John T. Ramsay, the Hall of Fame basketball coach who led the Portland Trail Blazers to the NBA championship in 1977 and beloved analyst better known as "Dr. Jack" to basketball fans around the world, died Monday in Naples, Fla. He was 89.
Ramsay's death was first reported by ESPN, the network for whom he worked as a broadcaster for many years, bringing his encyclopedic knowledge of and unbridled enthusiasm for the game to the masses and making Sunday afternoons catching the game in the car rather than on TV not only tolerable, but even preferable. His battle with various forms of cancer — prostate cancer, melanoma, growths and tumors in his legs, lungs and brain, and most recently a marrow syndrome, according to The Associated Press — spanned more than a decade and a half, but the inimitable and vital Ramsay remained behind the microphone offering hard-earned insight with a perfectly light touch until last spring.
In April 2013, Ramsay said his need for ongoing medical treatment (and the difficulty of continuing to work without dearly departed longtime broadcast partner Jim Durham) would likely lead him to retire after the season; weeks later, the need for treatment became immediate, taking him out of ESPN Radio's mix in the midst of the second round of the 2013 playoffs and ending his distinguished broadcast career.
Born Feb. 21, 1925, Ramsay was a product of Philadelphia, a tough-minded and intense man who captained the Saint Joseph's men's basketball team as a senior. He was also a product of hard times, joining the Navy during World War II in 1943 at the tender age of 17 and receiving a commission as an ensign in 1944; he volunteered to serve as an underwater demolition training specialist, working as part of a group charged with removing obstacles on beaches so that U.S. landing crafts could safely come ashore.
"I thought this route would be a quick way into some action," Ramsay wrote in a 2011 ESPN.com piece.
It wasn't — Ramsay served three years without getting "involved in the war" before being discharged in 1946, returning home and earning a doctorate in education from the University of Pennsylvania in 1949. (Hence "Dr. Jack.") He took over as St. Joe's head basketball coach in 1955, beginning a coaching career that would span four decades. After a fantastically successful run at St. Joe's — a 234-72 record, seven NCAA tournament bids, a Final Four appearance in 1961, an integral role in the development of the "Big 5" rivalries among Philly-area schools St. Joe's, La Salle, Penn, Villanova and Temple that now rank among college basketball's most storied traditional series — he moved to the professional ranks, taking over as the general manager of the Philadelphia 76ers before the 1966-67 season, winning an NBA championship in his first year at the helm behind the brilliance of Wilt Chamberlain, Hal Greer, Chet Walker, Billy Cunningham and company.
Ramsay moved from the front office to the bench for the '68-'69 season, making three playoff appearances in four years with the Sixers. But Ramsay the GM hampered Ramsay the coach with a pair of moves jettisoning future Hall of Famers — trading Wilt to the Los Angeles Lakers for Darrall Imhoff, Archie Clark and Jerry Chambers, and shipping Walker to the Chicago Bulls for forward Jim Washington — leading to a 30-52 finish in Year 4, and Ramsay lighting out for upstate New York to take the head-coaching job with the Buffalo Braves. Ramsay helped the still-in-its-infancy expansion franchise to legitimacy, pushing a young and high-scoring bunch team led by the inside-out combo of brilliant big man Bob McAdoo and shooting guard Randy Smith to three playoff berths in four years.
Despite that success, Ramsay was let go by Braves owner Paul L. Snyder in the summer of 1976, paving the way for his arrival in Portland, which began with a simple promise, according to The Oregonian: "A headline in the Oregon Journal on June 2, 1976, announcing his hiring as Blazers coach, read, 'Ramsay: We’ll Win.' He was referring to a winning season, something the 6-year-old franchise had never had."
And win they did, with Ramsay melding the talent he'd inherited (finally healthy two-way marvel Bill Walton, sophomore wings Lionel Hollins and Bobby Gross, veterans Lloyd Neal and Larry Steele) with a slew of gifted newcomers (ex-ABA stars Maurice Lucas and Dave Twardzik, former Seattle SuperSonics guard Herm Gilliam, rookie point guard Johnny Davis) to form a gifted, deep squad. It was also a very young team, capable of turning Ramsay's Navy-stoked commitment to physical conditioning and unity into a practical basketball strategy that could overwhelm the opposition. From a wonderful May 2013 appreciation by Dave Deckard of Blazer's Edge:
It's easy to forget how far ahead of his time Jack Ramsay was. He stood among the early physical fitness gurus. Running, swimming, general conditioning ... this wasn't just about basketball skill. He wanted you to go fast and to stay on the court as long as you were needed. He put his team through conditioning drills and took them seriously. He turned his team's youth into an advantage, dictating the fast break as the first option. He didn't want his bigs to hold rebounds or slow the game. Grab it, turn, fire the outlet, and get down the court. If the guards couldn't get a layup the center could fill the lane on the secondary break. [...]
Running, peak physical conditioning, face-up fours, mobile centers getting their offense and creating for others within the system, attacking with the pass and not just the dribble, reversing the floor to move the defense, valuing whether or not a shot is contested as much as the place or player it comes from ... this sounds like the modern NBA, right? It was 1976, folks. 1976!
That whirring, fast-moving, free-flowing offense relying on smart off-ball cuts and timely passing was also successful, propelling Portland to a six-game victory over Julius Erving's 76ers — in a series that Philly led 2-0 — that brought home the first and only NBA championship in Blazers franchise history.
"For me, it was a once-in-a-lifetime experience and one that I will cherish forever," Ramsay said in an 1997 interview.
Sadly, it didn't last. After the Blazers raced out to a 50-10 start to the 1977-78 campaign, Walton suffered a broken left foot that kept him out for nearly two months and re-injured the foot during Portland's playoff loss to the Sonics. The MVP center demanded a trade the following summer, citing mistreatment in handling his and teammates' injuries by the Blazers' medical staff, and he sat out the 1978-79 season in protest before eventually signing with the San Diego Clippers as a free agent. Ramsay's Blazers continued to compete, making seven playoff appearances over the next eight seasons, but they won just two postseason series and never again reached the lofty heights of those go-go Walton-and-Lucas-led squads. Ramsay was fired following the 1985-86 season.
He continued his coaching career with the Indiana Pacers, leading them to a playoff berth in his first year on the bench in 1986-87. But they stumbled to a sub-.500 finish the following season, and he resigned after losing the first seven games of the '88-'89 season. Ramsay didn't specifically use the word "retire" when he left Indiana, but after 20 years, his NBA coaching career had come to an end; he finished with a record of 864-783, the second-most wins of any coach behind Red Auerbach at the time of his retirement, and still good enough for 13th in NBA history today. He was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 1992.
Shortly after leaving the Pacers, he began working as an analyst on televised 76ers broadcasts, and he later worked on Miami Heat telecasts before moving full-time to TV and radio work for ESPN, where the man with a Ph.D. in education set about teaching new generations of watchers and listeners the way the game should be played.
“The best way I could describe him is, whether he was doing a game nationally or locally, I would tune in, both myself and staff,” San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said, according to The Oregonian. “Because I wanted to hear what he would say about what each team was doing. What this team was doing, what this person was doing on a pick-and-roll, what this team was doing on offense. It’s like going to class.”
The NBA is poorer for having lost Jack Ramsay, but incalculably richer for having had him for as long as it did. Rest in peace, Dr. Jack, and thanks.
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