Tom “Satch” Sanders

 

 

http://www.celtic-nation.com/interviews/satch_sanders/satch_sanders_page1.htm

SHOW STOPPER

Michael D. McClellan

 

 

Long before rebounding maniac Dennis Rodman brought his troubled, Bad Boy image to championship teams in Detroit and Chicago, another forward from another era was pulling down rebounds and winning championships – eight in all – with tremendous athleticism, style and grace.  Long before Michael Cooper enhanced his reputation as a preeminent defender by sticking to Larry Bird like glue, another player was busy building a reputation of his own with stellar, all-around defensive play.  He was the player asked to do the dirty work, to put the clamps on the likes of Elgin Baylor, Bob Pettit, Dolph Schayes, and Rick Barry.  He was the player who operated below the radar, his star eclipsed by such Boston Celtic luminaries as Bill Russell, Bob Cousy and Sam Jones.  His name is Tom “Satch” Sanders, and you would be hard-pressed to name a finer all-around defensive forward in NBA history.

 

Satch Sanders played 13 seasons for the Boston Celtics.  He was the perfect compliment to Russell, Cousy and the other higher-profile Celtics, a player who understood his role and immersed himself in it perfectly.  He was a superbly conditioned athlete and, as this interview illustrates, an equally cerebral athlete.  Sanders, along with Russell and K.C. Jones, formed a defensive triumvirate that was the heart and soul of the Celtics’ championship success.

 

Sanders, who borrowed his nickname from the great Negro League pitcher Satchel Paige, played the majority of his basketball career during America’s turbulent sixties.  Whether holding court with President John F. Kennedy or confronting racism in the south, Sanders was a man unafraid to make a statement.   Perhaps the most famous example of this came during the 1961 NBA season, when he and the other African-American members of the Celtics refused to play a game in Lexington, Kentucky.  Upon arriving for an exhibition in honor of Celtic teammate Frank Ramsey, Sanders and his black teammates learned that the hotels were segregated.  When they were denied service in the hotel coffee shop, Sanders, Russell, Sam and K.C. Jones (no relation) discussed the situation among themselves and decided not to play.  While Boston Celtics coach Red Auerbach tried to talk them out of it, he was also the one who smartly acquiesced and drove them to the airport.  The issue gained national attention and struck an important blow for racial equality.

 

Today, Sanders is very much an integral part of the National Basketball Association.  Sanders is a socially conscious intellectual, a former Ivy League head coach, the founder of the NBA Rookie Transition Program, and currently the NBA Vice President for Player Programs.  Sanders is a thoughtful, introspective man and, quite simply, a pure pleasure to interview.

 

 

CELTIC-NATION
Please take me back to New York City during the 1940s.  What stands out most for you during this time in your life?


 
SATCH SANDERS
That period isn’t something that I currently dwell on, although I would certainly give it much thought if I were to write a book about my life.  I grew up in New York, and I didn’t have much in terms of resources.  I didn’t have much money at this particular point in my life.  However, this did not prohibit me from learning, nor did it impede my growth as a an individual.

 

CELTIC-NATION
You graduated from Seward Park High School in New York.  Please tell me a little about your time there.


 SATCH SANDERS
Yes, I went to school at Seward Park.  I loved it there, and I did quite well.  It was a three year high school, and I didn’t play basketball that first year.  I played in church leagues and also in community leagues, but it wasn’t until my eleventh grade year that I played basketball for Seward Park.  It was a good experience, and I enjoyed it very much.  It’s been many years ago, however, so the details are quite sketchy as you can imagine.

 

CELTIC-NATION
Following graduation you played collegiate basketball at New York University.  Please tell me a little about your experience at NYU.

 SATCH SANDERS
They were four good years, although at this point it is hard to remember details.  There has been so much water over the dam, so-to-speak.  It was a tremendous experience.  NYU is an outstanding educational institution, and from an athletic standpoint it afforded me the opportunity to play against quality competition.  We played against a variety of topflight competition, such as the Harlem Globetrotters, all those fine Eastern League players, etc.

