Skip to main content
Original Issue


In which the author, class of '42, recalls a rather quaint past and foresees a formidable future

For 13 seasons, from 1960 to 1973, Thomas E. (Satch) Sanders served the Boston Celtics well. In 1,046 regular and playoff games on the way to eight NBA titles, Sanders labored in the hot corner for the Celtics. While guards like Bob Cousy masterminded the offense and Bill Russell held the charge, it was Sanders' slavish duty to keep rival beasts like Elgin Baylor of the Lakers from scoring more than 25 points. Sanders became known as the great defender. In Baylor's mind, he was the best of defensive men: a nagging genius seemingly endowed with a sixth sense and four constantly waving arms.

Last spring Sanders was offered the coaching job at Harvard and accepted. Pro players do not always succeed as coaches, but Celtics often do. Two who played with Sanders in the Celtic dynasty—K.C. Jones and Tommy Heinsohn—are currently leading their respective teams, the Bullets and Celtics, to division titles in the NBA. A third, Bill Sharman, has the Lakers in contention, while Russell has upgraded the SuperSonics. To play pro ball and then coach pros is one thing. To switch from the hustle of the NBA to Harvard is quite another. When he signed with the Celtics, Satch Sanders joined an exclusive club of brainy and able men who borrowed greatness from each other. At Harvard he is a giant alone, faced with the task of trying to saddle a mouse.

Basketball at Harvard is definitely not big. For 73 years the game has been a prime victim of Harvard indifference, a queer trait that the college perpetuates God knows why. On a sleety day this winter, on Mt. Auburn Street in the heart of Harvard Square, the author of this piece asked the first seven undergraduates he met what sport Tom Sanders coached. One said lacrosse. Two said basketball. Three did not know. The seventh (a Californian) remembered that somebody named Sanders once coached football at UCLA or USC. If in a future season the Harvard basketball team should beat UCLA and Yale back to back, the student body possibly would be aroused.

In 1900, eight years after Naismith hung up the first peach baskets in Springfield, the game came to Harvard by way of Yale. When he enrolled in Harvard Law School, John Kirkland Clark, who had captained the Yale basketball team of 1898-99, served as captain and coach of the first Harvard quintet. He was a slick one. When Harvard met Yale for the first time in 1901, Clark refused to play because his brother was captain of the Elis. He refereed instead, and Harvard lost, 41-16.

Summing up Harvard's basketball fortunes from then until now, a historian recently wrote, "In the overall picture, neither enthusiasm nor winning teams have dominated the basketball scene at the college." In 42 league seasons Harvard has never won an Ivy League title and has finished better than fifth only nine times. It is difficult to achieve such spectacular failure by simply being apathetic. Harvard managed it by combining apathy with a remarkable lack of foresight. In 1904, after losing nine of 10 games to Ivy rivals, Harvard quit the league, its seers opining that "the public does not want to waste an entire evening at such a thing as a basketball game." In 1909 Harvard quit basketball altogether for 11 years. The manager of the 1908-09 team was much in favor of giving it up, saying, "We are being defeated all the time in basketball. It is a poor sport. Therefore, we had better abolish it." The manager's antipathy was exceeded by that of the Athletic Committee, which shelved basketball because "the game has not flourished here and is regarded by many competent critics as among the least desirable of athletic sports in this part of the country."

Assessing current enthusiasm, Dave Matthews, Director of Sports Information at Harvard, says, "The stands today are usually more than half-filled. When we drew 1,000 for Connecticut, I lied a little and called it a capacity crowd. From the bottom of the Indoor Athletic Building it is 68 steps up to the basketball court. That does not encourage paying customers. Most of the crowd are students who get in free. Some nights we don't take in enough to pay the refs."

The more popular sports at Harvard, such as football, hockey and crew, have supporting alumni groups—"friends" they are called—who fete the teams, pay for equipment the athletic budget cannot cover and encourage scholarly athletes to consider going to Harvard. Climbing 68 steps to see Harvard lose at basketball has apparently discouraged alumni, at least those with bulging wallets. In Dave Matthews' words, "You could seat all the friends of Harvard basketball around a very small table."

Tom Sanders is no dumbo. When he took the Harvard job, he knew what he was in for. "I am well aware of the excellence of Harvard," he told the press, "and of its many athletic programs. I want to move basketball into that same mode of excellence." In a later interview he added, "I look at basketball as part of the college curriculum. At Harvard it is sort of a 'minor' minor."

