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Wayne Embry is one of the best guys in basketball, well liked, respected and admired across the NBA for decades.
So, what in the world has he done to deserve this? Which came on the heels of, what did he do to deserve that?
Now 81 years old, Embry, is a basketball lifer.
Which brings us the the “this” — LeBron James.
Along with the “that” — Michael Jordan.
The senior advisor for the Toronto Raptors, Embry has a front-row seat to, well, “witness,” LeBron and the LeBronaires halfway to the point of turning the best season in Raptors history into an extinction-level event.
After Toronto arguably spit the bit in Game 1, allowing the Cavaliers to escape with a 113-112 overtime victory, it opened the door for the freight train that is LeBron.
As great payers do, James didn’t miss an opportunity to go for the kill, posting 43 points, eight rebounds and 14 assists on an offensive display that had the sellout crowd at Air Canada Centre throwing up the hands and shaking their heads in reluctant appreciation of watching greatness on display.
Which brings us back to Embry, a Hall of Famer (Class of 1999).
“It’s the same — exactly the same,” Embry said. “You’ve got to beat greatness.”
“The same” as in what James is doing for the third consecutive season to his Raptors is what Jordan did for an even-longer period of time to the great Cavaliers teams Embry put together during his groundbreaking tenure as general manager of the team.
Five times in a seven-year period between 1988 and 1994, Jordan led the Chicago Bulls past Cleveland in the playoffs, twice in winner-take-all contests (1988 and 1989).
“He’s put the dagger in us a lot,” Embry said of Jordan. “But I still respect his greatness.”
The ending of the Cavaliers’ season in 1989 produced one of the most dramatic, emotion-packed moments in NBA history.
Jordan hit The Shot over the flailing Craig Ehlo at the buzzer of the decisive Game 5 of a first-round series that took place after Cleveland won a then-franchise record 57 games and brushed off the 47-win Bulls, winning all six games against them.
“We felt, and I think it was a pretty common feeling throughout the league, that one through 12, we were the best team in the league,” Embry said. “But they had Jordan.”
After Ehlo hit a reverse layup on a beautiful side out-of-bounds play drawn up by Cavaliers coach Lenny Wilkens that gave the Cavaliers a one-point lead with three seconds to play, the sellout crowd of 20,273 nearly blew the roof off the Richfield Coliseum.
Amid the delirium, though, Embry had almost a pained look on his face, almost as if he knew what was coming. This was a guy who during his 11-year NBA career with the Cincinnati Royals, the Boston Celtics and the Milwaukee Bucks played with Oscar Robertson and Bill Russell and against Wilt Chamberlain.
“I was standing in the tunnel where I always stood to watch the game … Everybody was celebrating. And all the fans were saying, ‘Come on, Wayne! You gotta (get excited)!’ Embry said. “And I said, ‘No, no. He’s going to get one more touch.’ And sure enough, he did.”
“He” wore No. 23 and is the reason the Raptors’ present-day personal Master of Disaster dons the same digits.
The big man admits, that final sequence from almost three decades ago continues to haunt him.
“It’s still a nightmare,” he admitted.
Laughing, he said, “I wish they’d let that go. They keep playing that damn thing on television.”
In 1972, Embry was named general manager of the Milwaukee Bucks and became the first African American general manager in NBA league history, as well as the first black general manager of a major U.S. team sport. From 1985 to 1992, Embry served as vice president and general manager of the Cavaliers, become the first African American NBA team president with the Cavs in 1994, during which time Jordan, who amounted to Superman in high tops with the way he could fly, tormented his Cavs, which featured the likes of Brad Daugherty, Mark Price, Larry Nance, Ron Harper, the late John “Hot Rod” Williams and Ehlo.
So Embry can be forgiven if he’s more than a bit gun-shy. His Raptors haver never won a playoff series in which they dropped the first two games and, conversely, James-led teams are a perfect 21-0 in postseason series in which they’ve held 2-0 leads.
That having been said, Embry has been a part of greatness being conquered. In 1968, he was a veteran backup big man for Boston, which found itself trailing in the Eastern Conference Finals, 3-1, against the defending champion Philadelphia 76ers.
The star on that Philadelphia team was none other than the incomparable Chamberlain, who had already led the Sixers to a pair of wins in Boston Garden.
Given little, if any chance to get off the canvas against Chamberlain & Co., the Celtics did exactly that, running off three consecutive victories to reach the Finals, where they knocked off the Los Angeles Lakers in six games in Russell’s final season, in which he served as player-coach.
So with the Raptors facing a gargantuan challenge, beginning with Game 3 tonight at Quicken Loans Arena, wants to see his guys not back down, despite what and whom they are up against.
“There’s no bigger thrill than beating greatness. And that should be an inspiration, not a deflation,” Embry said. “It should be an inspiration to go out and try and beat LeBron.”