What is now a longstanding tradition was started almost by chance. While baseball teams had visited the White House as early as 1865, no basketball franchise made the trip until 1963. At that time the president, John F. Kennedy, happened to be a Massachusetts native and his Boston Celtics happened to be fresh off their fourth straight NBA title. But for Tom "Satch" Sanders it didn't matter that a number of circumstances had to align perfectly for the Celtics to stop by 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. He had been summoned to the White House in a time when African-Americans—professional athletes included—still couldn't stay in certain hotels or eat at certain restaurants.
Sanders would go on to complete many more firsts, becoming the first black coach in the Ivy League and entering the Hall of Fame as a member of the most decorated team in NBA history. He played alongside greats like Bill Russell, Bob Cousy and John Havlicek, and for the renowned Red Auerbach. With them, he won eight NBA titles in 11 seasons and visited the president once.
Now, the tradition that the Celtics once started could draw to a close, at least for the next four years. Some NBA players, including LeBron James, have said they might sit out the annual White House trip if their team should win a title during Donald Trump's presidency. Facing the potential end to this practice, it made sense to return to the beginning. The Crossover did that with Sanders, who touched on his visit with JFK, civil rights and Donald Trump.
DeAntae Prince: When did you learn the Celtics were going to the White House after winning the 1963 NBA title?
Satch Sanders: The invitation was extended, but John F. Kennedy was also out of Massachusetts so he was a fan of the team. The big thing was winning the championship and the fact that the president wanted to honor us. That was our fourth championship in a row. There were a lot of things coming our way in terms of people thinking that it was quite an accomplishment and the president was a fan, so he was also in that group of people.
DP: Your team visited JFK, a man whose legacy has aged well in America. What was it like to meet him at that time?
SS: Well, certainly having the opportunity to meet the President of the United States and having him be an enthusiast was a good feeling. He laughed a lot, he had some stories to tell about when he was a kid admiring the Celtics and he took about 20-30 minutes with us. That didn’t make his staff very happy because that was a lot of time, but he was happy and he was a good conversationalist and we had a lot of laughs.
DP: You visited JFK in the same year he was assassinated. Was it surreal to see the news?
SS: It had the same effect that it had on the entire country. The fact that the president had been assassinated was certainly abnormal in all of our minds. We just found it hard to believe.
DP: That was an interesting time in U.S. history. America was changing and you were in the midst of civil rights. What was your life like as a professional athlete?
SS: We were just getting over the 50s, and by the time you got to the 60s a lot of the major schools were still not integrated, particularly the Southern schools. There were all kinds of problems that continued racially—that was the country at that time. To be a pro meant you had places you could go, places you couldn’t go, places you couldn’t stay, places you couldn’t eat, and that was all over the country.
DP: Some players have said they might not go to the White House after President Barack Obama leaves office. If you were playing today, would you visit under the Donald Trump administration? Or any administration you didn’t agree with politically?
SS: It had nothing to do with being ideological. It was the President of the United States wanted to honor the Boston Celtics and that’s why you went. I would assume that same thing would occur this time. He’s still President of the United States? This is still the same country? The fact that you might have disagreements, I don’t think that’s a factor.
DP: And sometimes it's good to talk with people you disagree with and have a conversation, right?
SS: Yes, but the team is being honored for an accomplishment, and the president that sits in the seat is the President of the United States. That cannot be denied.
DP: You grew up in New York City and played for NYU. Due to your relationship with the city, you must be familiar with Trump. Do you have any opinion on him?
SS: None that I’m willing to talk about. I met him, he was a fan of the NBA and a fan of the teams, but that’s said about many people and politicians and business people, so that’s the level at which you knew him.
DP: After your playing career, you went to Harvard and became the first black basketball coach in the Ivy League. Can you expand on how that came to be?
SS: It was a first but that’s not why I wanted the job. It was just an opportunity there that I could acquire, so I applied, went through the process and was able to be selected the coach. Coached there for four years and enjoyed the experience. I liked being at Harvard and would have loved to stay longer.
DP: How was that experience? What was your dialogue with players like?
SS: The thing about coaching young people is that you’re not only talking with them about basketball, you also get involved with other parts of their lives on the campus. You find yourself helping and advising them through many situations, and all of us grow with the experience.
DP: Are you still in touch with former teammates and the Boston Celtics organization?
SS: Yeah, I get a chance to talk with some of the guys. We check on each other every couple months. We call each other: Sam Jones, Bob Cousy, John Havlicek, Gene Conley, we talk on occasion just like everybody.