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  • Budd Bailey

Braves New World: Em Bryant

Updated: Nov 13, 2023

(Budd Bailey and Greg D. Tranter have written a book called "Buffalo Braves From A to Z," published by St. Johann Press. Early in the writing process, they wrote good-sized biographies of all 71 men who played a regular-season game for the Braves during their time in Buffalo from 1970 to 1978. Publishers weren't so enthusiastic about all of that material, so most (59) of the biographies were shortened to about 500 words. However, the authors hated to waste all of that material ... so they are presenting it here. It will appear three times a week. A bibliography is available upon request.)

Emmette Bryant was inspired by the dribbling skill of Harlem Globetrotter Leon Hilliard, and emulating those ball-dribbling routines and abilities propelled Bryant to an eight-year NBA career that included an NBA championship. What’s more, Emmette is well-remembered by some today for the headband he wore on the court and his mod dressing off it.

Emmette Bryant was born November 4, 1937, in Chicago, Illinois. Bryant grew up on Chicago’s West Side and he excelled in his academics in grammar school, enabling him to enter high school as a 12-year-old. He was not known as a skilled athlete at the time. However, he got bored with school and by his sophomore year he dropped out. That led to trouble for the immature Bryant, and he landed in a reform school for boys in St. Charles, Illinois. The school provided Bryant some structure and discipline while he received a solid education along with vocational, religious and military training.

Upon graduation Bryant enlisted in the United States Air Force in 1955. He was trained as a radar operator at Sampson Air Force Base in Central New York. He was then stationed at the Panama Canal and played basketball for both the U.S. and Panamanian teams. He found success in basketball and both teams won championships during Bryant’s tour of duty.

After completing his Air Force commitment he returned to Chicago and enrolled at Crane Junior College. He led the basketball team with a 36 points per game average. DePaul legendary basketball coach Ray Meyer spotted Bryant and after seeing him play offered a scholarship to Bryant to attend DePaul University for the 1960 school year. Bryant played freshman ball his first season, breaking the school scoring records (freshman were not eligible to play varsity ball), and joined the varsity for the 1961-62 season.

Bryant was the third-leading scorer for the 13-10 Blue Demons in his sophomore year. He averaged 13.3 points per game and 5.9 rebounds. He missed eight of the team’s games when he was suspended by Meyer “for disciplinary reasons.” He missed one game and returned to the squad, only to become academically ineligible three weeks later and was lost for the remainder of the season. His junior year was almost a duplicate of the previous season. He was again the third-leading scorer at 13.5 ppg and DePaul improved to 15-8. One of the highlights of the season was his 26-point effort in a 79-72 upset of No. 19 ranked Marquette. However, he again missed games – this time, he sat out 13 with hepatitis. The Blue Demons lost six of the 13 games while Bryant was sidelined. DePaul qualified for the National Invitation Tournament (NIT) but was defeated in the first round by Villanova 63-51. Bryant had 10 points in the loss.

Bryant improved his senior year to average 17.5 points per game and tied for the team lead in scoring as the Blue Demons took a big step forward with a 21-4 record and a No. 9 national ranking. Bryant, a co-captain, led DePaul to the 10th Annual Queen City tournament title in Buffalo with a victory over Xavier, 86-80. Bryant scored a career-high 31 points and was voted the MVP of the event hosted by Canisius College. Meyer said after the tournament that Bryant has “the potential to be a top-notch professional player.” From there, Bryant again missed playing time, caused by a sprained ankle in January. It lingered for several weeks costing him 11 games. Meyer lamented Bryant’s injury, saying, “We’re going to hurt with Bryant out. … Bryant is only 6-feet-1, but in the eyes of our squad he was 10 feet tall.”

After finally recovering from his injury, his senior season came to an unfortunate end when DePaul lost, 79-66, to New York University in the NIT. Bryant fouled out in the second half and the Blue Demons fell apart down the stretch without their point guard. Bryant earned his degree in Physical Education. He left DePaul with a career 14.8 points per game average and 6.6 rebound average but only played 39 games in his three seasons. United Press International named him to the 1963-64 All-American team as an honorable mention.

Bryant was selected in the seventh round, pick number 53, on May 4, 1964, in the NBA Draft by the New York Knicks. He was excited to join the Knicks, but they loaded up in the 1964 draft. They also acquired Willis Reed, Jim Barnes, Howard Komives and Freddie Crawford. It was a tall task to make the squad, but Bryant displayed his ball-handling skills and defensive prowess and it secured him a spot on the roster.

