In late January, the basketball world lost an icon in Billy Packer. With Packer’s death came many reminders that during his 82 years of life, he meant so much to so many people.
For the millions that tuned in to Packer during a broadcasting career that spanned from 1972 to 2008, his legacy is rooted in an iconic voice and a name that became synonymous with the Final Four.
For a Wake Forest basketball alum like me, Packer’s role as a broadcaster only scratches the surface of defining a legacy that dates back to his years in Winston-Salem, N.C.
During his time as an assistant coach at Wake, Packer played an integral role in the program breaking its color barrier with the recruitment of a trio of players, one of which was my father.
Norwood “Todd” Todmann was the first Black basketball player to earn a scholarship to Wake Forest and he made his debut in the 1967-68 season, two years after Maryland’s Billy Jones broke the ACC’s color barrier. Wake’s next recruiting class included Charlie Davis, who went on to become the ACC’s first Black Player of the Year, and my father Gil McGregor, who would play professionally before covering the game in sports media for decades like his old assistant coach.
Packer’s contributions changed lives, and his legacy is weaved within the fabric of the Wake Forest program.
Think of Wake Forest basketball and names like Tim Duncan and Chris Paul are probably the first to come to mind. How could they not be? Very few schools can say they’ve produced such transcendent alumni, let alone two all-time greats. Packer’s name is unquestionably one that must be mentioned with the above two.
In three years of varsity basketball at Wake, Packer scored over 1,300 points and got his first taste of the Final Four as the second-leading scorer as a senior in 1962. It’s still the deepest tournament run in school history.
Upon graduating, Packer became an assistant coach, first under legendary head coach Bones McKinney and later under Jack Murdock and Jack McCloskey, with whom he would help break the program’s racial barriers. When Packer’s coaching career began, Jim Crow laws had a heavy hand in enforcing racism at a governmental level in America, including the segregation of educational institutes.
Only a few years into his role as an assistant, Packer proved to be instrumental in the recruitment of Todmann, a 6-foot-3 wing from New York City. Todmann’s commitment to the Deacs came 13 years after the Atlantic Coast Conference was founded and coincided with Charlie Scott making history at North Carolina as its first Black basketball player.
The school’s groundbreaking recruitment of Todmann made way for an era of transcendence in the program. In 1967, Wake brought in a recruiting class that featured both Davis and my dad, who joined Todmann on the varsity team after a mandated year of freshman ball.
“Todd lived across the street from me and we grew up as the best of friends,” Davis told The Sporting News. “When he decided to attend Wake, it didn’t necessarily mean that I was going to attend Wake, but it did mean that I knew it was out there.
“Todd told Billy about me, and he agreed to come see me play before my senior year.”
Thanks to playing alongside another dynamic guard named Nate Archibald in a summer event, Davis didn’t exactly wow Packer at first, but he did get a second chance at a first impression, eventually drumming up recruiting interest by going off for 38 and 50 points in high school games with Packer in attendance.
From there, the two forged a friendship, and after a midseason transfer to North Carolina’s Laurinburg Institute, Davis trusted Packer enough to commit to Wake Forest without ever stepping foot on the campus.
My father’s story was a bit different. Unlike the New Yorkers, he hails from Raeford, N.C., a town of under 5,000 in the thick of the south. Having integrated Hoke County High School as a junior in 1965, barrier-breaking wasn’t exactly new territory for him, but after quickly sprouting to 6-7 in rural North Carolina, being heralded for his basketball talent was.
A top-50 recruit, my dad could have chosen from a number of schools, including the dynastic UCLA Bruins or historic Indiana, but his small-town upbringing caused him to want something a bit smaller and a bit closer to home. Packer being the face of Wake’s recruiting efforts placed it over the likes of Davidson, North Carolina and NC State.
“Talking to Coach Packer — he didn’t seem to be too slick or too hip,” my dad recalled. “He didn’t make me feel like I need to try to listen to what he’s saying and try to figure out where it was coming from. He just felt comfortable.”
As the second and third Black basketball players in school history, both Davis and my dad faced uphill battles of adversity, including what was described to me as unwritten rules that limited a team’s number of Black players, including a cap of two teammates on the floor at once.
And still, both experienced great success as a duo.
In addition to winning ACC Player of the Year in 1971, Davis is still the school’s seventh all-time leading scorer whose No. 12 hangs in the rafters at Lawrence Joel Memorial Coliseum. My dad amassed 1,039 points and 850 rebounds in just three seasons of varsity play.
It’s hard to imagine either of them reaching such heights without the guidance of Packer.
Davis referred to his coach as his “stable peace” and my dad simply said he was made to feel “at ease” at a time in which there were countless reasons to feel uneasy.
Packer left his post as an assistant coach prior to the duo’s senior year, but for Davis and my dad, it was clear that he understood the magnitude of integrating Wake Forest’s basketball team.
“Billy had a clear understanding that the world that we lived in was not fair,” Davis said. And while Packer may not have explicitly said it in their conversations, Davis added that “he had this unique understanding of knowing.”
When reminiscing, my father drew from a moment in which Packer expressed such understanding. When Packer was speaking at an event, Packer talked about the impact the three players had on the city of Winston-Salem.
“Billy not only saw basketball players, he saw young men who he thought could grow up to be influential men who were Black, that would come to Wake Forest to play basketball,” he said
A legacy can be defined in many ways. For some, it’s the lasting impact of your own actions. For others, it’s the domino effect of your impact on others.
Packer’s legacy is one that includes both.
The integration of Wake Forest basketball paved the way for icons like Duncan, Paul, Muggsy Bogues, Randolph Childress, Rodney Rogers and Josh Howard. And though Packer left Wake Forest prior to their senior year, his role in the lives of Davis and my father didn’t end once he finished coaching.
“Once I left Wake, that’s where Billy and I really stayed in touch with one another,” Davis said of their relationship. “We would talk about the different things that I was thinking about doing or doing.”
From advice to guidance toward job opportunities, Davis considered Packer as someone to play things off of “all the way through my life.”
Once my father’s playing career came to an end, a few career changes eventually led him to pick up the headset to begin a broadcasting career of his own, ultimately spending 24 seasons as a color analyst for the Charlotte and New Orleans Hornets in addition to years of work covering the ACC, much like Packer. And while he carved his own path, my dad certainly drew plenty of influence from the voice of the Final Four.
“I had a chance to continue my contact with basketball as a broadcaster — then who would be my role model? Who would be the person that I would emulate, point myself towards or aim to be like? It was Billy Packer, who was having a great career as a broadcaster. And when the opportunity came … the person who kind of made me keep focused on the fact that I wanted to do it was Billy Packer.”
During a roundtable ahead of of the 2007 Final Four, Packer was asked how he wanted to be remembered as a broadcaster, to which he responded that “I don’t want to be remembered … I don’t really have any interest in what people think of me 50 years from now.
“I had a great run with the game and that’s just how I approach it.”
While that may have been his sentiment then, I’ll tell you what people think of him 16 years later:
For Davis, “his legacy was simply understanding and, in my case, especially making sure that that the playing fields stayed level reasonably level.”
To my dad, Packer’s legacy encompasses his individuality, his voice and his compassion:
“He was an individual, he was a ballplayer and he was a Demon Deacon. He stood up for people that he believed in, like Charlie. He talked about what he saw in everybody, like Todd and he had advice for people that he cared about, like me.”