Emmette Bryant: Living the NBA Dream, 1970

[Ray Meyer is remembered as one of the all-time great coaches at DePaul University. In his 1987 autobiography titled Coach, Meyer reflected on all the names and faces that passed through his program over 42 seasons and wrote that Emmette Bryant, who played under him in the early 1960s, “was one of the greatest guards we ever had at DePaul.” 

Meyer explained, “Emmette probably was the greatest dribbler who ever played for me, and he used this ability not only to win, but also to tantalize opposing players and hostile crowds until they were furious. He used to dribble two basketballs at once in practice and defy anyone to take one of them away.”

But bad luck had a way of finding Bryant. As a sophomore, he had trouble with his grades and sat out a semester. As a junior, according to Meyer, Bryant was diagnosed with hepatitis at midseason. Then, as a senior, one of the Van Arsdale twins at Indiana University dove for a loose ball and broke Bryant’s leg. 

As Meyer recounted, the NBA scouts concluded that Bryant, with his bad leg, was damaged goods leading into the 1964 NBA Draft. “Eddie Donovan and Ned Irish of the New York Knicks phoned me from their draft room to ask me if they should risk a choice on him. ‘Take him,’ I said. ‘He’ll play for you.’”

Well, sort of. Bryant wanted to play for Donovan and Irish; Donovan and Irish preferred to keep him anchored on the bench to back up the franchise’s higher-profile names. After four meager seasons in New York, Bryant went to Phoenix in the 1968 expansion draft. But before he could purchase a proper pair of sunglasses, the champion Boston Celtics traded for Bryant to help solidify their aging backcourt. “Emmette Bryant is one of a number of ballplayers with talent aplenty who have never had the opportunity to demonstrate their skills fully,” stated the Boston Celtics’ 1968-69 Yearbook. “Now he should have that chance.”

This article picks up on Bryant’s career after he finally got his chance—and a championship ring—in Boston. It’s from a magazine called Fast Break 1970 Basketball Annual, and the byline belongs to veteran New York sports reporter, Murray Janoff. Because the article is so brief, I’ve added another short profile of Bryant further down. I’ll intro when you get to it.]

Bryant on the break with Bill Russell in his wake

Emmette Bryant is afraid he is going to wake up and discover it has been only a dream. 

Suddenly he stands 6-feet tall as the quarterback of the champion Boston Celtics. That’s the job he’ll have this winter. “I was always on the fringe, and suddenly here I am one of the champion Celtics,” said this 31-year-old rags-to-riches guy. “My whole atmosphere has changed.”

It had been a long and frustrating career for Bryant, who came into the NBA as a 26-year-old rookie out of DePaul and one of many small backcourtmen on the New York Knicks. For four years, his progress was more in mod fashions and the longest sideburns in the league than in establishing himself as a headline guard. He was a hair’s width from retiring, too. 

Now the world knows what he did for the Celtics when he got a chance to play for them last winter. He steadied them for a playoff position, then produced many clutch moments in the burst to glory. 

“Emmette is the guy who made us go,” player-coach Bill Russell said. “He’s like K.C. Jones used to be, only he shoots better. I didn’t play him when I first got him because I didn’t know what he could do. I hadn’t seen him play very much.”

Bryant, who had a 5.9 scoring average in four years with New York, was always the man on the tightrope wire there. “I came to New York with Butch Komives, who was their No. 2 draft choice that year, so he got the playing time,” Bryant said. “The next year, Dick Barnett came along in a trade, and he got the playing time. Then Bill Bradley and Walt Frazier came along, and they got the playing time. 

“A year ago, I didn’t know what would happen to me. I thought I’d never get my real chance.”

Phoenix picked him in the expansion draft, but this posed a problem. Bryant didn’t want to leave the East . . . or at least, he wanted to stay closer to his home city, Chicago, or to New York, where his wife is a schoolteacher. 

The Celtics traded for him, and a few things happened when he came to Boston. He injured a leg in training camp. This held up his opportunity. He reported wearing one of his “way-out mod outfits . . . bell bottoms, wild shirts, a Sherlock Holmes cap, buckled shoes, those wonderful sideburns, and a more than slightly decorative beard. He was stomping on coach Russell’s domain.

