Thomas "Satch" Sanders: A Lifetime of Excellence
Posted Sep 11 2007 3:31PM
Eight championships in 13 seasons would be reason enough to rest on one’s laurels, except Thomas "Satch" Sanders always lived in the present. He was never one to dwell on his role as a key contributor and second best defensive player on the greatest basketball dynasty in NBA history.
When Sanders retired from the Boston Celtics in 1973 it was always about what’s next. The man who played on one of the greatest transition teams the NBA has ever seen was also a master at successfully transitioning in the game of life.
“My mother [Luethel] always had a habit of talking about what are you going to do today,” said Sanders. “Normally, she was talking about tasks, things around the house. I could tell her that I washed the windows and washed the floors and what I did yesterday and the day before and last week, but her thing always was, ‘That’s great, but what are you doing today?”
“So, when I look at whatever situations I have been involved in, I am always thinking about, that was nice but that was then, this is now.”
And what is now for Sanders is some long overdue recognition by the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame as the 2007 recipient of the John W. Bunn Lifetime Achievement Award, an honor he received Thursday night at the Sheraton Springfield Monarch Plaza Hotel.
One of the classiest and most dignified gentlemen you’ll ever meet on the planet, Sanders started to make a name for himself as an All-American center at New York University in the late ’50s. When his favorite team, the New York Knicks passed on him in favor of Darrall Imhoff, the consolation prize wasn’t too shabby. The Celtics, coming off three consecutive titles, grabbed him with the eighth overall pick. Even though he had met Bill Russell during his senior year of college at NYU, Sanders wasn’t exempt from rookie hazing from the superstar center.
“Russell had this tendency to not even call you by name until you had made the team and until you had proven that you could really play when things got tough,” said Sanders. “So you were always rook or rookie. I had to carry his bag and I had to do other things for other players on the team. Russell had me carry his uniform and wash it all year long. That was my introduction to Russell.”
Sanders more than proved himself, playing an integral role on the Celtics’ machine winning five more championships over the next five years for a league record eight in a row. While Russell was undoubtedly the headliner with the way he revolutionized defense, setting up the vaulted Celtics fast break, Sanders emerged as a defensive superstar in his own right.
“Satch Sanders was the second best defensive player on our team,” said former teammate Tom Heinsohn. “He always got the dirty job.” Sanders routinely got his hands dirty guarding the league's premier scoring forwards. Just go down the Hall of Fame list: Paul Arizin. Bob Pettit. Dolph Schayes. Billy Cunningham. Rick Barry. Dave DeBusschere. Elvin Hayes. Not to mention Chet Walker, Lou Hudson and Lucius Jackson. Ask Sanders who his toughest cover was and without hesitation, he names the NBA’s original high flyer, Elgin Baylor.
“The man had extraordinary timing and such athletic gifts,” said Sanders. “He was a very knowledgeable player. The word in the league was, and particularly on our team, was you never double team Elgin Baylor simply because his next pass never was to somebody to get rid of the ball because the double team was coming, but was always an accurate pass that normally led to a score.
“So Red Auerbach used to always say, “You’ll get no help with Elgin because we can’t afford to take the chance because he always passes to somebody for a lay up. You’re out there by yourself.”
Sanders' numbers weren’t gaudy over his 13-year career, averaging 9.6 points per game, but they didn’t have to be, not when your teammates were named Russell, Cousy, Heinsohn, Jones and Havlicek. Sanders is the only starter from those Celtic championship teams not in the Hall of Fame, an oversight that needs to be rectified according to Heinsohn.
“He deserves to be in the Hall of Fame. I’ve written letters and I’ve had people write letters. I think they go by stats.
“You look at his stats and they’re not the world shaking stats point wise but he managed to [nearly] average double figures. But what he meant to the team on defense was he gave Russell another guy to really defend. Cliff Hagan said it many, many, many years ago, you don’t make All-America playing defense.
“Satch Sanders began his NBA career with the Celtics in 1960 and started right up until the end of his career, that’s how much of a vital part he was to all of those championships.”
When Sanders retired in 1973, he was an eight-time NBA champion (only Russell with 11 and Sam Jones with 10 have more titles), and was more than prepared for the NBA afterlife than most players. With NBA contracts consisting of one-year deals back then, you had no choice but to get a summer job and Sanders mastered the 9 to 5 thing, from selling securities to working with youth services to writing copy for an advertising agency.
Yet Sanders never veered too far from the game he loves, serving as head coach of Harvard University for four seasons and as an assistant to Heinsohn and the Celtics and even serving two terms of duty as the team’s head coach in parts of the 1977-78 and 1978-79 seasons.
But it was his role in assisting the NBA with their incoming rookies in the late ’80s when Sanders truly found his next calling as the league launched the Player Programs Department. And who better to run a program to help players successfully transition to the NBA on and off the court than Sanders.
“When I came to the NBA and was talking to David Stern about player programs, we talked about what we can do for players to get them ready,” said Sanders, who served as Associate Director for the Study of Sport in Society at Northeastern University in Boston before joining the league. “What I thought I brought to the table was the experience to begin to build programs around preparation for coming to the pros, getting the most out of player careers but also getting them ready for the transition.”
Under Sanders' 20-year tenure, the Player Programs Department flourished, developing revolutionary initiatives, which were ultimately emulated by other leagues and included post career counseling programs, educational and employment opportunities and a groundbreaking NBA and Players Association Anti-Drug and Alcohol Awareness Program.
It is a legacy Sanders is just as proud of as his role in helping the Celtics win eight championships and a legacy rightfully honored by the Hall of Fame on Thursday night.