2022 Bostonian of the year
‘He was a great teammate — outstanding teammate’: Hall of Famer Satch Sanders on Bill Russell
Plus, the Celtics star No. 7 Jaylen Brown writes a special tribute to Russell’s lasting impact.
I remember watching games in Madison Square Garden when Bill Russell came into the league. The centers at that time, in 1956, were hook-shooters. And they were slow shooters. Russell was so quick and so accurate with his ability to get the ball, he was grabbing their shots out of the air. He was getting 20 or 25 rebounds a game. The name of the game is possession and give the other team just one shot. It was very basic and fundamental and that’s what Russell pushed.
In my first year [on the Celtics], Russell got hurt during the preseason. He wasn’t able to play right away so I was playing center. He missed six or seven games. When he came back, I was still in the habit of running up-court and running to the center position and he came up to me and said, “Listen. Let me tell you right now — you cannot take my job.” And I said, “Believe me, I know that Russ.”
He was a great teammate — outstanding teammate. He’d tell me, “Satch, if you force Elgin [Baylor] to the side, I’ll pick him up. Just make sure the center doesn’t get an easy pass for an easy basket. But if you force ‘em this way, I’ll be there.” When you have that kind of backup, you’re in what’s called fat city. He just made it easy to play.
Russell had come out of Louisiana. He and his father and grandfather had had many opportunities — let’s call them “opportunities” — to be involved with segregation. I used to go down South with my parents to visit my grandfather in South Carolina and there were always those times when the police would stop us and go through with those insulting questions, calling my father — who was very much a grown man — ”Boy, get out of the car.” As soon as I could say no to my parents, I never went down South again.
[In 1961 in Kentucky], Sam Jones and I went to get a bite to eat and were told, “We don’t serve Negroes here” — I think it was “Negroes” in those years — so we were like, “OK.” Sam and I let Russell know and we let Red Auerbach know and Red called the hotel people on the carpet and made a lot of noise and they said they would change their policy and serve us in the hotel dining room. So when we returned, they said, “OK, so you guys are with the Celtics, and we can serve you.” It was either Sam or K.C. [Jones] who said, “No, we were just joking, we’re not with the team,” and then they said, “Well, then we can’t serve you.” So that was the end. We came home — the five Blacks on the team.
Every opportunity that Russell would have to step up, he would step up. We were in Indiana and the mayor [of Marion] had just given us the key to the city, and a couple of restaurants wouldn’t seat us or feed us. We went to the mayor’s house late at night and Russell said, “Take this key!” The mayor was very upset about being awakened late at night.
Russell had no problem going through those kinds of scenes. He would step up.
Hall of Famer Tom “Satch” Sanders won eight NBA championships with the Celtics, and was later head coach of the team and the Harvard men’s basketball team. This interview with Dan Shaughnessy has been edited and condensed.
A tribute to the late, legendary No. 6 from Celtics star No. 7 Jaylen Brown
Bill Russell continues to set the standard for Celtics who carry on his legacy today.
Bill Russell was a champion both on and off the floor in Boston. He represented a type of honor and nobility that is generational. He made our society better by holding himself and those around him to the highest standards of accountability. To this day, every day, even months after his passing, he continues to set the standard. Every step of the way, he displayed a divine level of courage, wisdom, and sacrifice. We should all be grateful for him. There are so many lessons he left for us, perhaps none greater than you must put in the work, outwardly and internally sometimes that means to be challenged, or to challenge the barometer of society. Bill Russell in his time made people uncomfortable, but at the birth of uncomfortably lives change and growth. Let’s challenge ourselves to carry that lesson forward to make ourselves and our community reach the level of growth I know it can. — JAYLEN BROWN