Legends Spotlight: Bill Wennington and Emmette Bryant

November 14, 2016

Last Saturday the National Basketball Retired Players Association hosted the latest edition of its youth basketball and mentoring program called “Full Court Press: Prep for Success”. Several former NBA/WNBA standouts were in attendance at the Chicago Police Training Facility including Emmette Bryant/Bill Wennington. The program travels all over the country to introduce kids to positive role models in both basketball and life. NBRPA writer Jon Teitel has spent time talking with many of the greatest players in NBA history and will share his interviews at LegendsofBasketball.com. Jon visited with Bill Wennington about his role with the Full Court Press program and winning 3 straight NBA titles with the Bulls.

Bill Wennington
What did you do at the Full Court Press clinic? I was involved with on-court drills/skills at different stations. We also had some life skills seminars where the kids learned about financial/other issues.

What was the best part of the clinic? It was great to get onto the floor, work with the kids, see how they played, and watch them work hard. As long as you are trying to do your best and are being attentive, that is the best that you can do.

How do you try to connect with the kids? I connect with them through basketball. The younger kids are amazed that I am 7’ tall so that is an attention-getter. I teach them that it is okay to make mistakes or fall down, and I try to keep everyone involved.

What do you hope that the kids get out of this great experience? I hope they understand that there are different aspects of life and we give them a chance to see something else. When they meet players in person who can teach them that there are things beyond the distractions on the street, it shows them that they have other opportunities to focus on.

What were the best/worst parts of going from active to retired? The best part is that my body did not hurt as much anymore: it is nice to wake up in the morning and not feel achy. The worst part is that the paycheck is a lot less! I miss the competition and working with my teammates: when you play together long enough you become part of a family.

How did you end up as member of the National Basketball Retired Players Association? As a former player I received a letter asking me to join: I felt that it was a great way to stay involved with other retired players and give something back to the community. The guys who came before me gave a lot back and it is important to help your community grow.

Being a part of the NBRPA with other legends of basketball, what is the biggest benefit of the organization to players who are embarking on life after basketball? There is a wealth of information out there. You run into a lot of things regarding your family, your money, etc., and it helps to talk to someone who has gone through it before. You might think that you are set for life after retiring from the NBA but some bad habits can keep you from living prosperously through the rest of your life. It really is a fraternity that helps better ourselves.

How do older players serve as advocates to younger players? There is a “brotherhood”: when you run into guys who you played against, or even if you are from different eras, there is a bond because you have gone through the same things. Everyone seems to be very open to it and the young guys will ask questions. They are trying to learn and they do not want to be 1 of those stories that ends in hardship.

What have you been up to since retiring? I call myself “semi-retired”. I have done color commentary for the Bulls on the radio since 2003. It is a great job and it keeps me involved with the game that I love. I am used to the length of the season but I do not love the travel.

You grew up in Montreal: how did you 1st get into basketball? I played hockey until I was 12 years old, which is when I could not find a pair of skates to wear that were bigger than size 14. I ran into a guy during swim lessons who asked me if I was interested in playing basketball. I was not great at 1st but loved the game and stuck with it.

You played for Team Canada at the 1984 Olympics, where you lost to Team USA at the Forum: what was it like to play against a young Michael Jordan, and how often would he remind you that he beat you twice after you became teammates in Chicago? I moved to New York for high school when I was 16 years old. Michael and I were both McDonald’s All-Americans in 1981: I even remember finding him during the McDonald’s Game with a long outlet pass. He brought up the Olympics once when we were teammates but he was pretty focused on winning a title rather than discussing the past.

In Game 4 of the 1996 Eastern Conference Semifinals you scored 4 PTS including the game-winning shot in a 3-PT road win over the Knicks: where does that rank among the highlights of your career? I was just doing my job. I had been in that situation before in high school/college: if you are prepared to do your job then it is just part of the game. At the time I simply had an opportunity to shoot the ball and tried to make it. I think the reason that I had such a long pro career is that I tried to stay in the moment. I would not get too high or low but I was extremely ecstatic about that 1 when the game was over.

