Satch Sanders talks Celtics history, from playing with Bill Russell to why he likes Jaylen Brown
The eight-time NBA champion spoke about the state of the current Celtics, racism in the 1960s, the need for more Black NBA execs and more
STURBRIDGE, Mass. – Boston Celtics legend Tom “Satch” Sanders sat alone on a bench enjoying the Tuesday morning breeze outside of a Cracker Barrel with his face mask in hand just in case. Sanders hasn’t been to a Celtics game since the start of the coronavirus pandemic. That doesn’t mean he isn’t watching from home, about an hour outside of TD Garden.
“Well, once the COVID thing started and people over 65 and 70 were the main people dying from all this stuff, it was clear to me to stay home,” the 83-year-old Sanders told Andscape. “I didn’t need someone to paint a picture. I said I’m not going out to any of these public areas where a lot of people are yelling and screaming, sneezing, coughing, so I stayed out here, became a real couch potato.
“I watch every Celtics game that I can. It’s just a matter of being a realist, not exposing yourself to more problems.”
One of the oldest living legends of the Celtics, the defensive standout was an eight-time NBA champion and played 13 seasons with the team. Sanders played with Bill Russell, Bob Cousy, Tom Heinsohn, Sam Jones and John Havlicek while being coached by Celtics patriarch Red Auerbach. Sanders was also the coach of the Celtics during the 1978-79 season and his No. 16 jersey is retired by the franchise.
Sanders sat down with Andcape to reflect on his Celtics championship memories, getting words of wisdom from Jackie Robinson as a kid, humorous stories with Russell, racism he dealt with all over the country, his hopes for Black executives in NBA front offices, today’s Celtics and much more.
What’s your first recollections of falling in love with the game of basketball?
Basketball was not in my future. I was a baseball player. I was in love with Jackie Robinson. He came to my junior high school, and he talked to us. Told us to get an education. I remember that I made a mistake when I went home and told my mother. I said, ‘Mom, Jackie Robinson came to class, and he told me …’ My mother said, ‘Oh, he spoke to you?’ I said, ‘Yeah, mama. He told me that I ought to be serious about school and stuff. He talked about other things, respect and all that kind of stuff.’ The mistake was she beat me to death with that. Every time I’d do something, she’d [say]: ‘Jackie wouldn’t do that. You know Jackie wouldn’t do that. He wouldn’t say that. He wouldn’t think that.’
So, what got you into basketball?
So, I was around 6-3 in the seventh grade in junior high school. That’s why people were pushing me to play basketball. It’s funny. Hartman was his name, Coach Hartman. He said, ‘You don’t know any basketball. Here’s what I want you to do: Whenever everybody runs upcourt like this, you run upcourt that way.’ He said, ‘But out of bounds. Run out of bounds. Don’t run on the court.’
Those guys almost got tears in their eyes laughing at me. I swore right then and there, I said, ‘I will be better than every one of these guys. I will be better than them.’ That started me really learning how to play. Determination, of course, came because these guys laughed. Well, I kept growing. I got to be about 6-5 by the time I left Cooper Junior High School and got downtown to Stewart Clark High School. I was easy 6-6, so the push was you’ve got to play basketball.
What is your first recollection of former Celtics great Bill Russell?
I remember being at an awards dinner with Bill Russell and K.C. [Jones]. There were all those guys there because they were undefeated for two years straight at University of San Francisco. They were at the college all-star game. I was there on a high school all-star team. We were going to play preliminary games at Madison Square Garden. We were all very good. It was a fun experience.
Russell was laughing at [Tommy] Heinsohn because the first time USF played Holy Cross, Heinsohn was trying to be tough. When the referee was getting ready to throw the ball up, boom, he caught Russell in the body. Heinsohn scored about six or eight points. Russ chased Heiney down all over. One time, Heinsohn shot from the corner and Russell went out and grabbed the shot out of the air. He just played his ass off because Heinsohn had tried to bully him. It was a mistake.
