WAYNE EMBRY sits on a rolled green mat, watching the tall, blue-clad players scrimmage. An errant basketball bounces his way. ``That was a rookie who did that,'' a player apologizes. Mr. Embry responds quietly: ``I love to get rookies.''

The little joke typifies the quiet, steady way that Embry has rebuilt the Cleveland Cavaliers from perennial losers into a team with promise.

The Cavs finished up the regular season with a 57-25 record - the team's best ever and the second-best record this year in the National Basketball League (tying the Los Angeles Lakers). Those accomplishments have been eclipsed, for the moment, by the red-hot Detroit Pistons, who beat the Cavs to win the Central Conference championship. The Cavs' first round, best-of-five series against the Chicago Bulls began Friday.

But here at practice in Cleveland's coliseum, Embry seems content with what's already been done.

``We are pleased with the progress of the team,'' he says, focusing on the moving players. ``We never believed that we were a better team than Detroit.... There are other teams that have greater-quality personnel from top to bottom. [But] you see, this team has a great chemistry.'' And if chemistry wins games, as Embry goes on to say, then he is the chemist.

When Embry was hired as general manager three seasons ago by co-owners George and Gordon Gund, he started rebuilding the team almost from scratch. He persuaded Lenny Wilkens, the Seattle Supersonics general manager and former Cleveland player, to come back to coaching. The Cavs acquired three rookies - center Brad Daugherty, forward John Williams, and guard Ron Harper - who became starters immediately and were the top three scorers on the team that year. A fourth rookie, guard Mark Price, would become a mainstay of the team. The Cavs still lost more games than they won that year.

The next season the team acquired two starting forwards, won two more games than they lost, and clinched a playoff berth for the first time in three seasons. This year, average game attendance soared 45 percent over last to 17,827 per game - five times the attendance six years ago.

``It's changed a lot,'' says Phil Hubbard, the only remaining player from the pre-Embry era. ``Everybody thought that Cleveland was a terrible team. [Now] it's a great feeling....

``I think things started to change with the new owners,'' he adds. ``They got basketball people: a good coach, a good general manager.''

Coach Wilkens remembers his first year coaching the Cavaliers: ``When we played the Celtics, the audience was full of green,'' the Celtics' color. ``Now, it's full of blue, full of orange.''

Embry has been very supportive, he adds. ``He wants to give me whatever I need to do my job.''

Basketball writers are beginning to take notice, too. Two weekends ago, Lacy Banks of the Chicago Sun-Times suggested that Wilkens deserved to be coach of the year and Embry, general manager of the year. He ``helped make a league champion out of the [Milwaukee] Bucks,'' Mr. Banks wrote of Embry. ``He is on the threshold of doing the same with the Cavaliers.''

After 11 seasons as a pro basketball center, Embry was named vice-president and general manager of the Bucks in 1972 - the first black in a top front office position in professional sports.

Did he experience any racism in those early years? ``What do you mean, `early years'?'' he asks, his voice rising. ``What about `late years'?'' But he declines to elaborate, saying only that professional sports' poor record of hiring blacks to top management positions speaks for itself.

The general manager of a basketball team is charged with final responsibility for everything from drafting good players to team finances. And by all counts, Embry has done very well at both, says Burt Graeff, a sportswriter now with the Cleveland Plain Dealer who has covered the team for 12 of its 19 seasons.

``He happens to be a real solid professional,'' Mr. Graeff says. ``He really relies on the people around him. He makes those people feel that they have a real input in what's going on.''

``It all comes down to one word - respect,'' Embry says - respect not only between owners and general manager, but between coach and players.

``These people are often seen as objects,'' he says, as the practice session winds down. ``They are not objects. ... These people are individuals. They are private people. And let's respect that.''

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