Jack Ramsay is seated at a back table in one of Portland's most elegant seafood restaurants, and he makes a stunning attraction for all present. Foremost, there's the hedgerow of a brow dividing the famous bald head from the cool, slitted eyes and the chiseled Irish face. Ramsay is perhaps the most recognizable citizen of what he calls "the big little city" or "the little big city" of Portland—indeed of the entire state of Oregon. Had he been dining with Robert Redford, the other patrons would have been whispering, "Who's that guy eating with Jack Ramsay?"
For that reason he's less than comfortable at this moment, and he barely resembles the highly animated Coach Ramsay of the sidelines. For one thing, he's wearing a dapper navy blazer with an open-collared powder-blue shirt, charcoal slacks and soft black loafers. Until very recently, he was a vision in clashing plaids, checks and paisleys on game nights. His expression is serene, quite unlike that on his game face, and he's wearing thick bifocals so he can read the menu. Still, he must hold the menu close and squint, and the combination of the glasses and the squinting adds 15 years to his appearance. Not that he cares. Ramsay is funny about expressing his thoughts. Either he's circumspect, selecting and enunciating his words precisely—as when explaining his philosophy or his strategy or in discussing a player or a loss—or he loses control and babbles like an adolescent when he's happy, like a bull Irishman when he's mad.
He laughs when someone tries to make an issue of his age—aren't you too old to be riding that bicycle that hard?—as people often do. Seeing him in his training sweats or in his swimsuit, you'd say he has the body a 25-year-old would envy. And how many 57-year-olds are entering and finishing triathlons nowadays?
Ramsay is certainly more comfortable pedaling his bicycle the 110 miles from Portland to the Pacific, or swimming miles in the Atlantic off his summer home on the New Jersey shore, or kneeling on the sidelines orchestrating another Trail Blazers game than he is sitting here in his debonair restaurant rags with people watching him nibbling salmon p√¢té, spooning oyster bisque and sipping an Oregon chablis—Buy Oregon is a seriously taken commandment nowadays in that economically depressed state. That's because Ramsay's image is something of a sham. In his life the dominating aroma is, and always has been, sweat.
It is the night before training camp—Parris Island for Ramsay's players, but a beautiful time for him: springtime, when the basketball flowers bloom, when a discordant bunch of jammers becomes, ideally, a symphony orchestra tuned to a single discipline, Ramsay's discipline. At this moment the 1982-83 Trail Blazers are undefeated and anything is possible.
"I really like this team," Ramsay says. "I mean, I really like it. Mychal Thompson [his center] has a chance to become a great player. Not a good one, a great one. His ability to pass the basketball is superb. He could be a great passer. Jimmy Paxson, I think, is one of the best guards in the league. He moves without the ball as well as anyone I've ever seen. Darnell Valentine may be the best point guard in the NBA, you'll see. And Calvin Natt could be the best small forward. And we picked up Kenny Carr to be our big forward and Wayne Cooper to back up at center, and Jeff Lamp is going to be a very good player, and we have a rookie, Fat Lever—Fat's short for Lafayette—who's going to be terrific, and a free agent named Audie Norris who could shock a lot of people in the NBA. I mean shock them. And—"
"Jack..." his dining companion, who's no Robert Redford, interrupts. "You've been a basketball coach now for what, 27 years? Can you ever remember an evening before training camp when you didn't really like your team?"
A p√¢té-covered cracker freezes in front of Ramsay's mouth. His famous brow folds into a deep V, as though his nose had dropped an inch. The eyes narrow in thought. "Yeah. Hmm. Well...One year we had some contract problems...well, I still liked them...." He breaks into a grin, and his angular face smooths out, and he takes off his glasses and laughs and laughs as he catches the point of the question and savors it. Ramsay could no more dislike a team than Michelangelo could dislike a block of marble. There's always something that can be done with it.
Just then the waiter arrives to find out what the party would like for an entrée. "Thresher shark," Ramsay says. Clearly, he's ready for the season.