You played for Phil Jackson: what made him such a great coach, and what was the most important thing that you ever learned from him? A lot of the lessons he taught us through Zen Buddhism and Native American history was important. He was great at reading our moods/body language. We were all good players in college and all had egos but only 5 of us could be on the court at 1 time. He knew how to keep us motivated so that we would be successful when it was our time to step onto the court. We were all fighting for the same thing thanks to Phil.

That 1996 team went 72-10 en route to winning a title: what was it like to be part of 1 of the greatest teams in NBA history, and do you think that team is the best-ever? Golden State won 73 games last year but I think that we were the best because we were able to finish the season by winning it all. It was phenomenal at the time: when I look back at it now there are so many things that can go wrong. It is hard to only lose 10 games: guys have to play through their aches/pains and it is not easy to go on the road to play 4 games in 5 nights. Sometimes you need 1 of your guys on the bench to make the game-winning shot and somehow you have to find the energy/focus to play together. The team part of the game is what makes it so great.

 

Jon visited with Emmette Bryant about his role with the Full Court Press program and winning an NBA title in 1969.

Emmette “Em” Bryant

What is your role with the Full Court Press program? I am a coach, which entails demonstrating skills to kids on the court. I also double as a mentor in the classrooms off the court with groups who rotate every 35-40 minutes studying how to get out of gangs, gain financial literacy, etc. It is a combination of basketball/life skills.

What was your favorite highlight from the clinic? Just being involved with 125 kids from all parts of the city who did not have to worry about which street not to cross and whether they could wear their cap backwards. The clinic is always a fun day.

What is your coaching philosophy on the court? I start with fundamentals depending on which skill I am teaching: how to position your body, how to shoot the ball, how to box out your opponent, etc.

What do you hope that the kids get out of this great experience? I hope that they had fun. Practice is monotonous but it will make you better at whatever you want to do: you have to make it fun for the kids and not tedious. The other coaches there were Kenny Battle, Kenny Gattison, Bill Wennington, and Jeff Sanders.

What was your transition like from basketball player to retired player? It was not very difficult because I continued to do clinics after I stopped playing. I was not 1 of the highest-paid players so I augmented my income by doing clinics all summer long at places like Kutcher’s in the Catskills.

Why did you decide to join the National Basketball Retired Players Association and what did you do as a member of the Executive Board? I took on a big role as VP of the Chicago chapter, which takes up a lot of my time. It was a no-brainer for me to join due to the menu of programs they offer. I am fortunate to have earned my degree and have been able to do a lot of speaking engagements. It was a much-needed venue and now we have 11 chapters across the country. We have access to helping kids thanks to being in the same city as an NBA team with whom we can form a partnership. If a former player wants to coach then he needs a degree: we work with many institutions who have continuing education programs. A lot of 1-and-done players say that they will go back to college but it becomes less important as they get older. They can also pad their resumes by working in the D-League and interacting with players who might later play for them in the NBA.

Being a part of the NBRPA with other legends of basketball, how beneficial is the organization to players who are embarking on life after basketball? If they are financially sound then we have a wealth management program that can help with their portfolio so that they are not lacking for anything. We also deal with franchise opportunities such as McDonald’s/TGI Friday’s if they want to become an entrepreneur. There are also high-risk programs if you want a greater return on your money, or you can form your own foundation for community programs: it really depends on the player, how far he went in school, and what his interests were.

In what ways has your involvement in the NBRPA helped you become an advocate to other retired players? It is something that I have always done: I try to make myself available for speaking engagements/clinics all over the country. I went to DePaul and they have utilized me quite a bit as well: you have to lean back on the connections you have formed.

You have accomplished so many things on the court, but what have you been able to accomplish off the court? I am in a number of Hall of Fames: Chicagoland, DePaul, Marshall High School, etc. That all came through my community involvement.