NYU was close to home, which in itself was an added bonus.  Howard Cann was the head coach when I arrived on campus, and Ray Lump was his assistant.   Howard was quite a man, a legend at NYU who starred in football, basketball and track.  He was also a member of the Olympic team as a shot-putter.  When Howard and Ray stepped away in came Lucio Rossini and Cal Ramsey.  My junior year we did quite well in the NIT, and the following year reached the NCAA Final Four.  We ended up losing to Ohio State, but going that far was quite an accomplishment for that team.

 

CELTIC-NATION
Howard Cann’s accomplishments at NYU are Buynonesque – he was a three sport star, Olympic athlete, and winner of more than 400 games as the head basketball coach.  What was it like to play for Mr. Cann?


 SATCH SANDERS
I was catching Howard as his career was winding down at NYU.  He was my coach the first two years there, and it was a very enjoyable experience.  Unfortunately, we didn’t experience success as a team until after Howard retired and Lou assumed command of the program.  I don’t believe that this was Howard’s fault in any way, because his record speaks for itself.  It was simply a matter of timing, of the team coming together when it did.

 

CELTIC-NATION
I’ve read that you – and just about everyone else – looked up to Mr. Cann in more ways than one.  The James Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame lists him at 7’-2”, 267 pounds.


 
SATCH SANDERS
[Laughs.]  Howard was 6’-5” and not that heavy, so those numbers are erroneous.  As can often happen with exploits and achievements, I suppose this is a case of things getting bigger with time.

 CELTIC-NATION
Mr. Cann, like Red Auerbach, is enshrined in the Hall of Fame.  How were these men alike, and how were they different?


 
SATCH SANDERS
Howard and Red were very similar in their coaching styles.  This may have had a great deal to do with the era that they coached in, since other coaches – Adolph Rupp and Henry Iba come to mind – possessed the same dictatorial coaching style.  These men were great coaches and very vocal – they were yellers, screamers, and very militaristic in their approach to the game.

 

CELTIC-NATION
Your NYU squad edged the Jerry West-led WVU Mountaineers 82-81 in the 1960 NCAA East Regional.  It was the first time that you’d squared off against Jerry in a meaningful basketball game but it certainly wouldn’t be the last.  What do you remember most about that game?

 SATCH SANDERS
I remember that we won the game, which was the most important thing.  I also remember that a lot of people were disappointed that we defeated West Virginia, because everyone wanted to see the Mountaineers play the University of Cincinnati.  That would have been the match-up had West Virginia won the game.  The West Virginia-Cincinnati attraction had everything to do with Jerry West and Oscar Robertson, of course.  It was the marquee match-up because of those two great players.  It was not to be, however, because we won the game.

The East Regional wasn’t the first time that we played the West Virginia that season.  I also remember playing against Jerry West earlier in the year.  We traveled to Morgantown and played the Mountaineers on their home court.

 

CELTIC-NATION
Who won?


 SATCH SANDERS
West Virginia.  Jerry was Jerry that evening, and they defeated us in rather convincing fashion.

 

 

 

CELTIC-NATION
As a player, you were especially well-known for your defensive prowess.  You were consistently asked to guard the opposition’s best scorer.  It seems as if you relished the role of the defensive stopper, that you took great pride in what you did.

 SATCH SANDERS
Let me start by saying that ‘stopper’ is too strong a word.  I worked hard on defense and welcomed the challenges that came with my role on the team.  My job was to guard the opposition’s best scorer at the forward position, such as an Elgin Baylor or a Bob Pettit, and this was something from which I derived a tremendous amount of satisfaction.

I would also like to say that we had a number of great defensive players on those Celtics teams, the first and foremost being Bill Russell.  As a team, our defensive philosophy began with Bill.  He set the tone on the defensive end of the court.  K.C. Jones was also a tremendous defensive player in terms of what he brought to the game.  He drew the tough assignments in the backcourt and applied great pressure defense.

 

CELTIC-NATION
You were a member of eight NBA championship teams with the Boston Celtics.  Is there one in particular that stands out from the rest?


