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.