Shaquille O’Neal, Joe Embry, and the year he lost his eye in a blaze of

By Ed Burke, CNN • Updated 4th September 2020 Embry stands at 6 feet 4 inches tall, and a hairline curve gives his slender frame an appeal that his supporting cast and fellow players…

Shaquille O'Neal, Joe Embry, and the year he lost his eye in a blaze of

By Ed Burke, CNN • Updated 4th September 2020

Embry stands at 6 feet 4 inches tall, and a hairline curve gives his slender frame an appeal that his supporting cast and fellow players could not match.

Already the league’s highest paid player, Embry joined the Philadelphia 76ers for the 1967-68 season, two years after the team moved to Philadelphia, then known as the World’s Fair.

The 76ers acquired him when they acquired Walt Wesley from the New York Knicks, and Embry made his mark by scoring 29 points in the team’s very first game, over Detroit on opening night.

But the triumph was short-lived. Within two weeks of the start of the season, his apartment on South New York Avenue in Philadelphia was burned down, as were the homes of six other NBA players.

Embry spent the first month of the season in the hospital recovering from injuries he sustained in the fire.

Embry brought another historic episode on himself in 1970 when he used a tear gas gun to break up a riot at his own game.

Loyola’s Jim Whalen, and ESPN’s Seth Davis, discuss questions about age limits and player movement in the NBA.

“That pain came out of my eyes and I said, ‘Oh, my God, I’m going to lose my eyesight,’ ” he told basketball historian Pete Weber in a 2013 interview.

‘Most despicable move in professional sports’

Back in the game, Embry turned in a fabulous rookie season, despite the team’s struggles and controversy.

In February of 1968, just a few months before he joined the Sixers, Embry faced questions about his interest in the opposition team the U.S.S.R.

Embry was accused of supporting the USA team that toured the USSR during the 1968 Olympics.

His teammates — including former Chicago Bull and coach Doug Collins — urged him to address the allegations head-on.

Embry hired John Alabaster, the most notorious trial lawyer in the city, and spent his first six months with the team being grilled by reporters.

The charges were dismissed.

The Embry allegations raised serious questions about player unity, a mainstay of the NBA for decades.

They also prompted franchise owner Sid Hartman to write a letter to the NBA — which he’d later regret — accusing the league of being racist and challenging it to ensure that underrepresented players could enter the league.

Fans, coaches and players publicly rallied behind Embry.

“The most despicable move in professional sports,” said the “Sixer Spirit” or league publication at the time.

“I know about the Stanley Cup,” Embry said of his predecessors’ animosity to him. “I know about the World’s Fair. I know about the controversy in Buffalo, the All-Star Game.”

Too old to travel?

But his detractors had other reasons to oppose his rise to NBA stardom.

Despite the public outcry, Embry stuck to his guns that the U.S.S.R. was a better place to play.

“His attitude is despite what is often portrayed,” Weber told CNN, “I do think that he’s politically correct.”

Embry’s determination to go against the grain, combined with the financial success of the Sixers, a team that had won three championships in four years, made him a benefactor.

His lucrative salary in 1971 became the highest in the NBA, earning him the nickname “Mr. Mumbo Jumbo,” until today.

But it came at a price.

“He didn’t go to the level of Russell, Abdul-Jabbar, Wilt,” Whalen said. “But nobody wants him as much.”

In 1971, Embry retired from the game. He made fewer than $10,000 that season.

In all, Embry made $2.8 million from the 76ers between the 1966-67 and 1970-71 seasons, according to the franchise’s annual financial report.

In 1972, Embry went back to the courtroom.

He represented both the NFL players and the Minnesota Vikings in an antitrust suit against the NFL owners.

“I said this time that this is going to be my last legal fight,” Embry told ESPN’s Michael Wilbon. “I’ve done all I could do.”

By the end of the day, he lost both suits, and there was one last battle for his love of the game that would cost him his left eye.

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