As it sometimes happens, a sordid basketball story got pushed aside for a sublime one. At least that’s what happened in South Florida, Philadelphia, Portland and a number of other towns where the news of Dr. Jack Ramsay’s death made other sports news seem irrelevant. The sordid story temporarily pushed out of the headlines was the racist stuff involving Donald Sterling, the owner of the Los Angeles Clippers. As a casual NBA fan (our team has to be winning) we did not even know the name of the Clippers’ owner, or most of the rest of the NBA owners for that matter. There are too many of them.
But you can never have enough Jack Ramsays. We like to think we have the distinction of being the only guy who covered that legendary coach on three levels – high school, college and the pros.
The high school was St. James in Chester, Pa. We were a sports writer for the student paper at a different school, but we covered our games against a pretty good St. James team. Then, in 1955, Jack Ramsay moved up to coach St. Joseph’s College, and by now at college at La Salle, we covered our games against his teams for three seasons. The previous season La Salle had won the NCAA championship, and we had beaten St. Joe’s five out of six years. But for the next three years, St. Joe beat us. We began to sense they had a great coach, and we hated him, even as we tried to be fair in covering the games for our school newspaper. Our talent was equal to theirs, if not better. Our guys always played hard, but St. Joe seemed to have more intensity, more organization. We have since been convinced that had Ramsay been our coach, all three of those games would have been La Salle wins.
Skip forward a decade, during which Jack Ramsay became Dr. Jack Ramsay, and established a reputation as one of the best coaches in the country. Then he moved on, seemingly burned out. At one time he had vision problems. He became general manger of the Philadelphia 76ers, where we first actually met him, while working on a magazine piece on the team that had just won the NBA championship with Wilt Chamberlain. The coach we had despised in college quickly won us over with his warmth and cooperative spirit. He was always a good interview.
His burn out soon burned out. He returned to coaching and for 19 years was one of the best in the NBA, winning it all at Portland in 1977. By that time he had influenced many other coaches, several of whom had played under him. In the process he also changed basketball.
“Very few coaches change a game,” said Bill (Speedy) Morris when he was coaching excellent La Salle teams in the late 1980s. “But Jack Ramsay changed basketball. I must have read his book (Pressure Basketball) eleven times.”
Before Ramsay, defense in basketball was a half-court game. Ball handlers could often walk the ball to mid-court. But his teams, beginning at St. Joe, pressed full court, attempting to trap a ball handler into a bad pass, or call an emergency time out. It is a tactic you routinely see today. And it began with Jack Ramsay.
As you see in today’s papers, the basketball world grew to love the man. He was especially admired in South Florida (he spent winters in Naples) where he did color for the Miami Heat broadcasts and then for ESPN. He was as good at that as he was at coaching. For a man who coached with such intensity, his demeanor off court was always gracious and dignified. He helped anybody he could. The comments today from Heat personnel outdid each other in praise for his personal qualities. It was reported that, when coaching, Pat Riley used to glance at Ramsay at the announcer’s table to get his take when Riley thought a ref made a bad call. Ramsay would respond with a subtle nod or shake of his head.
Donald Sterling may be in the basketball news today, but whatever his fate, we doubt anybody will know his name ten years from now. The legend of Dr. Jack Ramsay will endure.