No one took a knee or sat during the national anthem, but they didn’t turn the other cheek when discriminated against, either.
The NBA long has been regarded as the most progressive of the major professional sports leagues, and much of the credit belongs to the first generation of African American players who quietly, yet forcefully, stood up and changed the game.
Lenny Wilkens refused to leave a restaurant in St. Louis until he was served. Elgin Baylor sat out his first preseason game because the team hotel in West Virginia denied him a room. Wayne Embry, who went on to become the league’s first black general manager, responded to racial epithets by winning the vice presidency at his Ohio high school. Several years later, Don Chaney accidentally-on-purpose knocked a drink onto the lap of a restaurant patron who persisted in telling this writer, “You’re a white woman. You shouldn’t be talking to him. He’s black.”
With NBA training camps opening Monday amid the social unrest provoked by the recent shootings of unarmed blacks, insidious nationwide gun violence, sentiment against the LGBT community and an appalling lack of civility in the presidential campaign, several current players promise to engage in some form of protest.
Their NFL colleague, 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, struck a nerve. Regardless of whether one agrees with his means of protest – sitting and then kneeling during the anthem – Kaepernick initiated an intensifying debate about all that ails America.
Kaepernick’s actions reminded Embry, 79, of the circumstances that overshadowed his rookie debut in 1958. Embry, a third-round draft choice of the St. Louis Hawks who was traded to the Cincinnati Royals, anticipated playing against the league’s No.1 overall pick that night, but Baylor refused to suit up because he was barred from rooming with his Minneapolis Lakers teammates.
“That was kind of a wakeup call,” said Embry, author of the autobiography “The Inside Game: Race, Power and Politics in the NBA” and the former general manager of the Milwaukee Bucks – he traded Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to the Lakers – and Cleveland Cavaliers.
“The late ’50s and early ’60s were tough times,” Embry said. “I was the only black player on the Royals. Once, I wasn’t allowed to eat in the hotel restaurant. I had to eat in the kitchen. But when Elgin did that, that was when we started expressing ourselves, pressuring management and ownership to stop putting us in those situations. And thank goodness Dr. (Martin Luther) King and (Congressman) John Lewis and that group of leaders came along and had the courage to protest and fight.”
As the seasons and the decades passed, the game became predominantly black and more political. Front offices and coaching and training staffs are increasingly diverse and inclusive, including the occasional sighting of a woman. As another season approaches, African American players are weighing how to best use their status and resources to bring about change.
Embry and Baylor offered only measured endorsements of Kaepernick’s gestures but applaud that more and more athletes are becoming socially active. Baylor, 82, wants to see a positive, collaborative approach in the coming weeks, though he is uncertain about the most appropriate way to do that. Maybe the entire team raises its fists in unison?
“If they have something to say that they feel strongly about,” Baylor said, “then I want to hear it.”
Baylor and other leaders were a treasure trove of information, insight, anecdotes. The scholarly, intimidating Wilkens, 78, was an absolute delight after overcoming his initial wariness. Chaney, 70, the thoughtful, soft-spoken ex-Clippers coach, famously threw a chair inside the locker room during one of Donald Sterling’s bothersome visits. Baylor, known for his wicked sense of humor and irresistible candor, lingered in the media room for hours after games, pestering beat writers with gems such as his insistence that Magic Johnson palmed the ball on every dribble.
Yet it was Baylor’s refusal to play in the the Lakers’ 1958-59 preseason opener that remains his badge of honor to many of his peers. He was a character who cracked jokes, talked forever, never raised his voice. But his powerful response to the racial slight in Charleston, W.Va., prompted the league and its franchises to be more selective in choosing venues and avoiding cities – mostly in the South – that were not welcoming to both whites and blacks.
“I had contemplated not playing that night as well, but unlike Elgin, I was a rookie with a non-guaranteed contract,” Embry said. “As for these ongoing protests and what’s going on now in our country … when I give speeches, I tell people, ‘This country was founded on protest. Everybody has that right.’ But I do not encourage violence, and I don’t think sitting or kneeling is the answer. The anthem is our symbol. I want to feel like I belong. I refuse to not be accepted. Players of my generation are advocates of Dr. King because his movement was effective and brought positive results. ‘Don’t disrespect anyone. Don’t lose your dignity.’ And remember we are living in a troubled world, but a world of diversity.”