Satch Sanders: Basketball Player & Businessman
It is the early 1960s, and Thomas " Satch " Sanders , the lanky product of 116th Street and Lenox Avenue in Harlem, now a few years out of New York University, is on a road trip with the Boston Celtics. Times are still tough for blacks on the road. The Lester Maddox types still think about swinging ax handles as they stand in front of their restaurants rather than serve blacks.
This trip takes the team to Marion, Indiana, where a proud mayor rolls out the red carpet and hands each player a key to the city. The athletes are hungry, though, and once the ceremonies are over, they rush off to the nearest restaurant. There, Sanders and two of his teammates, Bill Russell and K. C. Jones, are refused service because of the color of their skin. That night Russell, incensed, takes a cab to the mayor's front door and throws the keys to the city back at him.
The next day sees the team in Louisville, Kentucky, for an exhibition game. When the black players head for the hotel coffee shop, once again they are turned away. Only when the management discovers that they are ball players are the rules changed. The black players take their seats at the table and, as the waiter begins to take their orders, they tell him that they were only kidding, that they aren't really with the Celtics. Again, suddenly, they are told to leave.
The next day, following Russell's lead, the black players refuse to play in the Louisville game.
Today Tom Sanders tells the story matter-of-factly, as though it were an occurrence so common that it could no longer cause surprise, that an emotional immunity to such slights sets in. Sanders does not tell you what his white teammate, Tom Heinsohn, recalls about the incident.
"You know what Satch did," Heinsohn said some years later. "He cried."-
It is 1980. The basketball career that belonged to the young man from Harlem has come and gone, the inevitable victim of gimpy knees and aching bones, wheezing lungs and quicker rookies. A light, pre-Christmas snow is dusting the sidewalk in front of 43 Stanhope Street, abutting both Back Bay and the South End when the tall, bespectacled black man pokes his head out the door and grimaces when he sees that the overhead lights have been left on all night needlessly.
"They never remember to turn them off," he grumbles. "Must think that I own Con Edison."
The New York roots still show. But the man is in Boston, where neither he nor the city is a stranger to high electric bills and racial problems.
The wind whisks down the street, and the man ducks back inside in search of the light switch. The green and white awning over the doorway flaps angrily, distorting the single name overhead: Satch's. The luncheon crowd begins to drift in, and one young man, seeing the tall figure disappear into the doorway, turns to his girlfriend and says: "There. Did you see him? That's the owner. That's Satch."
Tom Sanders would have you believe that the best thing about his restaurant is that it is one of the few spots in the Northeast where you can order baby back ribs - which sound like just what they are, tender pork ribs cut from high on the back of young pigs - that he has made the house specialty.
But there is something else going on at Satch's. The luncheon and dinner crowd, the regulars in the bar, the flow of traffic in and out of the Sunday brunch, is almost evenly divided between blacks and whites. In a city where turf so often dictates where one feels free to travel - lest skin color cause unnecessary tension - this easy mix of races seems out of place.
It is not that Boston's other restaurants and bars overtly discourage black clientele, says Sanders, it is just that such things haven't been encouraged. Yet, even without the memories of Indiana and Kentucky, Sanders recalls being turned away from bars in Kenmore Square until he was recognized: "Hey! Good ol' number 16 in the green and white at the Garden. Sorry, Mr. Sanders, didn't recognize you. Come right in, Satch. Just a little mistake is all. Here's a nice table for you. Sit down, sit down."
Sanders would walk away in those days. If being black meant that you also had to be a ball player to have a drink or get a steak somewhere, then he'd rather not. After all, hadn't he adamantly moved into Roxbury when his efforts to rent a place in Back Bay were met with realtors who quickly hung out their No Vacancy signs?-
There are, today in Boston, places where blacks and whites eat and drink together comfortably. You must search for them, though, hunt them out the way you would a vacation trinket, an oddity, a curio. There is always Bob the Chef's in the South End, the city's premier soul food emporium. And in those days past when newspapermen and others of similarly questionable repute would play until the wee hours of the morning, there was the infamous Pioneer Club, a strange and pleasant after-hours bar where blacks and whites lingered until dawn over good drinks and better fried chicken. And there are still some who say that, black or white, you can go to Estelle's and Lulu White's and not feel uncomfortable regardless of skin color.