Then, at the dinner, Heinsohn comes in the room and Russell says, ‘Hey, good to see you, the Holy Cross terror!’ You know how Russell can laugh. That was the first time I thought, ‘Damn, that’s some cold s—.’ Every shot that Heinsohn tried, he’d get up. This man was on it. I saw some serious defense being played, chasing guys down, grabbing their s— out of the air. Russell was young. He was angry because people picked players over Russell even though USF [went] undefeated two years straight.
“[Celtics head coach Red] Auerbach would take him out of practice. ‘Sit down, Russ. Here, read a paper. Do something.’ We had to be able to practice without him out there blocking shots.”— Satch Sanders on the greatness of Celtics legend Bill Russell
What was the greatest athletic play you saw from Russell?
Three blocked shots in one defensive possession. This young man [Robert] Williams, with the Celtics now, he has that ability. But I don’t know whether he can do this. You have to be driven a little bit. Russell blocked a shot in the air after the shot went up. Then he blocked another shot on the other side of the rim. Then the ball went to the foul line. A guy tried to take a little jump shot, and he blocked that. Three shots.
Russell was a pain in the ass. In practice, nobody likes to have their shots blocked. Nobody. He’d come to our practices, and the worst part about it was that he knew what the plays were, and he still blocked our shots. The shot still had to be blocked. [Celtics head coach Red] Auerbach would take him out of practice. ‘Sit down, Russ. Here, read a paper. Do something.’ We had to be able to practice without him out there blocking shots.
In 1950, the NBA had Black players for the first time in the Celtics’ Chuck Cooper, New York Knicks’ Nat “Sweetwater” Clifton and the Washington Capitols’ Earl Lloyd. Do you remember the news of them going into the league?
I do because we used to play against Clifton when he was a Knickerbocker. NYU scrimmaged against the Knickerbockers every year. That was a big thing for us. Cal Ramsey was the leading rebounder in the country when he was at NYU. He went up over Clifton and grabbed the rebound, went back up and laid it up. Clifton said to Cal, ‘Boy, don’t you do that again, hear?’ Calvin said, ‘Yes, sir, Mr. Sweetwater.’ Well, we never let him forget that. Years passed. We’d say, ‘Have you seen Mr. Sweetwater?’
While Cooper, Clifton and Lloyd entering the NBA wasn’t like a Jackie Robinson breaking the color line moment, was it still a big deal?
It’s not far from it. All the guys we were playing against in the ’50s, all those guys could’ve played pro ball and could just get a deal with the Globetrotters. There was the Eastern League, but they didn’t have the chance to get into the NBA. Then those three guys got in. I remember Clifton saying later on, ‘They don’t want us to do any fancy stuff, no dunking. They don’t want us to dunk. They want us to play the way white guys play.’
What’s interesting about that conversation, of course, the reason why the NBA grew so fast was because of all the dunking and the stylized playing. They didn’t want those first ones to do any of the Globetrotter stuff. The reason why they started bringing Blacks in was because of the Globetrotters. The Globetrotters were the attraction during those years.
The Celtics drafted you with the eighth overall pick in the 1960 NBA draft. How do you remember being told?
Phone call. I told Red that I didn’t want to play with the Celtics. I didn’t want to play in the NBA because my man Cal Ramsey the year before had been drafted by the St. Louis Hawks and [was] let go. The Knicks picked him up. They let him go. They let him go because they had drafted Johnny Green that year and they don’t want too many brothas on the team. No. 2, they thought if they kept Calvin on the team, it would be an embarrassment because they saw him play all the years at NYU right there and they could’ve drafted him in the first place because he was a better all-around player than Johnny Green.