Bryant made his NBA debut on October 17, 1964, at Madison Square Garden in a 113-109 loss to the Los Angeles Lakers. Bryant had a season-high 18 points on January 29 in the Knicks' 106-99 victory over the Detroit Pistons. He spent the season coming off the bench to spell guards Johnny Egan, Tom Gola and Komives. He played in 77 games with a 4.9 points per game average in 17.3 minutes per contest. He was lauded for his defensive talents. In one game when Bryant defended superstar Cincinnati Royal guard Oscar Robertson the Cincinnati Enquirer reported that “he guarded Oscar tighter than a vest.” The Knicks finished out of the playoffs with a dismal 31-49 record.

Between the end of his rookie season and the start of his sophomore year with the Knicks, he participated in a goodwill tour with teammates Willis Reed and Fran Granant. The trio went to 34 summer camps, teaching youngsters the fundamentals of basketball. Bryant improved in his second season with New York, though his playing time decreased slightly. He averaged 16.8 minutes per game but improved his scoring to 7.0 per contest while playing in 71 games. The Knicks changed coaches during the season for the second year straight year as they stumbled home with a 30-50 record. Bryant accomplished his first 20-point game on March 11 in a three- point loss to the Baltimore Bullets.

Bryant continued his improvement during the 1966-67 season under the coaching of Dick McGuire. He increased his minutes to over 25 per game and his scoring average rose to 8.7 as the Knicks improved to 36-45. Bryant missed some time with a torn cartilage in his left knee suffered in a December 10 victory over Baltimore. He recovered in time to get his first playoff exposure, playing the four games in the Eastern Division semi-finals against the Celtics. Bryant scored 21 points, but the Knicks were eliminated, three games to one.

Bryant was a student of the game. “I really learned from Ray Meyer – patterns and teamwork,” he said. Em also learned the importance of practice, which helped him develop with the Knicks. “I just practiced every day with the team and by myself when they went on the road.” He was lauded by The Morning Call sportswriter Augie Borgi who described him as looking like an assistant coach on the bench. Bryant responded, “I try to watch what certain players are doing. That way I can anticipate and steal the ball. I see the patterns and get the insights on what’s developing.”

Bryant’s minutes were significantly curtailed in 1967-68 with the Knicks acquisition of two key rookies that would help lead New York to a couple NBA championships in the early 1970s, Bill Bradley and Walt Frazier. He played only 12.6 minutes per game and his scoring suffered with only a 3.7 average, his career low. The Knicks were again eliminated in the first round of the playoffs, this time by the 76ers, four games to two. Bryant played in five of the games and contributed 12 points. At the conclusion of the season he was left exposed in the 1968 NBA Expansion draft. The league was adding the Milwaukee Bucks and the Phoenix Suns. Bryant was selected by the Suns on May 6.

Bryant did not want to go West and refused to report to Phoenix. The Suns traded Bryant to the Boston Celtics for a second-round draft pick on August 27, 1968. It was the best possible outcome for Em. He was joining the perennial NBA champion Celtics. Boston had won the NBA title in nine of the previous ten seasons and were anchored by Bill Russell, John Havlicek, Sam Jones, Bailey Howell, Larry Siegfried and Don Nelson. “I know (Bill) Russell and Sam (Jones) and (John) Havlicek and I think I'll enjoy playing with them,” Bryant said at the time. “I'd like to learn what makes them win. You know with the Knicks we had a powerhouse but the Celtics would always win.”

The Celtics found a spot for Bryant, and he found his niche, playing solid defense and handling the point guard spot to relieve Larry Siegfried and Sam Jones. Eventually he earned a starting position. Head coach Bill Russell said near the end of the regular season, “The way Bryant has been playing dictated my starting him the past few months. I wasn’t using him right when we first got him. I just didn’t know what he could do.” Bryant played in all 80 regular season games while averaging 17.4 minutes and 5.7 points per game on a Celtics team that fell to fourth place in the East Division with a 48-34 record, but qualified for the playoffs.

The Celtics defeated the 76ers four games to one in the first playoff series with Bryant contributing 48 points. In the Eastern Division Finals, Bryant faced the team that led him go, the Knicks, and he played inspired basketball throughout. His defense and energy were one of the keys in the series. Phil Pepe wrote in the New York Daily News at the conclusion of the series, “Watching the Celtics in the final minutes, when every basket counted the cool ones made them all. Emmette Bryant skittering around the floor like a frightened, running away mouse and John Havlicek tossing one at the hoop and making it off the backboard.” The Celtics won the series, four games to two, with Bryant averaging 12.2 ppg along with 31 rebounds and 22 assists. In the Celtics’ 108-100 Game One victory Bryant scored 13 points with 11 rebounds and eight assists and in the Game Six 106-105 clincher he poured in 19 points.

