Satch Sanders: pupil, teacher, Hall of Famer
One of the first lessons Satch Sanders learned in his lifetime with the Celtics was that players help players. It was one of Red Auerbach’s rules. Every new player the Celtics brought in had a mentor, whether it was Bill Russell or Bill Sharman.
The Celtics drafted Sanders out of New York University in 1960, and Auerbach had a small committee of teammates look after him. Sometimes it was about money, Sanders recalled.
“He’d say, ‘You guys take Satch under your wing and help him with any issues he might have with dollars.’ ’’
Sanders was a first-round pick, eighth overall, but this was 1960.
“The main issues was that I wasn’t making any dollars,’’ Sanders joked.
Sometimes it was about basketball, but even then, that was just life camouflaged in X’s and O’s. Auerbach set it up so Sanders would talk to K.C. Jones after practice about defense. They ended up talking about more than that.
Sanders, who will be inducted into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield today, came to the Celtics with a chip on his shoulder. In New York, he played tournaments at Morris Park and Rucker Park. He finished his career at NYU as its second-leading rebounder. But there were people back home that thought he would struggle in the NBA, that maybe he wouldn’t even make the team.
Russell had the deed to the center spot, so if Sanders wanted to start, he’d have to play forward. There were people, from New York especially, who thought it would be impossible for Sanders to learn how to play facing the basket, let alone take minutes from established forwards Tom Heinsohn, Frank Ramsey, and Jim Loscutoff.
“I came up very combative, to put it mildly,’’ Sanders said. “I felt I had to make this team. I was so determined to make the team, I was ready to bump heads and fight with Loscutoff every chance I could get.’’
Heinsohn and Ramsey were notoriously hard-nosed. Loscutoff was coming off a disk operation, unheard of in those days. Said Sanders, “He wanted to let everybody know that he was back.’’
Especially a certain 22-year-old rookie. Sanders took a “by any means’’ approach. Hard picks escalated to elbows, which escalated to fighting, which Sanders felt he had no choice but to do.
“The name of the game was to let people know you weren’t going to be pushed around, and you were going to take a spot if you had to,’’ Sanders said. “But I was not going home.’’
He thought it would win him the job, until Jones jumped in with a reality check: He wouldn’t win the job if he didn’t win over his teammates.
That was the first step in Sanders’s rookie adjustment. He played 13 years in the NBA, all with the Celtics. He won eight championships, second only to Russell, and is headed into the Hall of Fame. But that early guidance from Jones - and by extension Auerbach - was critical.
A model program Sanders was the consummate role player with those dominant Celtics teams of the 1960s, but he’ll go into the Hall as a “contributor,’’ elected by the Veterans Committee.
He was head coach for four years at Harvard (1973-77) and for parts of two seasons with the Celtics (1977-78 and 1978-79) during an era in which black coaches, at the professional or college level, were a rarity. He was on the Hall of Fame’s board of trustees, working to find the funding for a new building in Springfield.
In 1984, when Richard Lapchick created the Center for the Study of Sports and Society at Northeastern, Sanders was the first person he called in his search for an associate director. When the NBA found out that Sanders and the Center had come up with an idea to help rookies transition from college to the pros, it swooped in and hired him, asking that he help develop what would become the league’s annual rookie symposium.
The NBA knew, as Lapchick did, that Sanders had learned from his time in the league.
For instance, one night during his rookie season, Sanders recalled, Jones was pacing their room in the middle of the night.
Sanders asked, “What’s wrong?’’
Jones, 28 at the time, asked him, “Have you thought about what’s going to happen when you can’t play anymore or when they don’t want us around anymore?’’
Sanders thought to himself, “Of course not, I’m in my first year. I’m on the 20-year plan.’’
When you’re 22 years old, you need a crystal ball to see 40. But it was a wake-up call.
“The realization that a man like K.C. Jones, as tough as he was, was concerned about what was going to happen after his career was finished, that’s when I started thinking about it,’’ said Sanders. “Because if he’s thinking about it, I better be thinking about it.’’
So he made it his business to use the rookie transition program to make every young player think about it. The program is more than 20 years old now. There’s an annual award in Sanders’s honor given to the player that displays the most leadership over the course of the seminar.
The NFL, NHL, and Major League Baseball all have their versions of the rookie program, to prepare players for the challenges of professional sports and life after the game.
“The NFL and Major League Baseball and those other leagues came to watch our programs early on and modeled their rookie programs after ours,’’ said Mike Bantom, the NBA’s senior vice president of player development. “So he’s been responsible for this movement across pro sports, not just the NBA.’’
Bantom, who played nine seasons in the NBA and has worked 21 years in the league office, admired Sanders from his playing days but also for the 19 years Sanders spent working with the NBA. He had an easy approach. Not condescending, not omniscient. He took what he experienced in the NBA, and he shared it.
“He’s the kind of guy that respected you, so you respected him,’’ Bantom said. “So when he gave you advice, you would listen to him.’’
Something to say Sanders was 31, in his ninth season in the NBA, when a young Jo Jo White joined the Celtics fresh out of the University of Kansas.
“There was one thing we always kidded about,’’ White recalled. “On long trips from Boston to LA, we’d say, ‘Don’t sit next to Satch because he’d talk to you all the way from Boston to LA.’ ’’
White, it seemed, always wound up in the seat next to Sanders.
“To this day, honestly I can say I learned so much from the conversations we had,’’ White said. “It went toward helping develop me as a pro, as an athlete.’’
“We have a lot of athletes in the pros. We don’t have a lot of professionals. Professionalism has nothing to do with talent. It’s those things that I was getting from Satch - how to listen, how to carry yourself, how to motivate your teammate, how you dress, how you talk to people. All these things are very, very important to people.’’
Sanders has a way with people, a cocktail of intellect, class, and humor that goes down smoothly.
“You’ve got to know where to draw the line, and Satch knew how to do that in a very easy way,’’ said Celtics great Dave Cowens. “And like anything, success means something in somebody’s eyes. If you haven’t had any success, they go, ‘I’m not listening to you.’ If you start counting those bad fellas up, you go, ‘He must’ve been doing something right.’ ’’
Sanders lives in Sturbridge, 40 minutes from the Hall. He has been on committees, he has seen former teammates get inducted, and he considers this something of a reunion, with the players he learned from and the ones he had a chance to mentor.
“It’s an important moment,’’ Sanders said. “It’s more important because there are so many teammates that are there. We played together and won championships together. I like the feeling of catching up with the guys again.’’
Julian Benbow can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.