SHOOTERS, SANDERS, AND HOOP MEMORIES
Actor Dennis Hopper played a wonderful character named “Shooter” in the basketball movie Hoosiers, which also starred Gene Hackman and Barbara Hershey. The classic sports flick was inspired by the small town Indiana basketball culture of the early 1950s.
Shooter was the alcoholic father of a player on the Hickory High School team, coached by the Hackman character. Early on, Shooter recollected his moment of potential hoop glory when as a high school senior he had the ball for a last-second shot during the state basketball tournament that would have won the game.
“Around the rim and out,” lamented Shooter as he took another sip on his beer. His missed shot forever haunted him.
We all have our sports stories—mostly boring to others, but precious to us.
Anyone who has ever made a hole-in-one certainly has license to relive their wonderful moment at the 19th Hole. Just not too often.
But special sports memories are sometimes shareable. Especially when you write a sports column and face an approaching deadline.
Which brings me to Tom “Satch” Sanders.
A longtime Boston Celtic whose #16 hangs in the Boston Garden rafters, Sanders and fellow Celtic forward Don Nelson (#19) used to run the Nelson-Sanders Basketball School, which I attended one summer in Manchester with some of my Groveton High School hoop teammates.
The 6-foot-6 Sanders had just completed his 13th and final season with the Celtics, and during a lull in the schedule he was shooting some balls with some campers. I approached the NBA standout and challenged him to play me one-on-one. Sanders laughed and rolled his eyes. He was probably used to young guns challenging him in this fashion.
“All right,” he finally responded. “Let’s do this.”
He agreed to play “Make it, take it.” Seven baskets wins. The Celtic star quickly and easily went up 5-0. But then he missed a shot which I rebounded and I dribbled out to the top of the key and sized up my opponent, who was known as a premier NBA defensive forward.
I launched a jumper from 20 feet.
Around the rim and in.
Then I dribbled right and launched another 20 footer, which went in off the backboard. Lucky shot.
Sanders laughed and threw me the ball and came out to swallow me up defensively. I faked another jumper and managed to dart by him for a runner from close in.
A crowd had started to gather, which usually brought out the best in me. I was “in the zone,” suddenly oozing with confidence. I tried another jumper which Sanders partially blocked but I beat him to the loose ball and went in for a layup.
By this time there were many campers watching us and cheering me on. Perfect.
Sanders threw me the ball and I faked left and drove right and launched a running fifteen foot hook shot from the baseline.
Now I had a chance for the winning shot. Full of confidence, “in the zone,” inspired by the growing crowd of onlookers, and visualizing victory, I again drove right and launched another long hook shot.
Off the backboard, around the rim … and IN !
Sanders stared at me, then laughed and just shook his head.
A college basketball coach was watching. He approached me and asked what my post-high school plans were. A golden moment.
Sanders went on to coach at Harvard for a while before returning to the Boston Garden’s parquet floor to coach the Celtics.
Years later, some fraternity brothers and I went to a Celtics-Spurs game at the Garden. Of course we enjoyed a libation or two on the way to Boston. Once inside the Garden one friend and I went down to stand on the historic parquet. We noticed a couple empty press seats at the scorers table. (This was before the Larry Bird era. The Celtics weren’t very good and seats were easy to find.)
We waited for someone to send us away from the table but no one did. So we stayed there with perfect seats for the first half. Sanders was still head coach and at halftime he walked by the scorers table and did a double take when he saw me sitting there.
“Groveton Slim!” said Sanders. “Are you still shooting that hook shot?”
My friend’s jaw dropped. Another golden sports moment.
Shooter would have been proud.