Talking With a Hall of Fame Trio
Teresa Edwards, Satch Sanders and Artis Gilmore discuss their Hall of Fame careers.
Need another trivia question? Ask someone to who has the third-most NBA title rings ever. It’s actually a trick question because there is a four-way tie for that spot. Bill Russell’s 11 rings is followed by teammate Sam Jones’ collection of 10. Then four other ex-Celtics from their 1960s dynasty won eight rings, including Sanders.
Sanders was a defensive stalwart during his 13-year career, all with the Boston Celtics. His career 9.6 scoring average won’t knock anyone’s socks off – his career-high average was 12.6 – but Sanders was slotted from Day One of his 1960-61 rookie season as a defensive ace.
Yet he was elected into the Hall of Fame not as a player but as a contributor. Sanders founded a slew of player programs that helped educate NBA players about off-the-court life. Most notable among these was the 1986 creation of the Rookie Transition Program, which informs each year’s rookie class about issues ranging from financial management to drug abuse.
SLAM: Was there ever any doubt that the Celtics would win a championship every year during that run in the ’60s?
Satch Sanders: Well, you know, you have to be reasonable about playing other great teams. But as far as we were concerned, we had a chance to win every single game. And that was the mentality that you had on that team. You look at the fact that you had a guy like Bill Russell, who was only Mr. Winning – from his college days to the Olymipcs. So, he expected to win.
Of course, the pressure was on. Bob Cousy – he was looking to win. And there were guys putting pressure on everyone in regard to winning every single game. Not just championships but every single game. So, there was a lot of pressure and we all played tough practices because we really thought we could win every game. Clearly, we didn’t but that was the goal.
SLAM: To that point of the championships, you had three Game 7s against the Lakers in your career. You won all three of them. What do you remember about those Game 7s?
SS: Frankly, I don’t remember anything. But I do remember that we won. The interesting part is that, of course, the games run together after awhile. And over time, as you gain some summers, you find out that a lot of things run together. [Smiles]
SLAM: Was there one day during your career when you knew you had to be a lock-down defender and give that part of the game more attention than the offensive end?
SS: Frankly, Red Aurbach was running the team and as the coach and general manager he came to the conclusion that the piece that was needed was someone to play defense and rebound for us. He drafted me and told me that was my assignment. Now, what I had in mind was playing an all-around game of basketball. I wouldn’t mind scoring 15, 20 points a game on opportunity. He made it very clear that what I was really going to do was rebound and play defense. [Smiles] And score, maybe, on opportunity. But that was it. So, it was not my doing; it was my assignment. It became my job, and I’m glad it did. I became relatively good at it. No Dennis Rodman but I became relatively good at it. We had some great success
SLAM: The Rookie Transition Program that you helped found. Could you enlighten me about what motivated you to begin this program about educating players about life off the court?
SS: The issue was, at the time, the stories were the same in all the pro leagues. You come in, you do the best you can on the field or court, you retire – not retire, you get fired is what really happens – and good luck. So, the issue for me was to make sure all these people, basketball players in particular, had something to do, another option after finishing playing ball. That was a big concern for me when I was playing. What’s gonna happen at the end? Am I going to stop playing with an injury after two years? After five? You just never can tell. The issue is if you’re working on something else for yourself, you feel the hurt but you’ll be able to smoothly move into the next level.
And the guys are very young – 25, 25 years of age and their careers are over. That’s one phase of your life and you got another 60, hopefully 60, years to live. What are you going to do in those productive years? That was a big issue for players that they never faced. As far as I was concerned, my assignment was to put a program together to be able to help and see about options 1, 2 and 3 and on down the line. That was going to help [former players] have a decent life.
SLAM: You knew a lot of players who had that rough transition after they were done with basketball?
SS: Yeah, I looked in the mirror. I had one. It’s something that all players go through, even the ones who move smoothly into something else. Normally, that smooth transition is into something regarding sports.
SLAM: What do you feel like the program’s effect has been on these generations of NBA players?
SS: The programs help. The other thing that helps is the life stores – hardluck stories, call ‘em what you want – players have been exposed to and so I’m going to try to make sure that doesn’t happen to me. Another thing, of course, is there are a few more dollars on the table now. That cuts down the chances of some of these happening.
SLAM: Do players today know you? Do they know about you, not just as a NBA player, but your contributions to the Rookie Transition Program?