But it is important to note that all of those places are in predominantly black neighborhoods. Check the restaurants in white areas, in places like the Faneuil Hall Marketplace, and the clientele is noticeably absent of blacks.
So Satch's is an oddity, even though Sanders likes to think of it as a mainstream restaurant, a big place that advertises for everything from the after-theater crowd to the Sunday brunch lovers. That those groups are racially mixed makes it different. Put Satch's in many other cities - New York, Detroit, Atlanta, for example - and it wouldn't even be a curiosity. Put it in Boston, and it is talked about as if some great social experiment.
It is a view that bothers Sanders. He argues that he is running a business first and a sociology classroom, if it is that, second. He does not want to be viewed as a novelty. Yet, he says, if his restaurant is one of the few where blacks and whites mix comfortably in a city where roughly 15 percent of the population is black, then something is terribly wrong.
"Why should you be in a major city and not find this kind of phenomenon of blacks and whites together, in serious numbers, in a lot of other places all over the city?" he asks. "There's no question that it's a problem that hasn't been addressed, that it's something that hasn't been encouraged. I'm not saying that other places are racist in attitude. They aren't. It's just a matter of people going in and feeling comfortable. . . ."
Perceptions, says Sanders. You read about kids being murdered in Atlanta, and you don't want to
bring your kids to Atlanta. You read about the Zebra killings in San Francisco, and you're not in a hurry to visit San Francisco. Who wanted to hurry off to Manhattan when Son of Sam was making his rounds? Indeed, who wants to hurry off to Manhattan as long as anyone owns a gun?
The same sort of thing is true of restaurants, says Sanders. A place gets bad marks for whatever reason, whether true or not, and people stop coming. If a place gets bad marks on race relations, real or imagined, then that affects the clientele.
"Say a person goes into a restaurant and indicates that he had to wait an hour and a half for service," he explains. "If the person is apprehensive about the fact that he is black and feels that he wasn't waited on . . . because they just didn't want to encourage him to come back and made him wait, then the word spreads. That's the kind of thing that becomes very real to a person. Now the possibility that the waiter might have just blown his station, just didn't realize that he was supposed to wait on that table, is a distinct possibility. But in the mind of the individual involved, they did it because he was black."
In its previous incarnation, Satch's was a Red Coach Grill, a place of fat steaks and steaming lobsters and a distinctly white clientele. In its heyday, it played to an audience of downtown lawyers and businessmen. In its waning years, it was a stopping-off spot for the boys at police headquarters, just down the street, as they headed for home. The lounge was dark, the decor ecletic, with occasional brass and ubiquitous wood paneling and the inevitable wagon wheels that seemed to come from the old Red Coach itself. Despite the accoutrements, though, its real trademark was the huge fieldstone fireplace that separates the lounge and the dining room.
Sanders talks about the building with reverence. On Mother's Day, year after year, the Red Coach was where he took his mother. If ever he was to run a restaurant, he wanted it to be there.-
Even before sociologists ponder the problems of getting blacks and whites together, they might think about what makes former athletes so quick to leap into the restaurant business. The list is long and overwhelmed by casualties. Gino Cappelletti's The Point After. Ken Harrelson's 1800 Club. Bobby Orr's Branding Iron. Bill Russell's place, Slade's. They seem to come and go as each new season of draft picks come and go, as each rookie forces another veteran into premature retirement, with money in the bank and searching for something to do with the rest of his life.
Maybe it's that too many games on the road, too much time spent eating out, make restaurants more familiar than home. Maybe it's simply that the noise of the place, the nightly crowd, is an echo of the voices in the grandstand. Perhaps it's a way to extend the days of recognition, to stand at the bar and wait for the old fans to stop by and shake hands.
Maybe, too, it's that athletes trade on the hope that the name on the door will bring in the dollars.
The gray Buick Skylark with the "Celtics 16" license plate taped inside the back window - the five previous plates, mounted on the bumper where they belong, have been stolen - is parked on Stanhope Street from early morning to late evening. If Sanders is loaning his name to this place, is hanging around to greet a few fans, is hoping for a glimmer of the past, then he is putting in long hours for it.
