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How Billy Packer, Cleo Hill, & Clarence "Big House" Gaines Forged a Relationship in the Segregated South

Billy Packer! The name is a lightning rod for most college basketball fans. If you're a college basketball fan, odds are, you know Billy Packer and have an opinion about him. This quote from "Why is Billy Packer Considered a Better College Basketball Analyst than Bill Raftery?" sums up the typical negative criticism of Packer:

"Packer seems to be hated by more fans than he is loved, mostly for his intense ACC bias (particularly towards his Alma matter Wake Forest), his refusal to accept mid-major conferences as worthy competition for power conferences, and his inability to admit when he is wrong."

I decided to write this blog because a couple of people I follow on Twitter characterized Packer as a racist. I immediately objected and told them of the relationship between Packer and my father, Clarence "Big House" Gaines. How they met is a most unique story and I've decided to post excerpts from my father's book, "They Call Me Big House," so you can learn a side of Billy Packer that most basketball fans have no knowledge of, and you can appreciate the historical significance of the book, which has not been widely read or touted.

Cleo Hill also figures prominently in this excerpt. Many of you who will read this blog have probably never heard of Cleo Hill. He was the first great player that my father coached, and my dad has said his talent was equal to Earl "The Pearl" Monroe. I've chosen to highlight a blog and an article on Cleo Hill to give you some background on his basketball journey and life. THE CLEO HILL STORY: HE WAS MICHAEL JORDAN BEFORE THERE WAS MICHAEL JORDAN & Ian Begley on Cleo Hill.

Click this link to see a video of the Cleo Hill story as featured on ESPN's "Black Magic" documentary.

It was in one of the first home games of the 1959-60 season, when Cleo Hill was a junior, that an event occurred that would start me, Cleo, and the city of Winston-Salem down the path to peaceful integration of the races.

The game was just about to start when I looked up and saw a white teenager glancing around Whitaker Gym on our campus. It was easy to see him. He was the only white kid in a crowd of 2,000 black folks. Puzzled, I looked at him closer and recognized him from photos that I had seen in the Winston-Salem Journal's sports section. He was Billy Packer, a guard that Wake Forest College in Winston-Salem had recruited from a Northern high school. His father was the coach at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania. I walked over to him, introduced myself, and said, "Son, why don't you sit down here with me, so you can ask me any questions you want?" I didn't ask him why he was there. I knew why. He was there to watch good basketball, and I needed no other explanation of what one lone white person was doing on the black side of town.

Billy sat down beside me and then asked me which of my players was Cleo Hill. News of Cleo's skills was beginning to reach a white audience, even if that audience was another college basketball player who lived and breathed the sport. Just as I pointed to Cleo on the court, the game began. Cleo got the tip and immediately threw the ball up toward the basket-a very un-Cleo-like move. The ball never even came close to the basket. It was as big an airball as any kid who had never played basketball could make. Without saying a word, Billy glanced at me with maybe a touch of pity or skepticism in his eyes. I knew what he was thinking. This is the great Cleo Hill I have heard so much about? was written all over Billy's face.

But Cleo soon removed that look from Billy's face and replaced it with one of awe as he began to sink 15-foot hook shots, two-handed set shots regularly, and every other kind of shot there is in the book. Cleo was great on defense, too, even goaltending and getting away with it.

Billy didn't say much to me, but I knew exactly what he was thinking. He thought that the black kids in a tiny girls' college in the tiny CIAA played better basketball than the mighty North Carolina, North Carolina State, Duke, and Wake Forest in the mighty Atlantic Coast Conference. Billy later told me that he thought the ACC probably had more overall talent spread over the entire league. and that Len Chappell, Wake's center, was better than our center. On both those counts, I would probably agree. The CIAA's smallest schools struggled to field consistently good teams, and Chappell was an excellent player.

But Billy went on to say that he had never seen anyone like Cleo for leaping ability. Most importantly, he said the overall athleticism and speed of our team was something that he was not accustomed to seeing on white basketball courts. Without quite saying it, Billy was saying that my little Winston-Salem Teachers College team could hold their own with, if not defeat some of the big-time university teams.

The next day, Wake Forest's coach. Horace "Bones" McKinney, casually asked Billy how he had spent the previous evening. "Watching Winston-Salem Teachers College play basketball;' was Billy's reply. Bones just nodded. He was trained to be a Baptist minister and had secretly worked behind the scenes to smooth the way for Sam Jones of North Carolina College to be drafted by the NBA in 1957. I know Bones didn't harbor any ill will toward blacks and probably didn't have any ill feelings toward anyone. Well, maybe he did have ill feelings toward the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, which had beaten Wake for the ACC championship in a 1957 game decided by a controversial call.