Knowing that Cal Ramsey didn’t make it, I told Auerbach, ‘I’m going to work with the Tuck Tape Co.’ In those years, the companies had teams that played on the weekend, but you worked during the week, and you learned something about business. I wanted to work with Tuck Tape in Yonkers. A lot of guys who were all-stars playing for companies like Tuck Tape tried out for the U.S. Olympic team back then. I already had the conversation with them, so I told Auerbach I wouldn’t play, so he got all irritated and said, ‘I ought to talk to your mother, god damn it.’ He says, ‘Anybody can get a god damn job. I’m talking about playing with the world champion Boston Celtics! You’re trying to tell me you’ve got a job?’
He was not understanding. My mother talked to me later and said, ‘You know, Tommy, he’s right.’ That’s what she used to call me. ‘You’ve got this. I think you ought to give it a shot because a job you could always get.’ So, I went up to Boston.
What were the dynamics like between the white and the Black players at that time with the Celtics in the 1960s?
We spent all the holidays together. We had Thanksgiving, Christmas, whatever it was. We went to each other’s homes. Race didn’t matter. Those were holidays and the family, wife, kids, everybody gathered at either Russell’s house in Reading or Cousy’s place in Worcester. We all went to each other’s homes during the holiday season when we were in Boston.
What were the race dynamics in Boston like for you in the 1960s?
Same as New York. I couldn’t get a cab to take me uptown to Harlem in New York. I couldn’t get a cab to take me to Roxbury in Boston after a certain hour — 6, 7 in the evening — so there was no difference. Racism was alive and well all over the country, never mattered. LA was the worst experiences in the world. Cops were ready to go to the guns. I remember we came up to LA and me and Sam [Jones] went to buy groceries because when we stayed out there, it would be for five or six days. Cops, all of a sudden, all the lights went on. Cops drew their guns and made me and Sam stop in the middle of the street.
We were only two blocks away from the Wilshire Hotel [in Beverly Hills]. They wanted to know what we were doing in that neighborhood. People had called and said there were Black guys running around. The cops pulled out their guns. We had bags of groceries in our arms. I never forgave Sam for one thing. He dropped the soda. The bottle broke and made a loud noise. And I was pissed off because I thought we could’ve been shot with all these young cops with guns. But fortunately, I held up my hands and they didn’t fire. Once they found out who we were, they jumped in their cars and left.
All this [in] Los Angeles. When people tell me about LA, that is such bulls—. It’s one of the most racist places going across the country. We did Chicago. We did St. Louis, Cincinnati, you name it. We had incidents across the board, so when folks tell me about Boston, they only like white players, I said, ‘These are ignorant people.’ You don’t want to be in Los Angeles. You don’t want to be out in these other cities and towns because the problem is the same.
“People get excited about coaches and players. That’s important because that’s the game. That’s the meat of this whole thing, but what’s the league office like?”
What do you think about the Celtics’ legacy in terms of African Americans? An argument could be made that the Celtics have done more for the history of Black people in the NBA than any other franchise in sports.
See, Auerbach did a lot of planning. But he didn’t plan on having the first all-Black starting five. When Heinsohn got hurt and he went to the all-Black starting five, he was supposed to do that. The first man up to replace was Black. The first guy in for him during those years was Willie Naulls, so when he got hurt, Willie Naulls started. People kept saying, ‘Well, he’s starting these Blacks on purpose.’ It was the next guy up. Havlicek, he kept [him] on the bench because he wanted a sixth man.
You said you talked to Bob Cousy recently. While many of your Celtics teammates have passed, you have kept with them over the decades. How did you guys grow such a unique bond?
All the years, guys all talk. Sam [Jones] was down in Florida. We talked every two or three months, not that often. K.C. and I talked a lot. Malcolm Graham, who people don’t even talk about, a judge in Boston. He’s living in Newton. Heinsohn and I used to get together often, so the relationships stayed. Guys had stuff in common and we enjoyed each other’s company. We had a chance to be intimate with each other in terms of company for years because they didn’t trade. You’re winning, you don’t get rid of players.
How do you feel about the job Ime Udoka has done as a first-year head coach with the Celtics?
