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Emmette Bryant Featured in Black Sports The Magazine

DePaul All-American Emmette Bryant Featured in Black Sports The Magazine

Emmette Bryant - Inside the Heart of a Champion  by Tony Brooks

Appeared in the March 2010 Issue of BSTM

He played in the Golden Age of NBA basketball; a time when John Havlichek was out on the floor working miracles, Bill Russell was an ever present nemesis to opposing teams and the clutch play of Sam Jones was right out of a John McLendon text book.

His name is Emmette Bryant, former Boston Celtic and departing member of the Executive Board of the NBA Retired Players Association.

In 1992, the National Basketball Retired Players Association (NBRPA) was formed by basketball greats Dave Bing, Dave Cowens, Dave DeBusschere, Archie Clark and Oscar Robertson to promote basketball and enhance the sport’s image. These former front and back court visionaries shared a goal of assisting retired players with a variety of services. With post-retirement objectives in mind, the core services include career transition, pension issues, providing comprehensive health care coverage and encouraging community service for charitable activities, special appearances and international basketball tours. The Association also offers the Dave DeBusschere NBRPA Scholarship fund for members and their children.

The NBRPA is a non-profit organization consisting of former basketball players from the NBA, ABA and Harlem Globetrotters. The NBRPA is a subsidiary of the NBA, and the NBA has made significant financial contributions to the NBRPA down through the years. The NBRPA has also partnered with the National Basketball Players Association.

For the past three years, Emmette Bryant, Jeff Mullins and Earl Monroe have been serving as board members of NBRPA. Their efforts have not only met, but exceeded the organization’s goals and objectives. As of February 2010, they will make way for the election of new members to serve the next term.

Back-in-the-day, watching the NBA on ABC T.V. was ringside viewing on a league with a mixture of great talent; Wilt “The Stilt” Chamberlin, Jerry “Mr. Clutch” West, Oscar “The Big O” Robertson, Nate “Tiny” Archibald, “Pistol” Pete Maravich, Walt “Clyde the Glide” Frazier, Earl “The Pearl” Monroe, Bob “Butterbean” Love, and a dominant 7’2" rookie out of UCLA named Lew Alcindor. It was indeed a time of three cheers and other celebratory noise.

Soaring even higher than this galactic cluster of superstars was Emmette Bryant and his unequivocal champion Boston Celtics. Bryant grew up on Chicago’s Westside; infamous training ground for some of the best NBA/NFL bound athletes pro sports had ever seen. As a youth in the early 1950s, Bryant excelled in grammar school academics, making doubles and moving on to high school at age twelve. In athletics, he was just average and did not rank among the elite in his community. At McKinley High School, the play of future Harlem Globetrotter, Leon Hilliard, caught Bryant’s basketball eye. Hilliard would break out his dazzling dribbling routine that would make him world famous, and would also inspire a future NBA champion who emulated his ball handling skills.

Young Emmette had a certain attraction to the big city street life, which found him occasionally dropping in on classes but hanging out more in the streets. He still found time for recreation at the community gym, where a watchful Mr. Hunter spent time with him and tried to keep him involved with the positive aspects of athletics at the park district and the Boys Club. By his sophomore year, Bryant was no longer dropping in on classes; he dropped out, without ever playing one day of high school basketball. Song poet Randy Crawford once pinned the words to Street Life.

Fitting of Byrant’s life at the time, is the abbreviated version of
that song.
Street Life – you can run away from time,
Street Life – for a nickel, for a dime,
Street Life – but you better not get old,
Street Life – or you’re gonna feel the cold,
Street Life – it’s the only life I know,
Street Life – there’s a thousand cards to play,
Street Life – until you play your life away.

Bryant’s truancy landed him in a reform school for boys in St. Charles, Illinois, located about 40 miles west of downtown Chicago. The purpose of the school was to provide young boys with a good education, vocational training, along with religious and military training. Fate would have it that Bryant’s gym teacher was a Chicago legend, held in high esteem, named Jesse White.

