to town and assembled the team’s perennial playoff appearances?  Wayne Embry.

Honoring Embry is the perfect move for a renewed franchise whose motto, “Own the Future,” has captured the enthusiasm and loyalty of a re-energized fan base.  Owners Wes Edens and Marc Lasry, who have demonstrated an admirable devotion to the city of Milwaukee, would do well to “own the future” by honoring a vital missing piece from a glorious past.  And it’s especially important to do so at a time when Milwaukee is perceived as an increasingly segregated city with troubling racial equity divides in housing, education and employment. The Bucks' new activist ownership under the leadership of President Peter Feigin has not shied away from the complicated issue of race in Milwaukee.  Celebrating the career of Wayne Embry and his contributions to Milwaukee’s civic life during his years in the city would be an important symbolic move to highlight the vital role African Americans have played in the history of the city.

One of the ways that I understand Embry’s 2004 memoir, “The Inside Game:  Race, Power and Politics in the NBA,” is to see his story as a classic African American success story rooted in the power of family, education and hard-work in the face of enormous obstacles —including virulent racism — in order to achieve greatness.  A descendent of slaves and sharecroppers who made it to Ohio during the Great Migration, Wayne was educated and excelled at basketball at the Miami University in Ohio before going on to a successful professional career with the Cincinnati Royals (predecessors to the Sacramento Kings), Boston Celtics and then the Milwaukee Bucks  Along the way he ran successful businesses, employing hundreds. Through his leadership, he shaped the lives of thousands.

I am one of those thousands.  Here I’ll admit to a personal stake in the matter.  I have known the Embry family since 1970, when Wayne Jr joined my second-grade class.  We became fast friends and for years I left Milwaukee for a week each summer to go to Nashua, N.H., to attend the Wayne Embry Basketball School.  And while I never got much further as a 5-foot-9 guy who can’t jump, the lessons I learned from my friend’s dad and his staff each summer, the lessons of hard work, perseverance, optimism, team-oriented play, sportsmanship and leadership, are lessons I have taken with me every single day on my own life’s journey as a rabbi and community leader.
One lesson in particular from those summers stands out.  Each night of the week, Embry would bring former and current basketball greats to talk to a rapt audience hungry for guidance and mentoring.  Not only did we learn how to shoot, pass and play defense, but we were taught the most valuable lesson of all:  When building a team, it’s important to remember where you come from and who got you there, and to honor the contributions of those who achieved great milestones in the history of a city and the history of sport.
Wayne Embry, his family, the Bucks, and the City of Milwaukee are all deserving of this important and worthy celebration.
Andy Bachman is a Milwaukee native and community leader living in Brooklyn, NY.  He is President and CEO of Sadie’s Coffee and Founder of Water Over Rocks, a not-for-profit dedicated to memory and civic responsibility.  He is on the faculty of the City College of New York and served in Brooklyn and Manhattan as a rabbi for more than 25 years.

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