SS: No, but it doesn’t matter whether they know. The only thing that really counts is are they taking advantage of the programs in-place? That’s all it’s really about. All that jazz about me and players knowing me. Hey, life goes on and you do what you do. If there’s recognition, if folks remember – good for them. But we just keep doing what we do.
SLAM: What does it feel like to be a Hall of Famer?
SS: Well, it’s really a good place to be simply because a lot of my former teammates are in this house.
An incredible afro is just the tip of the iceberg for what Gilmore contributed to the game. He averaged 24.3 points and 22.7 rebounds in two seasons as a two-time All-American at Jacksonville University from 1969-71, which included a 1970 championship game appearance against the UCLA.
Gilmore entered the ABA after college and became a five-time All-Star, five-time All-ABA first teamer, four-time ABA All-Defensive first-teamer and one-time MVP during his five seasons in the league, posting averages of 22.3 points and 17.1 rebounds during that time span. A title with the Kentucky Colonels in 1975 rounded out an accomplished ABA career, which preceded his 12-year NBA career with the Chicago Bulls, San Antonio Spurs and Celtics. Gilmore made six NBA All-Star teams, although he didn’t achieve the team success that he had in the ABA and NCAA.
SLAM: How does it feel to make the Hall?
SLAM: Have you spoken with your friends who are in the Hall of Fame about what it felt like for them after they were inducted?
AG: No, I think that for each individual, for them they look over their career and what they’ve accomplished, it’s different for each individual.
SLAM: Was the 1970 game between Jacksonville and Kentucky the greatest game you’ve played in? Or do some of the games during your ABA and NBA career top that?
AG: Well, that’s just it. You hate to put a signature game that has more of an impact than others. I played in so many of ‘em and certainly an opportunity to win a conference against Kentucky, that was pretty huge for us.
SLAM: I read an article in which Hubie Brown said you were the best shot-blocker he had ever seen.
AG: Well, that’s a terrific compliment. And just for that I’m going to give you something. [Places a photo of him blocking a shot in the ABA.]
SLAM: Your hand is above the [backboard] square.
AG: And just think that in those days, they didn’t have the ability to superimpose [images]. I actually really did it. [Laughs]
SLAM: Did you have a particular shot-blocking strategy? Obviously Russ tried to deflect shots to his teammates.
AG: And that’s exactly what I attempted to do, as well. I mean, what happens when you block the ball and throw it up in the stands? It looks good, you give your guys a high-five, but you allow your opponents a second opportunity. In most cases, they’re going to capitalize on it.
SLAM: At Jacksonville University, you averaged a 20/20 in each of your two seasons. Did it feel too easy at times?
AG: Not really, it was hard work. You think in terms of what happened with basketball. Of course, the game has truly evolved. Then, there was a guy named Lew Alcindor taking the slam dunk out of the game. And then during my four years of college the slam dunk was eliminated from the game. And you think of guys like Dean Smith at North Carolina – he ran the Four Corners offense. Once they inserted the three-point play and brought about some exciting rules, it just recreated the game and made it much more exciting. In college basketball, we were able to accomplish the things that we did.
I remember one season, we averaged 100 points per game. You consider all these other factors – the shot clock.
SLAM: Well, I don’t think a lot of younger people now remember that back in the ’70s, the nightly competition at center in college, the ABA and the NBA was impressive. What do you remember about that?
AG: Every night in the ABA and the NBA it was absolutely necessary to be prepared, for a fight every night. Me being who I was, the name recognition I had, it certainly motivated other guys. That made it even more of a challenge.
SLAM: Is the ABA recognized now the way it should be?
AG: The ABA is starting to receive recognition. People are starting to acknowledge the game, and I think that’s important.
SLAM: What stands out to you about playing for the Bulls and in Chicago Stadium?
AG: My first year there; I think the previous year they won only 24 ballgames. It was difficult. Our coach moved on and from that point on we changed coaches. We did not have the same players. It was difficult to really put a project together to where you could sustain a level of play. Every year we had to make some adjustments. And that’s what made it difficult.
SLAM: What else comes to your mind when you reflect on your ABA and NBA careers?
AG: Well, I think back over my total basketball career, and the final recognition is here as a Hall of Famer.
All photos courtesy of Mohegan Sun Casino.