 
SATCH SANDERS
If I had to select one, I would have to say that the first championship stands out from the rest.  This was during the 1960-61 season, and we won the championship 4-1 over the St. Louis Hawks.  In retrospect it’s easier for one to look back on winning a number of championships, but it’s a much different situation when you’re striving to achieve that goal.  Back then, at any given point, it was always a matter of “what-have-you-done-for-me-lately”, and by that I -you-done-for-me-lately”, and by that I mean we were only as good as our last championship.  With the Celtics there was a great deal of drive to win, to succeed at the highest levels.  So every title that we won was special in that regard.

 

 

CELTIC-NATION
I’ve asked this of K.C. Jones and Frank Ramsey.  Please tell me a little about Bill Russell.


 SATCH SANDERS
It’s hard for me to say something that hasn’t already been written about Bill Russell.  Anything that I say at this point won’t add much, but I will say that he is a very bright man, and that he is a man without bounds.  He has always been the type of person with the nerve to take on certain situations, which at the time made him seem somewhat controversial.  Bill is a unique individual, a true intellectual.

 

CELTIC-NATION
Red used to take the Celtics on barnstorming exhibition games that reached from western Massachusetts all the way to Maine.  What can you tell me about these experiences?

 
SATCH SANDERS
I remember those trips very well.  We played anywhere from 15 to 20 exhibition games on these trips, usually against the same team – such as the Lakers, for instance.  I enjoyed these times because I feel that it was instrumental in molding a successful basketball team.  It allowed the team to create a true bond, and this was because of the time we spent together.  It was also very helpful from two other standpoints.  First, it allowed for more time to learn the game’s nuances – the fundamentals – and how it applied to our overall team philosophy.  There were simply more opportunities to teach because of this time spent together.  Secondly, it allowed us to be in peak physical condition.  A significant part of our approach to winning was predicated on being in the best possible shape.  Red was very big on this.  He wanted us to be the best conditioned team in the league.  As a result, we were consistently among the top teams – if not the top team – in terms of physical conditioning.

 

CELTIC-NATION
There was one exhibition tour that took the Celtics through the heart of Dixie. Yourself and Sam Jones were denied service at a coffee shop in a hotel in Lexington, Ky., the final stop on the tour. A similar incident had occurred at a restaurant in Marian, Indiana, two days earlier.  Please take me back to that time and tell me how you handled this difficult situation.

 SATCH SANDERS
All of the black players were denied service – not just the black players for the Celtics, but also the black players for the St. Louis Hawks.  The hotel changed its stance when it discovered that we were members of the Celtics and Hawks, so this naturally begged the question concerning our status had we not been professional athletes.  That scenario was posed to the hotel management, and their position was that we would have been denied service.  So, as ordinary citizens we were looked upon quite differently.  Based on this criteria, Bill Russell quickly decided that he would not play in the game.  The other black players on the Celtics – myself, Sam Jones, K.C. Jones – felt the same way about the situation.  It was an easy decision to make.

 

 

CELTIC-NATION
Red Auerbach tried talking you into playing that exhibition game, but smartly acquiesced and drove everyone to the airport.  I think this speaks volumes about Red Auerbach the person.

 SATCH SANDERS
From a management standpoint Red wanted us to play, but he understood our position on this issue and he respected us enough not to force the issue.  Red was very good with regard to how he handled situations and how he dealt with people.

 

CELTIC-NATION
In 1963, Bill Russell was asked about his decision not to play that game.  His response is pure Russell, and one of the reasons I think so highly of him.  He said:  ‘I couldn’t look my kids in the face if I had played there.  A man without integrity, belief or self-respect is not a man.  And a man who won’t express his convictions has no convictions.  I feel the best way to express my convictions is not to play.  If I can’t eat, I can’t entertain.’  This, I think, is a shining example of what made Russell a great basketball player but an even greater man.

 SATCH SANDERS
I agree with your assessment, and there isn’t anything I should add to Bill’s statement.  It is eloquent, and spoken with a high degree of integrity and self-respect.

 

 

CELTIC-NATION
Let’s talk about the great depth on those Celtics great teams.  At one point during the dynasty, Red Auerbach could turn to his bench send in three future Hall of Fame basketball players – Sam Jones, K.C. Jones, and Frank Ramsey.  What can you tell me about these gentlemen?

