Nearly 60 years before NBA players took a stand for social justice in the Orlando bubble and called for a four-day halt to the NBA playoffs this week, four members of the Boston Celtics took part in the first NBA boycott.
When a Lexington, Kentucky hotel coffee shop declined to seat the Celtics’ Black players, Bill Russell, K.C. Jones, Sam Jones, Satch Sanders and Al Butler flew home to Boston, refusing to play a preseason exhibition game against the St. Louis Hawks. Two Black members of the Hawks, Cleo Hill and Woody Sauldsberry, also chose not to play.
Gary Phillips, who was the University of Houston’s first All-American, was a rookie on that Celtics team, but he was so consumed with just earning a spot on a team in the middle of a dynasty, that he doesn’t recall that night in Lexington when he and his white teammates took the court without four future Hall of Famers.
“That was about 60 years ago, and my memory isn’t as good as it used to be,” the 80-year-old Phillips said from his son’s home in Katy on Friday morning.
Russell brought that historic night back to the forefront Thursday when he tweeted: “In ’61 I walked out of an exhibition game much like the NBA players did yesterday. I am one of the few people that knows what it felt like to make such an important decision. I am so proud of these young guys.”
In some ways, Phillips is a forgotten star in Houston basketball history, rarely recognized alongside other UH greats like Elvin Hayes, Hakeem Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler. Despite his anonymity, Phillips holds a place in the program’s history as the first standout in the Guy V. Lewis era, the leader of the Cougars’ first NCAA Tournament team and the first player in UH history to be a Top 10 draft pick.
In his five-year NBA career, Phillips won an NBA championship with the Celtics and played in another NBA Finals with the San Francisco Warriors, teaming up with a cast of Hall of Famers including Russell, Bob Cousy, Wilt Chamberlain and Al Attles.
Phillips averaged 6.7 points per game, including a banner 1964 season when he scored 10 points per game on the Warriors’ team that lost to his former team in the Finals.
“I used to be a really great player, then the Internet came along and put up all my statistics,” Phillips laughed.
Although Phillips made his post-NBA home in Houston and raised his family here, he’d never even visited the city before arriving on a recruiting trip when he was a high school senior in Quincy, Illinois.
“I left Quincy and it was probably 20 degrees and there was snow everywhere,” Phillips recalled. “When I landed in Houston, it was 80 degrees and balmy. That pretty much made up my mind for me.”
Phillips joined a UH program that was still finding its legs under the 35-year-old Lewis.
It didn’t take long for Phillips to make his mark. When Oscar Robertson and his No. 1 Cincinnati Bearcats visited Houston in February 1960, Lewis and defensive-minded assistant Harvey Pate designed a box-and-one defense with the intent of slowing down the nation’s best college player.
Phillips, just a sophomore, drew the assignment as the one shadowing Robertson. The game actually was televised regionally and Phillips earned some acclaim for limiting Robertson to just 13 points – 20 below his season average – even though Houston lost 57-47.
“That was my coming out party,” Phillips said. “I mean, I didn’t slow down Oscar. The team did it, but since it was on TV, people kind of knew who I was after that and it gave me the confidence that I could play.”
Phillips went on to lead UH in scoring as a junior and senior, including the school’s first trip to the NCAA Tournament in 1961, and was drafted by one of the greatest teams in NBA history. Immediately he found himself fighting for playing time in a backcourt that included future Hall of Famers Cousy, K.C. Jones, Sam Jones and Frank Ramsey
“Of course, when you walk into the Boston Garden and you see all those NBA flags up there, it could be a little intimidating, but I fit in OK,” Phillips said.
Phillips played 10 minutes a game as a rookie on the Celtics’ 1962 title team – their fourth straight championship – but then Boston drafted another future Hall of Famer, John Havlicek, that offseason.
“I thought I’d get a chance to win a few more championship rings, but they decided to keep a kid named Havlicek over me,” Phillips said.
Phillips was traded to San Francisco where he got more playing time and a little payback against his old team when he scored 15 points in Game 1 of the 1964 NBA Finals in the Boston Garden, but the Celtics won their sixth straight championship, eliminating Phillips and the Warriors in five games.
After his playing career ended at the age of 27, Phillips returned to Houston where he and his wife Judy, who passed away six years ago, raised their children and Phillips worked in real estate. After their children were grown, Phillips and his wife moved to the tiny town of Hunt, located in the Texas Hill Country about 100 miles west of Austin. Now, Phillips lives in Katy with his son and daughter-in-law, relaxing and watching playoff basketball when he catches it on TV.
“With COVID, I don’t go too many places, but I guess that’s the same for everybody these days,” Phillips said. “It’s nice to be remembered. I’m just glad people still want to talk basketball with me.”