By Ryan McNeill
While reading through Mark Kriegels biography of Pete Maravich this week I came across a great story involving Billy Packer that pleasantly surprised me. As a younger basketball fan in my mid-twenties I’ve only known Packer as a loud mouth that gets way too amped during March Madness games on CBS, however, after reading this excerpt from Kriegler’s book I’ll view Packer in a different light this weekend. Instead of seeing him as yet another commentator that suffers from verbal diarrhea I’ll see a fellow hoops addict that is passionate about the game of basketball and is willing to take some risks to play the game he loves.
Kriegel wrote in Pistol: The Life of Pete Maravich that:
By the mid-1960’s, basketball was a stylistic hybrid, evovling in parallel worlds. There were two America’s: black and white, urban and rural. One was learned in an asphalt schoolyard encolced by a chain-link fence, the other was practiced under a hoop mounted in the driveway alongside a picket fence. Rarely did they meet, especially in the South.
Consider the case of Billy Packer, Wake Forest’s All-ACC guard, who, in late 1959, walked into Whitaker gymnasium on the camps of Winston-Salem Teachers College, a charter member of the Colored Intercollegiate Athletic Association. The only white kid among a couple thousand fans, Packer had come to get a look at the Rams’ guard, Cleo Holl. From Newark, New Jersey, Hill – the amazing Cleo Hill as he was often called – had an assortment of hook shots, set shots and jump shots and extraordinary leaping ability.
At the insistence of the Winston-Salem coach, Clarence “Big House” Gaines, Packer took a seat by the home team’s bench. Before long, the ACC’s reigning ballhandling whis was in awe. “Billy didn’t say much to me, but I knew exactly what he was thinking,” Gaines would write in his autobiography. “He was thinking that the black kids in a tiny girl’s college in the tiny CIAA played better basketball than mighty North Carolina, North Carolina State, Duke and Wake Forest in the mighty Atlantic Coast Conference.”
On a Sunday morning a few days later, Coach Gaines happened by his office on his way to church when he heard a game in progress. Who could be playing now? he wondered, as he peered through the gym door. There was Packer and a couple of the Wake players versus Hill and a couple of his teammates. “I watched for a few seconds, then closed the door before anyone noticed me,” Gaines would recall. “What I had witnessed was probably illegal.”
Despite the sanctions against such race mixing, those Sunday morning games at Whitaker gym became a surreptitious custom. The players from either side of town weren’t crusading for intergrationists, they just wanted to play the best game they could find.
Growing up I never worried about who I would play basketball with, I only worried about where the best pick-up games were taking place. Maybe this was because I’m a suburban kid. Maybe it’s because I grew up just outside of Toronto (a city that takes great pride in being a cultural mosaic). Perhaps it’s because I was raised by parents who taught me to never consider colour as a criteria for who I became friends with. Regardless of the reason, I never cared about or considered the colour of the players I was playing against – all I cared about was playing against the best competition I could find and beating them.
However, while talking about this topic with a good friend of mine, David Wilson, it’s clear that unfortunately race still has a prevalent role in America. While I tried to argue with David that things are different here in Canada I also had to concede that I’ve found during my time in Chicago, Washington and New Orleans that race is unfortunately still a big factor in American culture. If discrimination still exists in our society I can only imagine how much racial tension would have been coursing through the South at the time that Packer was playing ball at Whitaker College.
While myself and most of my friends may not think twice race or about what Packer did because it’s something we have always done, I’m someone who has a lot of respect for him being a revolutionary and only worrying about where the best pick-up ball was being played at a time when this way of thinking wasn’t accepted by society.