Celtics great Tom ‘Satch’ Sanders goes home again to East Harlem
He was born Tom Sanders and he grew up in an apartment on 116th Street between Fifth and Lenox, but everyone to this day knows him as Satch.
He got the nickname as a schoolboy, playing basketball on the creased concrete of Mount Morris Park in East Harlem. Everyone had a nickname, he remembers, great nicknames like “Jumpshot Billy” and “Bad Feet Earl”, “California John.” They were boys spending countless summers in upper Manhattan playing games, and Sanders’ nickname happened to stick.
The name came from Satchel Paige, the great pitcher of the Negro Leagues, but it was basketball — and two friends who convinced him that he could do better than the vocational schools his junior high classmates were being shuffled into — that would take Satch from the rough corners of Harlem and into the hallowed rafters of the Boston Garden. Those friends from the neighborhood, Cecil and Crawford, told Satch he should go to their school, an academic school, Seward Park High in Lower Manhattan.
“You had a situation where they’re telling 500 kids to consider a trade school or vocational school,” says Satch. “I have tears for all the kids that never had the opportunity. Think about all those kids. I had Cecil and Crawford. They changed my life.”
“Just making the team,” he says. “It was a championship team already. … There were an awful lot of people who didn’t think I could play at that level.”
Sanders was one of thousands of kids playing ball on courts like Mount Morris or at tournaments like The Rucker. Like slapping down cards from a deck, he rifles off the names of guys he played with that the rest of the world never knew, names like Carl Greene, Sherman White, Chink Gaines, Jack Defares and Bobby Thompson.
All, he says, could have played in the NBA.
It was New York City in the 50s and anyone looking to make their way in the game made their way to Harlem. “Competition was so intense,” says Satch. “That whole time there was so much talent.” There were Harlem Globetrotters and Eastern League players and Harlem Rens, he remembers, great players never blessed by time or opportunity. “Racism is a monster,” he says. “It steals your youth.”
But it was those players who passed the game on to Satch. It was those players who helped teach a boy how to be a man. Holding court at Mount Morris were Rens like Tarzan Cooper, Charlie Isles and Pop Gates, and a host of other old-time players, verbally and physically beating up kids like Satch, taking the time to help them learn the game.
Sanders was selected in the first round of the 1960 draft, just months after taking NYU to the Final Four. He graduated with a degree in marketing before making his way to the NBA, where he ran into racism in the form of unhelpful real estate agents at home — he eventually moved into the predominately black Roxbury section of Boston — and flying bottles, coins and racial epithets on the road.
“That was America,” says Satch.
He remembers the time fans came close to the court to shout unsavory slurs, prompting Satch to step into the stands and exchange barbs with one particularly rowdy spectator.
“I asked him what time his wife got home last night,” recalls Satch. “And then said it was awfully kind of him to share her.”
But mainly the antagonists just spurred Satch and the other black players on.
“We wanted to decimate the road team,” says Satch. “We were super motivated.”
After his playing days were over Sanders coached the Harvard Crimson for four seasons before returning to the NBA to lead the Celts. But his true calling was counseling young men through his basketball school or the NBA’s development program, helping young players cope with their newfound success and responsibilities.
He’s in his old neighborhood today, his first time back to 116th St. in longer than he can remember. He’s 71 now, and without his customary bow tie, pointing to buildings that stand now only in his memory. There’s the apartment he grew up in, right next door to the grade school he attended, P.S. 184. Today, it’s a basketball court, fenced off by a chain-link fence. For a time, a cardboard sign read “Boston Celtic Great Satch Sanders played here,” though he never played on this court. It, too, is gone.
He remembers the time he saw a drug dealer viciously beating a man on the sidewalk. Drugs were everywhere, he says. He lost five relatives to heroin. He remembers the time a friend took a knife to the throat of another kid who was brandishing a bat at the friend. And he’ll never forget the little girl down the block who was raped and murdered. She was eight, he thinks. “We had played together, though I was a little older,” he says. The thought of it still stings.
Around the corner on 117th St., the roughest of the rough back then, a street you didn’t enter easily, says Satch, a 71-year-old man who doesn’t look a day over 55 spots him.
“Hey Satch,” he calls out, “You got to remember me, it’s Jumpshot Billy!
“I’ve never been so proud of somebody in all my life,” says Jumpshot, before both men piece together 50-year-old stories in an instant.
“I can tell you everything that was on these corners.” says Jumpshot. “I never left here because I was in love with Harlem.”
But Satch moved on to eight rings in Boston and a home in Sturbridge, Mass., where he lives with his third wife, Virginia. He remembers Jumpshot Billy and the neighborhood as it once was and the names of those not as lucky as he was. And he remembers the two friends who gave him the push he desperately needed, the push he wished others had gotten.
“Not everyone from the neighborhood is a bad influence,” says Satch. “I’m living proof of that.”