Tom Sanders makes it clear that he runs the place. Though sixteen partners - the number is a lucky one - shared the initial expenses, Sanders points out that he still owns 54 percent of Satch's and is investing still more to increase his share. It is not so much that he wants to. A rotten inflation rate, an economy that keeps people in their offices at lunchtime and dining rooms at dinnertime, has hurt profits, Sanders says. After thirteen months in business, patronage hasn't grown nearly as much as he'd hoped. Recently he has changed the menu, cutting prices to what he says are "1978 prices" to attract more customers.
And, too, the reviews have been mixed. Sanders complains that it is because reviewers persist in seeing his restaurant as a purveyor of soul food, not a place to be taken seriously, not a major restaurant. But, too, a string of different chefs has hurt, and now, he says, with the hiring of a new chef two and a half months ago, he hopes that problem is solved.-
One Saturday night just after Christmas, a seasonably slow time in the restaurant business, he makes a point of greeting virtually every customer who steps through the door, complains quietly to a visitor when his maitre d' takes too long noticing that someone is waiting to be seated - "The man has no peripheral vision at all," he says, half joking. "Would have made a terrible athlete" - and jokes more easily as a photographer poses him with a rack of the ribs that he hopes will make his restaurant, if not him, famous.
"Well, I suppose you're wondering what makes a man like me look soooo good, soooo healthy," he says in an imaginary conversation with those who will see the picture. "Well, it's these ribs. No question about it. You eat some of these ribs and you can look this good, too.
"But when eating these ribs," he continues, "you must remember not to pull the rib away from the teeth but to pull the teeth away from the rib when eating that nice lean meat. Otherwise, you'll splatter this delicious barbecue sauce all over your white shirt."
The basketball player turned coach - he coached both the Celtics and Harvard's varsity - turned restaurateur. Sanders says that he enjoys the restaurant business, but that his first love is still playing basketball.
"Would I rather be playing ball for a living? Oh, sure, no doubt about it," he says. "But any grown man or woman who enjoyed something as a kid, really liked it, really loved it, would probably still like to be able to do the same thing. Times change, though, commitments change, and obviously age has a little to do with those things, too.
"Most of the other parts of basketball, like coaching, are not as much fun. Not that life has to be a bowl of cherries, but to get as much fun as you can possibly get out of life is important because there are enough concerns as it is."
This is Sanders the philosopher, the man whose teammates always thought of him as the team intellectual, the one who read books while the rest of them were giving interviews. The soft-spoken, polite ball player who made his name on the defense, that part of any sport that keeps you from the limelight while the high scorers get their names in the newspaper.
But the memories live on for Sanders. The walls of his restaurant are decorated with photographs, newspaper clippings, and cartoons of his glory days with the Celts. His old teammates drop by occasionally for dinner. Waiters and waitresses wear green and white frocks with the number 16 on the back, the number that the team retired when Sanders retired.
He has not abandoned basketball entirely: He still plays in old-timers' games and still runs a successful basketball camp in New Hampshire with teammate Don Nelson, an enterprise that, in the summer, takes almost as much time as the restaurant.
Last summer, weary from the almost daily commute between the camp and the restaurant, he arrived at Stanhope Street anxious to find things running well enough to let him grab some sleep before the two a.m. closing, his normal departure time. Once inside, though, he knew that all was not well. If it was ninety degrees out on the street, it was even warmer inside what was supposed to be an air-conditioned restaurant. The air conditioner was on the blink, the Phoenix was on the phone looking for next week's advertising copy - which he proceeded to sketch on a pad during an interview with a reporter - and someone from a civic organization kept calling, hoping to get some underprivileged kids into the already oversubscribed basketball camp. The last piece of business is the kind he is always faced with, given a long-standing reputation for involvement in the community.
By midnight, when the air conditioner repairman arrived, Sanders wanted nothing more than a few hours' sleep at his apartment in the Prudential complex. Instead, the repairs took most of the night, and Sanders, concerned about theft if he left the place unlocked, tried to convince the repairman to be locked inside the restaurant for a few hours, promising to return and let him out a few hours later. The man would have none of it, and Sanders finally agreed to spend the night at the restaurant while the work was done.-
In the early 1970s, after a knee operation threatened to end his basketball career, he would stay well into the night at Boston Garden, running up and down the steep stairs to the balcony in an effort to strengthen the leg and get his wind back.
