Satch Sanders' HOF contributions
The induction of Tom "Satch" Sanders into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame has been a long time coming.
Sanders played 13 season for the Celtics, averaging 9.6 points and 6.3 rebounds per game and briefly coached the team in 1977 and 1978. But his greatest contribution to basketball came after as the godfather of "player programs." He set an example for other athletes to stand up for what was right.
He also made an early impression on me. My father, Joe Lapchick, coached St. John's University at the time Satch played for NYU, St. John's biggest rival. Dad rarely had good things to say about NYU, but he talked positively about Tom Sanders. He admired him not only as a player, but also for the way he carried himself as a person.
That stuck with me as I watched Satch and his brilliant career with the Celtics, where he helped the team win eight NBA championships. The only players who won more were Bill Russell and Sam Jones. After he finished playing, Sanders became the first African-American head coach in the Ivy League when he took the job at Harvard. He left the Crimson to become the eighth African-American coach in the NBA.
In 1984, when I started the Center for the Study of Sport in Society at Northeastern University in Boston, I hired Sanders as an associate director. In discussing some of the things that I wanted to address, such as student-athlete graduation rates and the lack of opportunities for women and people of color as head coaches and in front office positions in the various professional leagues and at the college level, it was clear that Satch was a deep thinker on these and other issues.
He cared deeply that too many athletes were not getting an education because they were pursuing the dream of a professional career. They were ignoring studies to hone athletic skills in spite of the fact that the odds were better for an African-American high school basketball player to become a doctor or an attorney than to play in the NBA. Satch saw the Center as a platform to advocate for the truth with boys and girls as well as men and women.
He was a model for citizen-student-athletes. Not only did he get a great education at NYU, but he was very involved in the Boston community as a Celtics player and afterwards. He also was ready to speak up, often softly yet always with the powerful voice given to successful athletes.
Boston at the time had a terrible reputation for race relations. It had one of the most violent reactions to desegregation busing in the country, but Satch stayed. "I can travel to every part of the country and see racism first hand," he said, when I asked. "It is not unique to Boston."
There was a time in Los Angeles when "I went with [teammate] Sam Jones went to buy groceries for the hotel so we could save money. On the way back to the hotel local police surrounded us with guns drawn. We were scared." When the policeman realized that Sanders and Jones were members of the Celtics, everything changed.
Not that his standing as an NBA champ always insulated him. He purchased a home in Newton, an upscale suburb of Boston, when he became the coach at Harvard. Some Newton residents circulated a petition letting Sanders know he was not welcome. On another occasion, "We were at a party where some local police were also guests. When they saw us they left the room. The host feared they were going to get their guns and rushed us out of the house."
I came to Northeastern as someone with the reputation of being very critical of sport. Satch liked the fact that we were going to point out problems and create solutions but made clear to me that pointing fingers at individuals and institutions would limit our effectiveness. We started publishing the racial and gender report cards, analyzing the hiring practices of the NBA, NFL, Major League Baseball, and later Major League Soccer and college sport.
As a result of his wisdom, we always used aggregate data of the collective individual teams or schools to point out where issues exist, rather than naming particular teams or institutions. Consequently, the weight of the criticism was still felt, but we had a chance to help those institutions we were criticizing to get better by creating programs to improve chances of successfully graduating and showing student-athletes the value they brought to the communities when they served them on important social issues.
Sanders ran what would become the NBA's Rookie Transition Program from the Center during his first few years. The pioneering educational effort brought all the incoming rookies together for several days to help them understand what it was going to be like in their new world in the NBA. They suddenly had access to wealth and a better life but also to the potential negative things off the court. Other major leagues later adopted similar programs, but it all started in the NBA with Satch.
That work is also what took him back to his native New York from Boston in 1987. The NBA, recognizing the value of his work, hired him to create "player programs," which are intended to help rookies and veterans alike develop the skills they need to manage their fortunes and lead successful lives when their basketball careers end.
Due in part to his contributions, thousands of athletes are better educated about their options than Sanders' generation. Due in part to his work, the Center for the Study of Sport in Society is now 27 years old and was recently named as one of the 20 organizations that have most affected fair play in America.
He should have been in the Hall of Fame as a player a long time ago. While I am sorry it took so long, I will be one of the people in Springfield applauding this weekend when Satch Sanders is finally inducted.
His story will now be retold to a new generation that needs to -- but rarely does -- see athletes who stand up for their communities. Satch Sanders always did. We should learn from him. Congratulations, Satch, on all you have done to make the world a better place, in and out of sport.
Richard E. Lapchick is the Chair of the DeVos Sport Business Management Graduate Program in the College of Business Administration at the University of Central Florida. Lapchick also directs UCF's Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport, is the author of 16 books and the annual Racial and Gender Report Card, and is the Director of the National Consortium for Academics and Sport. He has joined ESPN.com as a regular commentator on issues of diversity in sport.
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