At Chicago’s Waller High School, White was an All-City baseball and basketball player and again earned All-Conference honors as a baseball and basketball player at Alabama State College. White served in the U.S. Army’s 101st Airborne Division as a paratrooper. In 1959, he founded the Jesse White Tumbling Team to provide guidance and direction to at risk youth. White somehow found time to play minor league professional baseball for the Chicago Cubs organization and followed that up with a 33-year career in the Chicago public schools system as a teacher and administrator. He is currently Illinois’ Secretary of State. He was not only a beacon of light to Emmette Bryant, but to thousands of others who drifted far from the peaceful shores.

As time marched on and Bryant matured, he enlisted in the United States Air Force in 1955. He trained at Sampson Air Force Base in New York, and became a skilled radar operator, prepared to scramble fighter jets at a moment’s notice to any blip on the screen that appeared to be hostile, threatening or unidentifiable. Bryant was stationed at the Panama Canal, and played for a Panamanian and U.S. team that both won championships during his tour of duty. One of the servicemen, who had an opportunity to play with the Baltimore Colts, told Bryant that his skills were outstanding and that he was better than most players, and should consider going to college.

Bryant returned home to Chicago and enrolled at Crane Junior College, and was the leading playmaker, averaging 36 points per game. Along the way, Coach Ray Meyer of DePaul University had seen Bryant play, and invited him to come to DePaul. In 1960, Emmette Bryant set all kinds of freshman records that held until another heralded All-American from the Westside of Chicago named Mark Aguirre, enrolled at DePaul in 1978. Four years later, Bryant was graduating from DePaul with a degree in Physical Education, and was being drafted by the New York Knicks as a guard and the Dallas Cowboys as a defensive back.

Bryant wisely chose to play for the Knicks, and arrived in New York in September of 1964, joined by two other rookies; Jim Barnes, the overall number one selection of the NBA draft and 2nd round first selection, Willis Reed. While with the Knicks, Bryant would team up with future Hall of Famer and U.S. Senator, Bill Bradley, and another future Hall of Fame player in Walt Frazier, before joining the Celtics in 1968. Boston was loaded with great players; Bill Russell, Sam Jones, John Havichek and Don Nelson.

Bryant added value each time he came off the bench as a defensive specialist, and eventually broke into the starting line up.

If you think clowns and mimes have a heated rivalry, then what do you think existed between the Boston Celtics and the Los Angeles Lakers? These two teams only had to show up at the Boston Garden or the L.A. Forum to fill it with die-hard screaming fans.

Game 7 of the 1969 NBA finals was at Los Angeles. With a heartpounding 7 minutes and 5 seconds to go and the Celtics out in front 101 to 89, Emmette Bryant was the fast moving point guard, guiding his team toward victory with 20 points against a potent Lakers team featuring Wilt Chamberlin, Elgin Baylor and Jerry West. This was a title fight and the Lakers wanted a parade, too.

Jerry West had his trigger finger stuck on automatic when he turned on the point faucet and mounted a furious come back with a triple double of 42 points, 13 rebounds and 12 assist. When the horn sounded, the Lakers came up short to the Celtics by a score of 108 to 106. The Celtics were World Champions, and walked off the court with a tickle me Elmo feeling.

During the series, while at his hotel, Bryant received a telegram from a woman asking if he knew a Mr. Harper, who was a retired recreation teacher from Chicago. The telegram went on to say that Mr. Harper was now living in Los Angeles and a telephone number was left where he could be reached. It was signed by Mrs. Harper. Bryant called the number and reunited with the man that kept a watchful eye on him as a youth. Bryant asked Mr. Harper to attend each of the four games played in L.A. as his guest. When Emmette Bryant was crowned World Champion, he and Mr. Harper both wept. “That was one of the happiest days of my life,” said Bryant, as we dined in a Chicago restaurant.

In 1970, Bryant moved on to the Buffalo Braves, and retired from the league in 1972. Immediately after his playing days, Bryant became an assistant coach; one year at Columbia University in New York and two years with the Seattle Supersonics. All along the way, Bryant would say, “I’m just a teacher that happened to play pro ball.” Bryant then went to work for the State of Washington for the next 30 years, starting out with the Department of Social and Health Services, in charge of recreation throughout the state for that department’s correctional institutions. He later became the Recreation Director at Mission Creek Youth Camp.

Today, the DePaul University Hall of Famer is living back in Chicago. He still plays basketball weekly and even won a championship last year in a league of extraordinary gents, age 70 and older.

Author Tony Brooks is a regular contributor to BSTM and can be reached at



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