Jack Ramsay: A game, a life, a vision

By Fran Blinebury, NBA.com

Whether it was as an octogenarian fitness fanatic skipping rope in a hotel exercise room, those bushy eyebrows dancing above his piercing eyes as he discussed the game he loved or watching one of his teams pass and cut and blend in perfect harmony, the images of Jack Ramsay are all about movement.

The 89-year-old coaching legend who died of cancer Monday morning was relentless in his beliefs about physical training, mental preparation and the correct way to play basketball … and never stopped actively promoting them.

As a native Philadelphian just learning about the game, it was Ramsay’s overachieving St. Joseph’s Hawks teams that swooped up and down the court of the historic Palestra in the early 1960s that first captured my attention and admiration.

In my first year covering the NBA, it was Ramsay’s harmonious vision of the game — move without the ball, make the extra pass, play as one — that made his Trail Blazers of Bill Walton, Maurice Lucas, Bobby Gross, Johnny Davis, Lionel Hollins, Dave Twardzik and the rest NBA champions in 1977. They had such style and elegance and were in tune that you could almost close your eyes and hear music.

Those Finals were the perhaps the greatest contrast in styles ever, pitting Ramsay’s Blazers against the prodigious one-on-one talents of a 76ers roster that included Julius Erving, George McGinnis, Doug Collins, Darryl Dawkins and Lloyd Free.

During one practice at The Finals, the Sixers, coached by Gene Shue, spent most of an hour jacking up jump shots, exchanging dunks and killing time. McGinnis took time out to smoke a cigarette in the bleachers. A short time later, the Blazers entered the same gym and began running though layup lines and precise drills as if they were in a Marine boot camp.

“The thing about Jack was he allowed freedom within the team concept,” Davis, now a Lakers assistant coach recently told Jason Quick of The Oregonian. “We were like a great jazz band, where each person could solo, but he had to come back to the group to keep the groove moving forward. Then, the next person might have a chance to solo the next night, but he needed the beat of the rest of us.”

He was known as Dr. Jack for the PhD. in education he earned at the University of Pennsylvania and his coaching tree out of the Philadelphia area sprouted Jack McKinney, Paul Westhead and Jim Lynam.

Ramsay’s own NBA coaching career lasted 21 years with an 864-783 (.525) record and stints in Philly, Portland, Buffalo and Indiana. He was enshrined in the Naismith Hall of Fame in 1992 and named as one of the league’s 10 greatest coaches in 1997.

When his career on the sidelines was over, Ramsay turned to broadcasting. His flamboyant wardrobe — and his just as colorful style — made him a favorite and kept him on a platform to talk, teach and spread his own gospel about the game he loved.

There was never a time when Dr. Jack was ever too tired or too busy to talk basketball. That came through in every personal conversation and each time he sat behind a microphone.

Whether it was in the local markets of Philadelphia or Miami or sitting next to his good friend Jim Durham on the national stage of ESPN, his was the distinctive growl that often greeted a big basket by shouting: “Bottom of the net!”

Ramsay wrote two books about the game and in The Coach’s Art, he explained his vision of basketball:

“What is this game that runs through my mind? It is a ballet, a graceful sweep and flow of patterned movement, counterpoised by daring and imaginative flights of solitary brilliance. It is a dance which begins with opposition contesting every move. But in the exhilaration of a great performance, the opposition vanishes. The dancer does as he pleases. The game is unified action up and down the floor. It is quickness, it is strength; it is skill, it is stamina; it is five men playing as one…It is the solidarity of a single unifying purpose, the will to overcome adversity, the determination never to give in. It is winning; it is winning; it is winning!”

Ramsay’s was a cerebral view, but one that was full of energy and movement that pulled in a young fan to the game on those nights long ago at the Palestra and turned it into a profession and a life.

Thanks, Jack.


VIDEO: NBA TV looks back at Dr. Jack Ramsay’s career

6 Comments

  1. Much of Jack Ramsay’s philosophy was derived (in the best sense of the word) in large part from his older colleague Pete Newell, another coaching legend. Both of them kept the game basic, simple and fun, and favored players who were open to continuous learning and who could think on the court. Such a difference from the control-freak coaches who prevail today and are most concerned with being the smartest guy in the room, but don’t know how to (or don’t care to) teach the fundamentals of the game.

  2. gregclucas says:

    Great story, Fran. Jack was a wonderful person to work with as I got to do in 1986-87 when he was coaching and I was announcing the Pacers. I always enjoyed his work on TV and Radio after his coaching career ended. A big loss for basketball because he still taught the game even after he was dealing strictly with pros.

  3. Don Sturdy says:

    I loved listening to Dr. Jack on the radio. On the few times he was on TV,
    he was very precise on what was happening in the game and why the
    losing team was having problems. A great basketball mind.

    Don

  4. RipCity4Life says:

    This is such a downer after a terrific game 4 from the Blazers. Here’s hoping Blazers win game 5 on Wednesday and dedicate the game to Dr. Jack. GO BLAZERS!

  5. Blazer fan says:

    RIP City Dr Jack!

  6. Game Time says:

    Sad that there are no comments here. A coaching legend before my time, but I found out more about him as I got older and followed the NBA. RIP.