Exceptional because he’s consistent. He kept pushing the guys to do what they do best and to do what he suggested that they do. He brought in a little more pressure on [Marcus] Smart to be the player that he should be. When he brought in [Derrick] White, the kid from San Antonio, he’s a hell of a guard. That put pressure on Smart to start doing more because White’s a hell of a player. Everybody gets better with pressure and stress.
[Jayson] Tatum and [Jaylen] Brown are always competitive. Who’s the best duo in the league? Everybody was saying that the kids on the Clippers, [Paul] George and Kawhi Leonard. I think Tatum and Brown are the best. These two are special. … The big point is that the coach was able to keep the stress, to keep the pressure on them to do it his way, and they do it.
What does that say about the Celtics, too, that they’ve had a lot of Black head coaches?
I don’t get excited about the coaching thing. What I’m interested in seeing is guys getting past the coaching situation and into the front office. That’s important. … People get excited about coaches and players. That’s important because that’s the game. That’s the meat of this whole thing, but what’s the league office like?
I see the deputy commissioner Mark Tatum is Black. I remember thinking Steve Mills would move on to become deputy commissioner. Put more people at different levels and more former players at those levels because a lot of former players should be involved.
What do you recall about starting the National Basketball Players Association’s Rookie Transition Program? What did you see that showed you that was necessary and what kind of impact do you think that’s had over the decades?
Firstly, the Rookie Transition Program was brought to the NBA by Bob Dandridge, but unfortunately, the first year, it didn’t fit well. For whatever reason, it didn’t have the success or didn’t have the look that the NBA wanted. I came in for two years. I was a consultant. I came in selling [then-NBA commissioner David] Stern on having a player division department, not rookie program. I said, ‘You got to have a department that’s geared to player situations, drugs, all the pluses, community effort, all the other things.’ I said not just a rookie program. The rookie program ended up getting a lot of the ink and spotlight, but it was really the overall player department that I started with him.
We talked about growing the program with baseball, football. We went through all the other sports. They followed suit. Football used to send people to our sessions. All the sports did, trying to find out whether it would work for their leagues. Left to me, I would’ve sold it as a consultancy. Stern felt that this player program thing was good for all sports, so he never allowed me to push the dollar button.
Who is your favorite Celtics player now?
I like Jaylen a lot. I like the combination of Jaylen and Smart. Those are my favorite players. I’d love to see all the guys I like having reached their potential. One of the keys, of course, is a young man [Robert] Williams, if he gets a little bit more offense. Sometimes, he’s 4, 5 feet away from the hoop and you pass it out. I hear the media people talking about how wonderful it is you pass the ball out for a 3-point shot. I think there needs to be an impact inside, too.
What do you think about just kind of the social justice movement amongst the NBA players since George Floyd’s death?
Well, all the guys took it hard, as they should. It’s always interesting when I talk to [my] nieces and nephews. I have to remind them about the old days of how things used to be when we used to go down South and how difficult it was with all the name-calling and the cops and all that jazz. Nothing’s changed. You can come back down South or something. I said, ‘I’m not going.’ I had bad experiences. Nothing’s going to change my memories about those places. I recognize that people feel the way they feel. The laws put pressure on people to not say certain things, not do certain things. Doesn’t mean they’ve changed.
What words of wisdom would you give to an NBA player today?
I’d rather think in terms of the words we’ve exchanged. Calling it wisdom is always up for debate. It’s just focus on this time and try and get the most that they can out of this period in time. Enjoy the players, the guys you’re with, because in the end, as the years pass, the biggest thing for me has been the contact, the fun of being with the players. The thing I miss the most, being out of the player programs department in the NBA, is an opportunity to spend time with players and talk to them about real issues, personal issues. It’s very businesslike now, geared to a lot of community effort and computer stuff, social stuff. That’s important, but what’s even more important is that these guys come out as grown men able to do well in society and be able to deal with their personal situations.