Harvard dotes not only of its indifference, but on the fact that it is different. In one respect it stands apart from most institutions: Harvard is proud of the academic freedom it fosters, but in its attitude toward athletics it is still an old Puritan school. In announcing Sanders' appointment, as if to assure the world that Harvard was not just hiring a fast-living jock, Athletic Director Robert B. Watson said sanctimoniously, "He will bring to Harvard a solid knowledge of the game and impeccable personal credentials. With that in mind, Tom will not only make a significant contribution to our basketball program, but he'll become a great asset to the Harvard community as well."

Harvard's greatness down the years has derived largely from its acceptance of all manner of men with scant regard for their personal credentials or social worth. In its 338 years it has harbored a wild variety: renegades and antiquarians, scions and social lepers, goldfish swallowers and snake-oil salesmen, longhairs and crewcuts. It has graduated Roosevelts and Kennedys and Richardsons who were not always impeccable while on campus. It was from Harvard that Dr. Henry Kissinger emerged as a fledgling statesman. It was Harvard that also gave the world Dr. Timothy Leary, the widely sought dispenser of LSD.

In such a milieu, where a one-eyed Martian could easily pass unnoticed, Satch Sanders has had no trouble adjusting. In his life, from Harlem boyhood to Harvard, he has fitted in well every place except on commercial airliners, where coach seats afford barely enough leg-room for any basketballer bigger than Calvin Murphy.

If given Sanders' job, many would have a hard time living with Harvard's traditional priority: academics always first, jockery often a poor second. At a crucial practice and chalk-talk this season, Harvard's captain, Tony Jenkins, did not show up. With a Rockefeller Foundation grant for a year of travel already in his pocket, Jenkins was in Detroit being interviewed for a Rhodes scholarship. The same week two subs and Center Lou Silver missed practices because of academic commitments. Two years ago Guard Jim Fitzsimmons set the alltime Harvard scoring record: 629 points in 26 games for a 24.2 average. Fitzsimmons is sitting out his last semester of eligibility to maintain grades good enough for graduate school. Walter Hines, all-city second team as a New York high-schooler, is inactive for the same reason.

The fact that there is talent on campus not playing for him sits easily with Sanders. "Any man attending one of the best universities in the world is foolish if he does not get the education it offers," he says. "I have seen too many men go from college into pro ball and last maybe a year. When they are cut—and so many are cut—they are through. Where can they go? Only back home. They have finished college without going to college."

In his early years Sanders was a natural scholar and second-rate athlete who grew too tall too fast. At 13 he was a shambling 6-foot 3-incher wearing size 13 shoes. Cal Ramsey, who now expertizes New York Knicks games on TV, grew up in the same Harlem neighborhood—a year ahead of Sanders scholastically and several years ahead in athletic finesse. "Satch was the tallest, most uncoordinated kid in junior high," Ramsey recalls. "He had to work at basketball. What he got, he earned. When we were both at NYU, he lifted weights to toughen himself for the college game. He started walking erect to make the most of his height, to the point where we called him 'Mr. Posture.' "

In his last year at Cooper Junior High, Sanders had improved enough to win a seat on the bench and play a minute in three games. His junior-high counselor suggested that he go to a trade or commercial high school and devote himself to tailoring, cooking or some other vocation that—let's face it—would assure a young black man a job after graduation. Sanders chose Seward Park High, attracted by basketball and its college-prep curriculum. By his senior year he had become proficient enough to receive more than a dozen solid college offers and countless feelers (including one from somebody representing Harvard). His Seward Park coach, Henry Cohen, counseled him, "Whatever college you pick, be sure you graduate with more than a basketball in your hands." Sanders chose NYU, accepting an academic scholarship with no basketball strings attached.

For two years at NYU he played in the shadow of Cal Ramsey. As captain in his senior year, 1959-60, Sanders led NYU into the semifinals of the NCAA championships. In the spring before graduation he had lined up a promising job with a tape manufacturing company when he was stunned to read in the papers that he was the first-round draft choice of the champion Boston Celtics. He had given little thought to pro ball, disenchanted largely because Ramsey had tried it with two teams the preceding year and had been dropped by both. (Ramsey played two games the following season with a third NBA team before going into retirement.) Even after the draft Sanders was inclined to pass up pro ball but he made the lucky mistake of having a chat with Boston Coach Red Auerbach, a man of considerable zeal and persuasion. Auerbach made two convincing points: 1) Sanders had nothing to lose in trying since he had had the good sense to get a solid education at NYU; and 2) if the Celtics were not really interested, why would they waste a first-round pick on him?