In the 1969 NBA Finals, the Celtics defeated the Los Angeles Lakers four games to three to win the NBA championship and Bryant played a critical role. Boston trailed the series three games to two, when Bryant helped spearhead the Celtics to a 99-90 victory at the Boston Garden on May 3, 1969, to even the series. Bryant played almost a flawless game at point guard, contributing 18 points, 9 rebounds and 5 assists in 47 minutes. In the seventh and deciding game, Bryant again played brilliantly, pouring in 20 points in the Celtics 108-106 title clinching victory at the Los Angeles Forum. The Record reported, “Emmette Bryant never looked better. He’s the little man who is always there.” It was the Celtics 11th title in 13 years.

Bill Russell retired after the season and Bryant’s final year in Boston saw the Celtics drop to 34-48 and no playoff appearance. Bryant played in 71 games while averaging 7.7 ppg. He was exposed by the Celtics in the 1970 NBA expansion draft and was selected by the Buffalo Braves on May 11, 1970. Braves general manager Eddie Donovan said at the time of the selection, “Bryant is a proven pro. He can come in and change the tempo of any ballgame.”

Bryant played behind starting guards Dick Garrett and Herm Gilliam to start the 1970-71 season. He played 25 minutes and scored 7 points with 3 assists in the Braves’ landmark victory on October 14, 1970. Buffalo defeated the fellow expansion Cleveland Cavaliers, 107-92, in the first game in franchise history.

Bryant’s best scoring game of the season came on November 24 in a 112-106 victory over the Phoenix Suns. Bryant and Bob Kaufman each scored 26 points. Bryant’s other outstanding game in his first season with Buffalo was his first game against his former Celtics teammates. He scored 24 points while dishing out nine assists in the Braves’ heartbreaking 117-116 loss to Boston on December 1. Another memorable game came on March 2, when the Lakers beat the Braves. During the game, Bryant and teammate Bob Kauffman got tangled with Los Angeles guard Jerry West, and the Laker superstar came out of the collision with torn knee ligaments. He missed the rest of the season

The Braves finished their inaugural season with a 22-60 record and fourth place in the Atlantic Division. Bryant played in 73 games while averaging 29.3 minutes per game, fifth on the team, and scoring 10 points per game. He led the team with 4.8 assists per game and that was 13th best in the NBA. Tim Wendel wrote in his book, Buffalo, Home of the Braves, “The best remembered guard (from that first season) was Em Bryant, with his distinctive headband.”

Bryant was back with the Braves for the 1971-72 season, which would turn out to be his last with the club and his last season in the NBA. His playing time fell off as he played in 54 games averaging 22.6 minutes. His scoring and assists numbers also declined to 5.1 and 3.8 per game respectively. The Braves finished with an identical 22-60 record but had acquired guards Walt Hazzard and Randy Smith, and those acquisitions cut into Bryant’s playing time. His best game of the season came on October 15, the team’s second game, when he came off the bench to score 15 points and dish out three assists in 20 minutes helping spark the Braves’ 111-109 win over Cleveland. In his final game in the NBA on March 26 in a 119-101 loss to the Baltimore Bullets he scored seven points. He was waived on May 16, 1972.

In Bryant’s eight-year NBA career he played for three different teams while appearing in 566 games with a 6.6 per game scoring average and doling out 3 assists per contest. Following his retirement in 1972, Bryant was an assistant coach at Columbia University during the 1972-73 season under head coach Jack Rohan. He then was an assistant coach with the Seattle Supersonics from 1973-1975, reuniting with Boston teammate and SuperSonics head coach Bill Russell.

Bryant then went to work for the State of Washington. He took a position with the Department of Social and Health Services, and was in charge of recreation throughout the state for that department’s correctional institutions. He spent 30 years with the State of Washington. He later became the Recreation Director for Mission Creek Youth Camp. Bryant also served on the Board of the National Basketball Retired Players Association from 2007 to 2010, helping retired players with career transition, pension issues, health care coverage, and community service.

Bryant is married to Bonnie Bryant. They wed on February 14, 1967, and have been happily married for 54 years. They currently reside in Chicago, Illinois.

(Follow Budd on @WDX2BB)

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