A few days later, I stopped at my office in the gym on my way to church on a Sunday morning. I heard basketballs being dribbled and shot. I would never call a practice on a Sunday morning. In fact, I urged my players to take Sunday off and go to church to get right with God. I opened the door to the court and looked inside. There were my black players taking on the white Demon Deacons from Wake Forest in a pickup scrimmage. There were no coaches and no fans-just a white team playing basketball against a black team. Perhaps most importantly, there were no referees and no students in street clothes acting in that role. The kids depended on each other to call and admit to fouls.

I watched for a few seconds, then closed the door before anyone noticed me. I went on to church. What I had witnessed was probably illegal. In most Southern towns, it was literally against the law for black athletes to play white athletes. In 1947, when Jackie Robinson had tried to play professional baseball in some Southern cities, the local governments had closed those facilities rather than allow him to play. Now, there were 20 or so black and white college students in my gym playing basketball.

Billy, without asking Coach McKinney's permission, and Cleo, without asking my permission, had arranged for the two teams to play each other whenever travel and class schedules permitted. Billy would later tell me that he had told his teammates about the phenomenal play he had seen in our game, and how the conversation had drifted around to wondering how the Wake team would perform against our players.

One thing led to another, and soon the entire white Wake team from the ritzy west side of town was regularly driving over to the poor east side of town to scrimmage. Sometimes, my black players would cram themselves into a couple of cars and make the trip over to Wake.

Dozens of these unauthorized scrimmages occurred in the early to the mid-1960s, thanks to Billy Packer, who started them as a player and then continued them when he graduated and returned a few years later as a Wake Forest assistant coach.

What Billy and his teammates and Cleo and his teammates did was unofficially integrate Winston-Salem. According to Billy and Cleo, there was never any conflict between the two races on the basketball court. There were no racial taunts, no macho displays, no fistfights, no violence of any kind. Coach McKinney and I wouldn't know. We were never invited to attend any of those scrimmages. I don't think a single one of them was ever supervised or even witnessed for the full game by a coach on either team. This was the players' idea, and I think both coaches instinctively knew that it should stay their idea.

In one sense, those scrimmages were amazing. In 1959, in a South where racial segregation was the social and legal norm, there were 20 or so black and white young men slamming into each other on a court in an intense basketball game. Despite all this physical contact, there was no violence.

Contrast that with what would happen two years later in Greensboro, when several male students from North Carolina A&T staged a famous sit-in at a Woolworth lunch counter. When the black students refused to leave after they were refused service, several angry white men started pulling at them and hitting them. Those students were arrested for trying to eat breakfast.

The calm way Billy Packer and Cleo Hill introduced their teams to each other tracked with what I had seen when Jackie Robinson started playing baseball. When Jackie proved he was a good player, the white fans accepted him because they wanted to see good baseball. Those white Wake Forest kids not only wanted to see good basketball; they wanted to learn from the black kids who were playing it. Once Billy described for his teammates what he had seen in a normal CIAA sanctioned game, the Wake Forest team realized they could learn how to be better players by playing against Winston-Salem Teachers College. And my black players realized that scrimmaging against the white players, who played a slower, more controlled kind of game closer to the original rules of basketball, could only enrich their experience. True, they were unlikely to encounter the white kind of play on a ClAA court, where fast breaks ruled, but they would at least learn what playing white basketball was like.

I don't think the newspaper editors ever got wind of the scrimmages. If they did, they chose not to send reporters to cover them. I know the police never got wind of the games. If they had, they might have sent a squad over to break them up, and maybe even to arrest me for knowingly allowing the races to mix on the basketball court. The games remained a secret known mostly to the players themselves.

Billy went on to do pretty well for himself. After leaving coaching, he became a college basketball play-by-play announcer for television. I remember watching Billy on his first college broadcast, a game between Maryland and North Carolina in Chapel Hill. Billy was interviewing Maryland coach Lefty Driesell when he made some kind of comment about how "we don't think much of you down here in North Carolina." Lefty just stared at him, not sure what to say.

I knew what to say. Billy tells me that no television executive called him up to critique his first performance, but I did. I told Billy just one thing and then hung up: "Don't ever insult a coach to his face to get a reaction."

Billy's done much better since that rocky night. I think he is one of the best college-sports commentators working on network television today. I call him one of my millionaire friends.

Posted 4th April 2011 by Clarence Gaines

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