Sanders reported for the Celtics' try-outs wearing spectacles, elbow pads and knee pads. Auerbach bought him contact lenses and talked him out of elbow pads. When Sanders persisted in wearing knee pads, Auerbach persuaded veteran Forward Frank Ramsey to steal them. Auerbach remembers: "Sanders was something. He had a great brain connected to a great pair of arms. When he tried out for the Celtics he had a tremendous desire to learn. When he left 13 years later, he was still listening and learning."

Considering the state of pro ball when Sanders graduated from NYU, his almost instant success and long life with the Celtics are achievements of note. Simply to be picked in the first round was a distinction in 1960, for it was a vintage year for talent, and there were only eight teams in the bidding. Today, although the number of pro rosters—counting both NBA and ABA—has more than tripled, the average pro career, as figured by the NBA, is only six years. To date the seven elite draftees of 1960 who signed contracts have averaged more than 11 years, and three of them—Jerry West, Oscar Robertson and Lenny Wilkens—are still playing.

Sanders' basketball excellence was tempered and case-hardened by the inspiring fire of Red Auerbach's tongue. Insofar as the lesser talent of Harvard allows, Sanders' coaching philosophy is that of Auerbach's: disciplined offense and relentless defense, defense, defense. In a skull session before a tough test against Boston College, Sanders advised his team: "BC plays race-horse basketball. They are impatient on defense. They want to get the ball and go. They are good players, but sometimes they don't all play together. Gentlemen, let us play our own game."

Though tactically of much the same mind, in manner Sanders and Auerbach are a world apart. As anyone who has been in ear-burning distance will attest, Auerbach is very verbal, particularly in the presence of referees whose calls have disappointed him. Describing Sanders, his antithesis, Auerbach says, "On the Celtics he was always the quiet one reading a book. He had the respect of everybody because he exuded class. You'll notice when he coaches he addresses his team as 'gentlemen.' That isn't something he affected for Harvard. He has always had the beautiful soft approach."

Sanders is indeed a charmer, laconic yet eloquent, and graced with the wry humor that sustained Abe Lincoln in hard times. In a recent game a Harvard forward muffs a dead-on bullet pass, and the ball sails out of bounds. At court-side Sanders observes, "It was a bad pass. It hit him right in the hands." As Sanders sits in the 13'-by-11' office he shares with Freshman Coach Mike Jarvis, an undergraduate enters. The student has a hometown buddy who plays basketball and is coming to look Harvard over. Would Coach Sanders like to talk to him? "What we are looking for," Sanders replies, "are basketball scholars seven feet tall, but at this point I'll be glad to talk to anybody." Because of the fuel crisis, the radiator in Sanders' office sometimes puts out only enough heat to keep itself warm. As he pores over game stats, Sanders rubs his hands and glances at the hat rack beside his desk. "I have heard," he says, "that if you wear a hat indoors, it helps keep your feet warm. I just may try it." Although the rest of Harvard's main athletic building has been cooled by the fuel shortage, the natatorium is kept warm for the bare-skinned swimmers. Sanders sometimes abandons his office to do his paperwork in the swimming-pool stands.

The basketball booklet that Harvard puts out annually to assist the press is replete with dismal statistics of the past. It also contains heady facts about Harvard's early history, its present, sprawling impact on the world, its world-record endowment of $1.3 billion and its great Widener Library bulging with more than eight million books. In the booklet there is not one word about the basketball facilities on campus, and understandably. Year to year Harvard's endowment grows, and its big library gets more books, but its basketball facilities today are what they were nearly half a century ago: one court 88'-by-50', suitable for adult competition, and two courts 88'-by-44', adequate for junior high school play. People around Harvard who should know do not seem to know why the basketball facilities stand still while most of the university forges ahead. The easiest conclusion to reach, of course, is that the seers in charge today are as blind a bunch of mice as those who decided 65 years ago that basketball was not here to stay.

