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Thursday, August 11, 2011
Updated: August 12, 8:43 AM ET
Satch Sanders the ultimate contributor

By Peter May
ESPNBoston.com

When the NBA champion Boston Celtics visited the White House in 1963 -- then occupied by Massachusetts native John F. Kennedy -- it was left to Tom Sanders to deliver the memorable parting line to the commander in chief.

"Take it easy, baby,'' Tom Sanders told the president.

For that alone he should be inducted into the Hall of Fame.

The man universally known as "Satch" is, indeed, going to Springfield this weekend, getting inducted as a "contributor," which pretty much speaks to his entire basketball life. He was never a star with a capital "S" when he played for the Celtics, despite winning eight championships in a career that covered 13 years. He started in Bill Sharman's final year as a Celtic (1960) and he retired after Paul Silas' first year as a Celtic (1973.)

Satch Sanders
Satch Sanders moves the ball up court against the Baltimore Bullets in 1968 at the Boston Garden.

You will still get vociferous arguments to this day that Sanders should have been inducted into the Hall of Fame long ago simply for what he did on the floor over the course of those 13 years and 916 games. And not just from the many teammates of that era who are already enshrined.

His college teammate at New York University, Cal Ramsey, who had a very brief NBA career with the Knicks, told the New York Daily News last April that Sanders "is the best defender I ever played against. Ask Elgin Baylor and Bob Pettit and all those great players from that era. If you saw him play defense, you'd know that stats don't apply in this case. To this day, he's the best defender I've ever seen at the forward position."

But, realistically, inducting him solely for what he did as a player would be a stretch. Yes, he was a great defender. But it didn't hurt that he played alongside arguably the greatest defensive player of all time in Bill Russell. It didn't hurt that he was surrounded by Hall of Fame teammates every time he took the floor.

If there was a Hall of Fame for players accepting their roles, playing them well and not straying, Sanders would be a first-ballot selection. No question about it. If there was a Hall of Fame for Oozing Cool, the man whose nickname derived from baseball great Satchel Paige and who pushed for a dress code on road trips for the Celtics would be a first-ballot selection. (Not to mention a man who told the leader of the free world to "Take it easy, baby.") If there was a Hall of Fame for towel-draping and tape-dispensing, Sanders would be an automatic enshrinee. He was one of the first players to drape towels over his head when he wasn't playing and he was famous for taping, taping and re-taping his ankles and legs. Oh, and let's not forget the kneepads (which Red Auerbach didn't like). Those were as much a part of Sanders' on-the-court attire as the omnipresent bow tie is now a part of his off-the-court attire.

Nevertheless, when it was announced last April that Sanders had been elected to the Hall, the assumption for many had to be that it was finally a recognition for his unselfish yet determined play in his years for the Celtics. What I'm guessing is most people did not know that the selection was based more on the work Sanders had done since leaving the court (which also included stints as the head coach at Harvard and a brief, difficult stretch as the Celtics' head coach).

He was elected to the Hall by the veterans committee as a "contributor." Perfect. What better word to describe Sanders' life on and off the court? He was the consummate contributor on Auerbach's title teams (as well as the two that Russell coached). But he kept contributing after retirement, working for the league's player programs division (which he basically started himself) while also helping inaugurate the rookie transition program.

Yes, NBA players still do stupid things (see: Arenas, Gilbert) and rookies occasionally stray. But both programs that Sanders has overseen have been successful and widely copied, the most sincerest form of flattery.

This latest honor comes four years after Sanders was named the recipient of the John Bunn Award, which, other than outright enshrinement, is the most prestigious award the Hall of Fame presents. It "annually honors an international or national figure who has contributed greatly to the game of basketball." There's that word again: "contributed." That was Satch. Auerbach and Bob Cousy are the only other Celtics to receive the Bunn Award (unless you want to count Dave Gavitt, who ran the club for a handful of years in the early 1990s).

That Sanders did all of this behind the scenes and did so with the same relative anonymity he had when he willingly set screens, rarely touched the ball and defended Elgin Baylor basically defines the man who is getting enshrined.

Call him the ultimate contributor. Or the consummate team player. Or even "the unsung hero." That's how Auerbach described Sanders in his 1965 book, "Winning the Hard Way." Anything less, Auerbach concluded, would be just idle chatter and not worth dignifying.

Longtime Celtics reporter Peter May is a frequent contributor to ESPNBoston.com.