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Maybe I should have known right from the beginning how it was going to end in Cleveland, and maybe I should have been more prepared. After all, I had come from Milwaukee, where Coach Don Nelson stabbed me in the back after I hired him.
In the fourteen years since becoming the first African American general manager in sports when the Bucks named me to that post in 1972, I thought I had heard almost every racial slur and insinuation. But I was caught completely off guard when, in the spring of 1986, during my very first interview for the general manager position in Cleveland, one of the board members, whose name I did not remember, looked me straight in the eye and asked me, "If you get this job, will you feel compelled to hire a black coach?"
I dropped my head, ran my right hand across my forehead, and paused. Several thoughts ran through my mind, not the least of which was, "What am I getting myself into here?" I knew damn well he would not have asked a white candidate if he would hire a white coach. I felt as if I were right back in Tecumseh High School in Springfield, Ohio, where I was the only black kid in my class.
After a moment, I gathered myself, looked the board member back in the eye and said, "I hope that you would want me to hire the best qualified person. That is what I've been taught and believe. Isn't that the way it should be?"
But the mood in the room had shifted, and some serious doubts had crept into my mind. Maybe I should have listened harder to the little voice in the back of my head.
I had mixed emotions about even interviewing for the position. I was not really looking for a job. I was involved in a manufacturing company that supplied parts to the automotive industry, and I was a part-time consultant to the Indiana Pacers and G. Heilmann Brewing Company. Also, Cavs former general manager Harry Weltman had been a friend, and I was sorry to see him dismissed after doing his best to stabilize the franchise.
On the other hand, there were only twenty-nine of these jobs available and, after spending a lifetime in the sport, basketball still was my passion. Pacers co-owner Herb Simon had made it clear I was not going to become the general manager in Indiana. He had not only given me permission to interview with the Cavs, but had encouraged me to do so. I was originally from Ohio and would be only three hours away from my family. I had grown up a Browns and Indians fan, so being in the same market was appealing.
Plus, after my experience with Nellie in Milwaukee, I had a burning desire to get back to running a team and proving myself to the rest of the league even if, in my mind, I had nothing to prove.
So I agreed to meet with owner Gordon Gund, his brother George and their associates at the O'Hare Hilton during the annual pre-draft camp in Chicago. I was scouting for Indiana, but once word got out I was interviewing in Cleveland, I became the most popular person in the steamy gym at the University of Illinois-Chicago Circle, where every unemployed coach in America sought me out.
I left downtown early, anticipating traffic on the Kennedy Expressway. But I arrived in plenty of time and tried to relax by doing the Chicago Tribune crossword puzzle as I waited in the lobby. I was surprised how nervous I was. I knew that the Gunds had talked to legendary Celtics President Red Auerbach, longtime NBA executive Stu Inman, who had been with several teams, and my old friend Pete Newell, and I knew they had gotten good reports from all three. But it was still with some trepidation that I entered the conference room.
I was met by about six stately men dressed in pinstriped navy or gray suits. Power suits, we called them back then. Of course, I fit right in because I was wearing my power suit, too. I recognized Gordon immediately, because I knew he was blind. I recognized his brother, too. The other men were introduced as associates of Gund Investment Company.
The Gunds, who also owned the Minnesota North Stars, bought the Cavaliers in 1983, rescuing the team from the much-maligned Ted Stepien, whose many personnel blunders forced the league to adopt rules to protect the Cavs from themselves. The team had finished over .500 just three times in its thirteen-year history. The highlight of the franchise came during "The Miracle of Richfield" in 1976, when the Cavs, in their first play-off appearance, knocked off the powerful Washington Bullets in the first round before losing to the eventual champion Boston Celtics in six games in the second round. In their last season under Stepien's ownership, the team finished 23-59.
Three years later, the team was coming off a 29-53 season under Coach George Karl, who was replaced by Gene Littles for the last fifteen games. Major changes were in store, which was what brought me to that interview. But halfway through the process, I wondered if I had made a mistake-or if they thought they had.
Though I continued to answer their questions, my interest in the job had waned after that one troubling question. While I wanted nothing more than to get away from that one guy, a few members of the group were heading downtown for dinner and asked me for a ride, which I grudgingly provided.
When I got back to the gym that night, I felt like the Pied Piper. Wherever I went, I was followed by job seekers. "Did you get the job?" I was asked time and time again. But I shocked all of them by saying I had no interest in the position. I did not offer any explanation.
Excerpted from THE INSIDE GAME by Wayne Embry Mary Schmitt Boyer Copyright © 2004 by Wayne Embry and Mary Schmitt Boyer. Excerpted by permission.
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