In 1942, to complete his senior thesis at Harvard, the author of this piece took two books of French ballads out of Widener. According to the sign-out card in the back of each, the volumes had not been taken out for 27 years—not since 1915, when they were loaned to the University of Detroit. The true worth of any functional object is the use it gets. On that count the three old basketball courts of Harvard outclass its loaded library by a country mile. If Harvard's eight million books were ever used as its basketball courts have been for 45 years, they would be in tatters. Last winter 600 Harvard undergrads out of a total enrollment of 4,800 competed in intramural basketball. Add to that the varsity and the frosh and, say, a hundred other students and maybe a couple dozen of the faculty horsing around in pickup games, and the total climbs to about 750. As if that were not load enough, the courts are also used for badminton and intramural volleyball, for varsity wrestling, occasionally for fencing matches and for practice once a week by the varsity quintet of Radcliffe, Harvard's distaff appendage.

Even when the athletic building is closed on Sunday afternoons an odd bunch of basketballers known as the Harvard Classics work out on the main court. The Harvard Classics are a happy amalgam of eager and/or talented players who want to compete but because of afternoon lab sessions and other academic pressures could never give the varsity squad an honest measure of devotion. For the most part, the Classics play the junior varsities of local colleges, prep schools, penal institutions—just about anybody not too good. If asked, the Classics would probably take on UCLA provided Walton coached and Wooden played center.

This season the Classics have lost three times: to the Bentley College jayvees, to a pickup team from Harvard's law and divinity schools and to the Boston State varsity. The Classics have whomped 11 other rivals, notably beating the Deer Island House of Correction 107-96 and the Villerica Jail and House of Correction 133-78. Considering that no Harvard varsity ever scored more than 125 points in a game, how can a once-a-week bunch of Harvard men rack up such totals? Simple. At a house of correction, when the game is over, the home players must return to their private pens, so the timers drag out the games. Against Deer Island the Harvard Classics played about 50 minutes—10 over the collegiate limit. The Villerica game went 65 minutes.

How has the Harvard varsity fared so far in Sanders' first season? To judge by the record, it would seem the Fates have decreed that Harvard can excel, but as penance for all its past sins against basketball, must still lose a lot. At the end of the third week of January, when competition stopped for the midyear exam period, Harvard had won five and lost 10. Given a rightful share of luck, Harvard's record could easily have been 10 and five. In any season a team expects to lose a few close ones and win a few. This season Harvard has had a gutful of squeakers—eight in all—and only one has gone its way. In early December the team beat Dartmouth 65-64 on a technical foul with no time showing on the clock, which is about as squeaky as you can get. Just after Christmas, in the first round of the Quaker City Tournament, Harvard lost to Temple 61-59 in the last minute and a half, and Temple went on to beat Cincinnati and California for the title.

How many teams have ever lost four games in one season by a total of six points in a total of six seconds? Here is how Harvard did it this year.

Harvard leads 69-68 with two seconds to go. Bonaventure Forward Bill Moore sinks an 18-foot jumper. Harvard loses 70-69.

At the end of regulation time the score is 72-72. In overtime it is 82-82 with two seconds to go. Guard Joel Goldson of Springfield puts in a twisting layup. The buzzer sounds before Harvard can inbound. Harvard loses 84-82.

Harvard trails 55-53. With two seconds to go, Harvard Center Silver is fouled and goes to the line with the chance to tie it up. He misses his first try. He attempts to put his second free throw off the backboard so it will rebound to where a teammate can get his hands on it. Alas, Silver's deliberate attempt to miss goes in the hoop. Harvard loses 55-54.


Penn is the favorite to win the Ivy League title and a good dozen points better than Harvard. But surprise, surprise, with eight seconds to go it is 53-53. A jump ball is called between Guards John Beecroft of Penn and Ken Wolfe of Harvard. Beecroft gets the tap to teammate Henry Johnson, whose jumper misses and bounces freakishly back to Beecroft. Beecroft shoots from 12 feet out with one second to go. The buzzer sounds while the ball is in the air. The ball goes in. Harvard loses 55-53.

In spite of these assorted calamities, Harvard is 8 and 4 in Ivy competition and will finish with a far better record than was expected.

After one surprisingly easy win Sanders had a beer with Freshman Coach Jarvis in a Cambridge pub. A time to relax—but Sanders did not. On the pub's television set his old Celtics were nip-and-tuck against the Lakers. Sanders has a lasting love affair with the Celtics and the city of Boston. He tried to follow the game, but his mind kept drifting back to Harvard. In 10 minutes the shouting TV commentator had lost him altogether, and Sanders was deep in conversation with Jarvis about variations of pick-and-roll and give-and-go that they might try to help Harvard basketball to a better day.


A DURABLE DUO: Harvard basketball Coach Satch Sanders; oldtimer name of John Harvard.