 
SATCH SANDERS
The reality of the situation is that these were three outstanding basketball players, players that could have started on any NBA team.  It was a great luxury to have players of this caliber coming off the bench, because the opposition knew that there would be no letdown.  That was one of the components to the Celtics’ greatness, and a hallmark of Red’s coaching ability.  He was able to find players who possessed starting ability yet had egos that could handle a non-starting role.  Sam, K.C. and Frank  are great examples of this.  John Havlicek is also another prime example.

Sam was a five-time NBA All-Star, and one of the best shooters in the league.  He deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as any of the greats.  He was in the same class as Jerry West and  Oscar Robertson.

And while K.C. and Frank were never All-Stars, this doesn’t not diminish their importance to the team.  They provided us a great amount of depth, which was a dimension that not all teams in the league possessed at that time.  K.C. and Frank were integral parts to the Boston Celtics, and their contributions made us a much better team.

 

CELTIC-NATION
You mentioned that Sam Jones was a great shooter.  He led the team in scoring three times during the Celtics’ decade of domination, averaging a career-high 25.9 points-per-game in 1965.  It amazes me that he was able to accomplish this without the luxury of the three-point shot, and also without being the primary focus of the offense.


 
SATCH SANDERS
I have to differ with you on that last point, because Sam was the primary focus of our offense.  The distinction that needs to be made is that while Sam was indeed the primary option, he wasn’t by any means the only option.  Our teams were so deep and so versatile that our opponents couldn’t concentrate on stopping one particular player.  There was a great balance on those Celtic teams, and everyone was able to contribute in so many ways.

 

CELTIC-NATION
The Celtics visited then-President John F. Kennedy, a Celtics fan, at the White House in 1963.  What was that experience like?


 SATCH SANDERS
[Laughs.]  That’s been one or two summers ago, so recounting the exact details of that trip will be difficult.  I do remember that it was a fun experience for us, and that we were able to spent a lot of time with President Kennedy.  Mr. Kennedy was a very big Boston Celtics fan.  I also remember that there were quite a number of people who were upset about our meeting, and about the amount of time we were able to spend with him.  We were with him in the Oval Office for forty-five minutes.  Meanwhile, his staff, the media, and a number of other entities were unable to gain an audience with the president.

 

CELTIC-NATION
Your salutation to President Kennedy is quite famous.  Do you remember what you said to him?


 SATCH SANDERS
Of course – my salutation to President Kennedy has been discussed through the years.  It was simply:  ‘Take it easy, baby.’

 


 

CELTIC-NATION
Red Auerbach has called the 1961 Celtics the best basketball team ever assembled.  Do you agree?


 SATCH SANDERS
I can’t say that I agree with that assessment, because that is Red’s opinion and he is certainly entitled to that.  It is hard for me to say which team was the best ever.  Each one was special in its own way, and I appreciate each of them differently.

 

 

CELTIC-NATION
You are currently the NBA Vice President for Player Programs.  Please elaborate on your role as VP for Player Programs.


 
SATCH SANDERS
The program has been in existence for over fifteen years – the idea for it, in fact, was already in place when I made the proposal.  With the help of others, I was able to bring some form to the program and help keep it on the right track.  Among other things, this office assists players off the court in a variety of ways, such as completing their education, preparing for careers after basketball, and helping those who struggle with all the attention that goes with being an NBA star.

 

CELTIC-NATION
The NBA Rookie Transition Program is a great resource for Program is a great resource for new players entering the league.  You also oversee this program, which you helped to create more than a decade ago.   Going back to your rookie year with the Boston Celtics, do you think the RTP would have helped players of that generation adapt to life in the NBA?

 SATCH SANDERS
If you talk to anyone of that era who played in the NBA, I sure that the response would be positive as far as this program is concerned and the help that it could have provided them.  The same is also true today.  Among other things, the program helps players understand their transition into manhood.  It also helps them understand the responsibilities they face, and how to deal with the pressures that come with being a professional athlete.  It’s a great source of information for them, which, in turn, helps them to make better decisions.  This is all especially important today, since players entering the NBA are younger on average than the players of a generation ago.  You have players entering the league straight out of high school, or players who spend only one or two seasons in a college environment.

It’s also important to understand we cannot make the decisions for the players – they have to accept responsibility for their actions, and for the decisions that they make.  And they must also deal with the consequences.

 

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