The duel began with Russell, a fashion innovator himself. It lasted a good part of the winter until Russell came in with a seal cape and a cane. Emmette also bought a baby jaguar as a pet to keep in his hotel room. This lasted one month, until the jaguar bit the hand that fed him. Emmette sold him to the hotel manager. 

Surely, it hasn’t been an easy climb for Emmette. Even in his teens, he was a high school dropout who joined the Air Force. He finally made it into college after completing preparatory work. 

Then he was ready for the pros. But apparently, the pros weren’t ready for him. Not until he got to Boston. 

[Now to the second Em Bryant clip. It’s from Leigh Montville, a fantastic sportswriter—one of my personal favorites—with the Boston Globe. Montville published this piece in the Globe on February 20, 1969. Enjoy!]

The gold chain hung around Emmette Bryant’s neck, and the two dime-sized medals hung from the gold chain. “This one is for luck,” Emmette Bryant said yesterday, stopping at the first medal, which had one Hebrew letter raised on the surface.

“. . . and this one is my sign,” the basketball player continued, fingering the second medal. “Scorpio. I’m a Scorpio. That’s my birthday.”

“Astrology?” Larry Siegfried asked. “You know much about astrology?”

Bryant shook his head, which has often been called a basketball with sideburns. “No, but I’d like to learn,” he said softly. “If I could find a guy who knew a lot about it, I take a course in astrology.”

Bryant then started emptying clothes from his long locker in the basement of Tobin Gym in Roxbury as the Celtics move West today for a four-game roadtrip. “There were only two guys who played well out there today: Bryant and me,” Celtics player-coach Bill Russell had said Tuesday after his team’s ragged 116-110 win over the Phoenix Suns. “Emmette has been playing well for us lately. He has been giving us a good game almost every time out.”

First to come out of the dented, scribbled-on locker at Tobin was a pair of velour pants, moss-green velour pants. There was a wide leather belt going through the velour loops. “Fashion,” Emmette Bryant said, “I always liked it. I never really had any money to do anything about it until I got to college and picked up a few jobs to go along with my scholarship.

“The jaguar, of course, was getting too vicious,” Bryant said, talking about the wild pet he finally removed from his apartment recently. “I’m going to stay with the dogs.”


“Two,” said Bryant. “German shepherds. Big ones. One is named Cleo, and the other, given to me by Willis Reed, is named Bruno.”

Nice. The good life. Emmette Bryant is living in style, and he is playing a lot of basketball. It is not the manner in which he had always been accustomed. 

“I was a dropout,” Bryant said. “A high school dropout. I lived in Chicago, the West Side. The kids would be going to school, and I’d be across the street in the playground. You see, where I came from, going to school wasn’t exactly the hippest thing you could do.”

Bryant, at the time he quit school, was 16 years old. He was a junior, and he also was 5-foot-3. Bryant’s parents sent their 5-foot-3 son directly to the nearest Air Force recruiter. They signed the induction papers gladly. 

“That probably kept me out of the real trouble,” Emmette Bryant said. “Finally, I got some discipline.”

Also, he picked up a high school diploma, four years of solid service basketball, a side position as a radar operator, and the basic requirement for a pro basketball player—10 more inches in height. 

When you got back to the streets, Bryant went to Crane Junior College for a year. He played against the DePaul freshmen, played well against the DePaul freshmen, and for the next three years he played scholarship basketball for the DePaul varsity. 

Then followed a fifth-round draft selection and four years with the New York Knickerbockers. After the Suns took him in last year’s expansion draft, the Celtics grabbed Bryant in a trade for a high draft choice. 

That led to the present—the Sherlock Holmes hat and the locker in Tobin gym. “If I hadn’t made my own troubles in the beginning, I’d have been a lot better off,” Bryant said. “I’m 29 years old now, and this is only my fifth year in the league. But, what can you do?”

Bryant, the dog lover, the ex-high school dropout, the 5-foot-3 kid has grown up, closed the dented locker door. 

“Astrology,” he said. “Yes, I’d like to learn about that. If only I could find a guy who really knows what it’s all about . . .”

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