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Unsung Celtic hero
by David Friedman / October 12, 2006

Satch SandersThe Boston Celtics had won three championships in four years when they selected Tom “Satch” Sanders of New York University with the 8th overall pick in the 1960 draft. The Celtics’ roster contained seven future Hall of Famers, so the team was not looking for another star; Boston needed a player who would be willing to sacrifice his ego, not score a lot of points and be able to guard high scoring forwards like Elgin Baylor and Jack Twyman.

Gus Alfieri, author of Lapchick: The Life of a Legendary Player and Coach in the Glory Days of Basketball, says that Lapchick, then the coach at St. John’s, was among the first to fully appreciate Sanders’ game.

“In the book I mention that one time Red Auerbach came over to Lapchick – Auerbach was always looking to pick the right players and he made a lot of smart choices – and asked him who he liked in New York,” Alfieri explains. “Lapchick told him to draft Satch Sanders; he said that he won’t be ready in the first year but he’ll be an excellent pro because he played great defense and he was a team player.”

Lapchick’s words proved to be prophetic. Sanders only played 15.9 mpg as a rookie for the talent-laden Celtics in 1960-61. But in his second year with the team, his minutes nearly doubled (29.1 mpg) and he finished second on the team with 9.5 rpg. Sanders’ contributions could not really be adequately defined by numbers, though. In his 13-year career, all spent with Boston, he never averaged more than 12.6 ppg in a season. He never made the All-Star team or the All-NBA team. He finished with modest career averages of 9.6 ppg and 6.3 rpg, but he played tremendous defense against some of the greatest forwards in NBA history. Baylor has said that Sanders was the toughest player he ever faced.

The only individual honor that Sanders earned during his NBA career was his selection to the 1969 All-Defensive 2nd Team. That was the first year that the league had an All-Defensive Team and the last year that Sanders played at least 2,000 minutes in a season. Sanders won eight championship rings, but those titles are not foremost in his mind when he reflects back on his career.

“The first thing that I think about when I think about the Celtics is all of my teammates,” Sanders says. “They were such a bunch of great guys and with the great guys I have to include our coach, Red Auerbach. It was a fantastic organization of people. When I think back, it is not the games that come to mind, although we certainly accomplished a lot basketball-wise, but it is really the guys.”

Auerbach, like most successful coaches, did most of his work before the games, preparing the team in practice for what might happen during the game, but he also had the ability to make adjustments when needed.

“It can’t be done on the fly,” says Sanders, who had a brief stint as Celtics coach in 1978-79. “Strategically, looking at the entire game, the coaching has already been done (before the game starts). You’ve got the team playing the way that they are supposed to play and doing what they do best. However, circumstances change on the court. Suppose that the team that you are playing against tries to do something different that was not on the scouting report. Then you have to change your approach, perhaps, on the fly. Does your team have the ability to respond on the fly? The teams that can (do that), do well. Most teams can’t change and then you’ve got a problem.”

Bill Russell and Bob Cousy are probably the most famous names from those great championship teams but the contributions of Sam Jones should not be forgotten.

“Sam Jones was, in my estimation, the best shooter in basketball during the time we played,” Sanders declares. “Of course, as far as I am concerned, he could shoot with anyone in any era. Sam Jones was special: off the backboard, without the glass, two hand set shot – you name it, Sam Jones could score that way, and on anyone. He was always in control of the game; he was that kind of guy. A special talent, no question about it.”

The Celtics went 9-0 in game sevens during Jones’ career and he averaged 27.1 ppg in those contests, including a 47 point outburst against Oscar Robertson’s Cincinnati Royals.

THE PRINCIPLES OF GOOD DEFENSE

Sanders was listed at 6-6, 210, roughly the same size as Kobe Bryant. How would Satch try to slow down the man who scored 81 points in one game?

“Everyone talks about Kobe, but when you are talking about trying to contain a ballplayer the principles are always the same for good defensive players,” Sanders explains. “You try to keep them from getting the ball where they want it. Or you try to deny them from getting the ball, period. That’s the best you can do. Of course, the (great) offensive player is going to get the ball, but you just try to limit the amount of times. That’s the best you can do.”