You had a lot of “detours” early on like serving in the Air Force and going to JC: what is the secret to dealing with adversity when things do not always go your way? There is always an alternative to whatever your situation is, even if it is not as good as your current situation. When I dropped out of high school I was a juvenile delinquent and consequently I was sent to a reform school. My gym teacher was Jesse White, who was all-state in baseball/basketball/football and is now the Illinois Secretary of State. He formed tournaments for us to play against other cottages, and after he saw me play he said that I could do better than my current situation due to my basketball ability. After getting out of reform school my parents decided that I would be better off in the Air Force so they enrolled me in 1955. I trained me to be a radar operator and eventually did that down in the Panama Canal for 3 years. I played a lot of basketball for the Air Force as well as a Panamanian team and led both teams in scoring while winning championships. I earned my GED, got discharged, and visited several colleges. I did not have enough prerequisites to attend a major university so I had to attend Crane JC (right down the street from my house!), where I led the nation in scoring. My coach had previously worked at DePaul so we would go out there every week to scrimmage their freshmen team. Coach Ray Meyer would often drop by the gym and he got to see me play, then offered me a scholarship.

In August of 1968 you were traded from Phoenix to Boston, who was led by player/coach Bill Russell: was it weird to play for a guy who also happened to be your team’s best rebounder? It was great to play with Bill: he was very open to suggestion whether you were a star or a bench player. If we saw something on the court then we could interject it into the conversation and he would take it under consideration. The good thing about him being a great rebounder is that he was also a great defender so he would help out if your man beat you to the basket. Once in a while we would make sure to get him some easy shots on offense to reward him for his hard work on defense.

In Game 7 of the 1969 NBA Finals with Boston you scored 20 PTS in a win over the Lakers: what are your memories of 1 of the greatest games in basketball history? You will get no argument from me! Folks had written us off at the beginning of the playoffs: the only reason we made it was the Cincinnati lost their final game of the regular season. Even though we were the defending champs we backed into the playoffs, so we never had home-court advantage. We beat Philly 4-1 even though they won almost all of their regular season matchups against us, then beat the Knicks 4-2. LA won the 1st 2 games of the Finals at home by a combined 8 PTS. The series shifted back to Boston and we evened the series at 2-2 before heading back to LA. They won Game 5 at their home and we won Game 6 at our home, then went back to LA for all the marbles. They had several thousand balloons up in the ceiling and we walked past several cartons of champagne stacked outside the Lakers dressing room. Russ did not generally give a lot of pregame Knute Rockne-type speeches, so we all got together, put our hands in the middle, and he said, “These guys cannot beat us, so let’s go out, win this game, and take the trophy home.” That was it.

You were selected by Phoenix/Buffalo in 2 separate expansion drafts: how did it feel to go from storied franchises like New York/Boston to brand new franchises? I told Phoenix that I would retire rather than move out there: it was not the Phoenix of today but was more like a ghost town so I never even went out there to visit. I was playing at Kutcher’s as part of a benefit for Maurice Stokes and Red Auerbach asked if I would un-retire if he made a deal to acquire me. I told him yes because I wanted to stay on the East Coast. Russ retired after we won the title in 1969 and Tommy Heinsohn became the new coach. The playing time for veterans like me/Satch Sanders was significantly decreased because we were in rebuilding mode and Tommy wanted to go with the new guys like Don Chaney/Jo Jo White. Buffalo was allowed to select 2 unprotected players from each team and I was 1 of them. It was okay with me because I knew that I would get more playing time in Buffalo. I was very familiar with the people who ran their organization like Eddie Donovan/Dick McGuire.

After retiring you became an assistant to your former teammate Russell with the SuperSonics: what was it like to work alongside 1 of the greatest players in NBA history? We had a great relationship and he assigned a lot of duties to me. I ran the defense, helped him install the offense, and did a lot of scouting. We improved by 10 games from the previous year, which was quite a jump, then improved 7 more games and made the playoffs the following year.