He runs the restaurant with the same determination. There is no lingering over the bar with old friends. Late at night, over dinner, he might have a glass of ale with someone willing to sit and talk, but rarely anything stronger. If a waitress is having trouble tending to her tables, Sanders will step into the fray, taking and delivering orders himself. When things start disappearing from the kitchen, he stalks the culprit, an employee, late into the night, finally discovering that the missing articles are being stored inside a dumpster outside the kitchen door until the man leaves for the night.
It is the work ethic of the kid from the ghetto who learned that to get anywhere, you have to work for it. If, he says, you're not making enough money to get the things that you want in life, then the only thing to do is to work even harder.
In his thirteen years with the Celtics - from 1960 until 1973 - he never signed anything other than a one-year contract.
"Thirteen one-year contracts," he says today. "I never knew if I was going to come back. It made me work that much harder because I could never get to be complacent."
And because he played ball long before the days when superstars began signing million-dollar contracts, he took summer jobs in the off-season, even spent one summer working at E. J. Korvette's, the New York department store chain, to stay afloat financially.
As he become more successful, his investments became more sophisticated - playing the stock market with Buddy LeRoux, the former Celtics trainer who now owns the Red Sox, going after federal housing grants to rehabilitate deteriorated housing in Roxbury, and so on. But he had long wanted to own a restaurant, and he acquired the Stanhope Street site after plans to locate on State Street and, later, on Newbury Street fell through.
Because he considers himself a businessman - with a marketing degree from NYU - he is initially reluctant these days to discuss the interracial aspects of his restaurant.
"The objective, of course, is to get into business and do well," he explains. "To be healthy and continue on in business. . . . Sometimes when you put business and sociology together it can be kind of difficult. It can be a tough marriage, if only because you're trying to go in two directions when you should be concentrating all your efforts on one, keeping the business healthy."
But later, he relents, admitting that the idea of running a place where blacks and whites could socialize together was considered from the start, was discussed with his partners, was part of a grander plan for the restaurant with the Celtic green carpet on the floor.
"My personal opinion is that the city needs it," Sanders says. "Needs it very badly. People from out of town who have heard about this city are surprised to find that a place like Satch's exists in a place like Boston. No matter how much you rebuild a city physically, if some of these social things aren't addressed, you know that the image is going to stay the same no matter how glorious the city may look.
"The problem isn't going to go away until people begin to communicate. No question about that. There are all kinds of mediums for it, but they've got to begin to talk to each other, maybe here in a social setting where they realize that the problems, the dreams, and the way people enjoy themselves are similar."
So Sanders says he and his partners sought out a midtown site for the restaurant and "you go along with the hope that you can begin to get people to do things together. You know full well that if you can get people to relax together, socialize together, you're beginning to overcome some of the discomforts, the curiosity factor that they have about each other.
"I certainly don't see Boston as being any different than any other city as far as race problems go, but some of the solutions are that you've got to give people opportunities to do more than just work together. There aren't enough of those situations around."
It is after ten when three young men in polyester suits, ties askew, come in for a drink that clearly isn't their first of the evening. Sanders is huddled in the corner of the lounge, talking with a friend, but notices that the waitress, unable to keep up with the crowd, has not noticed the men. He goes over himself to take their order and is immediately recognized.
"Satch, Satch, it's really you," says one of the men, who introduces himself as Dana.
Sanders returns with their drinks, but the three are not about to let him get out of sight. Their questions are tedious, endless, consuming perhaps an hour of Sanders' time.
"Should Maxwell be traded, Satch?"
"What do you think of Bird?"
"How 'bout Archibald?"
"Sign this. Gimme your autograph. Make it read To Dana.' It's not for me. For my son. He'll love it."
"Will the Celts win the championship?"
On and on and on. Sanders responds politely, patiently. If Dana has shaken his hand once, he has shaken it a hundred times.
But when the former ball player is called away for a minute, the three - the trio so pleased to have Tom Sanders' autograph - scoot out the front door without paying their bill.
Alerted, Sanders follows them out into the darkness of Stanhope Street.
"Dana," he calls, looking threatenly down from his six-foot, six-inch height. "The young lady inside, the waitress, indicates that you may have overlooked your bill. Could you come back inside and discuss it?"
Polite. Patient. Sanders escorts the three back inside. An American Express card is produced. The bill is paid. The Satch Sanders autographs are safe inside each man's jacket pocket.
There are times, Sanders admits, that running a restaurant is not nearly as much fun as playing basketball.
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