A good defensive player does a lot of work before his man gets the ball. “If not, you’re in trouble,” Sanders adds. “Once he gets it, the initiative is all his.”

Sanders believes that too much emphasis is placed on what individual players do.

“Understand – everyone talks about Kobe but this is not (just) about Kobe. Kobe has a team with four players around him. Did Kobe get 50 rebounds? Did he have 25 assists? If I remember looking at those things (in the boxscore), I saw that amount of rebounds and that amount of assists (by the team). Somebody else had to get those stats so that Kobe could get the ball. I’ve never looked at the game from that particular angle. It’s always been easier to think in terms of playing against a team – what we were going to do, how we were going to strategize to beat a team. We had the most prolific scorer in the world as our opposition – Wilt Chamberlain. When you talk about Kobe and you talk about Wilt, there is a whole world of difference. Wilt had those kinds of capabilities every night. So when I think about how we had to gang up on Wilt to try and contain him or try to stop his teammates – we’re talking about trying to win games, not necessarily trying to stop him, because that kind of individual, if he is hot, can really score and do very well for himself, but who is going to win the game? Our plan was always to win the game.”

That certainly sounds like a veiled shot at Chamberlain, who scored a lot of points against the Celtics but only beat them in one playoff series. I ask Sanders point blank if he was talking about Chamberlain’s teams.

“Not at all. Not at all,” Sanders replies with conviction. “It happens on all teams. Those things happen on any team on which all the role players don’t get a chance to play their roles – all teams, bar none. Go through history. Every single team, (even) our team. I’ll give you a quick example. I decided that I wanted to make the All-Star team and I averaged 16-18 points a game for the first 12-14 games of one season. Up to that point, I had been averaging maybe 8 or 9 points per game. Somehow, I threw the machine off kilter. We were still winning, but we were winning by four or six points instead of winning by double digits. It was clear to me after about 14 or 15 games that I was scoring enough to maybe make the All-Star team – or be considered for the All-Star team – but we were not the same Boston Celtics. As soon as I realized that and went in to talk to Red Auerbach, he just said, ‘It’s about time. I wondered when you were going to see that you were making a mistake. I was hoping that I wasn’t going to have to tell you.’ What you recognize is that there are parts that we have to play.And if all the people on the team are not playing their parts, the balance is off and you are not going to do well. All that I am saying is that this is true on all teams. Teams that are doing well, guess what? All the role players know their roles and are taking care of business and they’ve figured things out.”

Just like it would have been detrimental to the Celtics for Sanders to try to score 16-18 ppg, it might not have been in the interest of some of Chamberlain’s teams (or Bryant’s teams) to have role players taking too many shots. Each team has to find its own balance, its own equilibrium. Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls won championships not only because he was able to score so many points, but because the other players accepted and thrived in roles that did not involve a lot of scoring. Allen Iverson and the 76ers used a similar formula to make it all the way to the 2001 NBA Finals.

The winning plan when facing a team that has a dominant scorer could involve a lot of different aspects.

“You know that that player may need 20-25 shots to score his normal amount of points, his average,” Sanders says. “The first thing that you are going to do is limit the amount of times he gets the ball. You limit the amount of times that the player who passes the ball gets to his side of the court. There are so many other parts of the game that a lot of people don’t talk about that make all the difference in the world in terms of whether or not you are going to win. At the defensive end, you are going to force him to do some things all game long that he may not want to do. There are a lot of things that play a part in whether or not that player will be able to maximize his scoring.”

Clearly, Sanders still follows the NBA: “I just enjoy the entire game. Like everything else, the game of basketball has certainly evolved. The game, as some people like to think and say, is different, but the difference is very little. The guys work hard.”

David Friedman’s work has appeared in Hoop, Basketball Digest, Sports Collectors Digest and Tar Heel Monthly. He wrote the chapter on the NBA in the 1970s for the anthology Basketball in America: From the Playgrounds to Jordan's Game and Beyond (Haworth Press, 2005). Check out his basketball blog at 20secondtimeout.blogspot.com

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