Pro basketball coaches come in various types. Many are former pro players who either love the game or, for lack of anything else to do, coach as a way to stay employed after the legs have gone. This isn't meant to denigrate anyone's credentials or to suggest that the role of an NBA coach isn't important to his team's success. But most of the ex-players happened into their jobs because they had names, or were particularly courageous, or were around at the right time, or all of the above (the Bullets' Gene Shue, the Hawks' Kevin Loughery, the Nuggets' Doug Moe, the 76ers' Billy Cunningham, the Clippers' Paul Silas, the Lakers' Pat Riley). Others pointed themselves toward coaching in their twilight years, perhaps to get some of the recognition they felt they deserved but didn't receive as players (the Sonics' Lenny Wilkens, the Nets' Larry Brown, the Bucks' Don Nelson). Some worked their way up from the college ranks (the Mavericks' Dick Motta, the Celtics' Bill Fitch, the Knicks' Hubie Brown, the Suns' John MacLeod). Others labored long as low-paid assistants (the Spurs' Stan Albeck, the Rockets' Del Harris). Very few were foolish enough to have made coaching their career when they were bright young men who could have succeeded in almost any field they chose if their limited size or talent ruled out pro playing careers. After all, until very recently, coaches' pay was lousy and job security was—in fact, very definitely still is—the worst.
That's what makes John T. (Jack) Ramsay—Doctor Jack Ramsay—so special; his Ph.D was earned not on a playground but in a classroom. Ramsay is, by nearly unanimous agreement of his peers, not only the leading X-and-O man in pro basketball but also the best motivator. In addition, he's also the leader, both spiritually and politically, of the NBA Coaches' Association, which has elected him its president five years in a row. "He's the guy everybody calls when they have a problem," says Coach Jack McKinney of the Pacers, Ramsay's closest friend for 25 years. "He'll never stop trying to help anyone."
As a player, Ramsay was good enough to captain the 1948-49 team at St. Joseph's College in Philadelphia, but he never got farther in the pros than the Sunbury Mercuries of the old Eastern League, which was no big deal, because here was a man who could have done anything. He began college in 1942 as a premed major, joined the Navy in '43 and served for the remainder of World War II as a frogman in an underwater demolition team that trained for an invasion of Japan. But he had a drive and energy that he could only satisfy on a basketball court. While in the service he got into trouble for skipping a regimental meeting to practice basketball. Back in college after the war he found he couldn't focus on chemistry with fast breaks and pick and rolls running through his mind. He then realized that if basketball was not yet a worthwhile science, he could help make it one. That, in fact, was what he wanted to do more than anything else. "Though I did reasonably well in my classes," he wrote in his 1978 book, The Coach's Art, "it occurred to me...that if I was choosing basketball over preparation for medical school, my attachment to basketball was a pretty serious thing....
"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 counts among his friends the authors Gay Talese (a neighbor in Ocean City, N.J.) and David Halberstam, the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who, in searching for a subject that said a lot about America, chose to write about Ramsay and the Trail Blazers—The Breaks of the Game—rather than the 1980 U.S. presidential campaign. And when Bill Walton was the heart of the Portland team, Ramsay got to take tea with many members of the counterculture Hall of Fame. But for all his worldliness, Ramsay is an athlete's athlete—Stu Inman, the Blazers' general manager, calls Ramsay "a man's man"—who would prefer to spend eight months of the year on the road with a collection of 22-year-olds and beer-breathed scouts and basketball writers than with, say, Philip Habib or the Royal Shakespeare Company.
Red Auerbach holds no Ph.D., nor does Red Holzman, and it would be entirely appropriate for Dr. Ramsay, now trailing only those two notables in NBA victories—609 for Ramsay to 696 for Holzman and 938 for Auerbach—to pass both by the time he hangs up his whistle. After all, Ramsay is only 57—going on 25—and sees no end in sight. Besides, he really likes his team.
While Ramsay worked his first coaching job—three seasons at St. James High School in Chester, Pa., for $2,400 a year plus a $100 bonus if he made the playoffs (which, of course, he did)—he was also taking graduate classes in education at the University of Pennsylvania and playing for the Mercuries in the blood-and-guts Eastern League and for a semipro team in another league. The Mercuries were each guaranteed $40 per game plus a share of the gate, so they always counted the house during the warmups. Ramsay played with every bit of the hustle he now preaches, and in one game he dived for a loose ball, cracked his head open and didn't come to until after the game had ended. As soon as he was conscious, he asked a teammate, Jack McCloskey, now general manager of the Detroit Pistons, "You get my money?"
That was only because he needed it, what with a wife, Jean, whom he'd married in 1949, and a young family that would quickly grow to five children, Susan, now 32, John, 31, Sharon, 28, Christopher, 24, and Carolyn, 23. The game kept running around inside Ramsay's head and there was nothing he could do about it. "I had no doubts about my desire to be a career coach," he says. "At times I might have thought about doing something a little more serious, but there was nothing I would be happier doing. Even this year, at some point I'm going to say, 'What am I doing? But it will pass."
If he likes his team, he loves to coach. Salmon p√¢té one minute, thresher shark the next. Tonight he may like his team; tomorrow he'll be running it to the very brink of exhaustion. And when the players tire, they'd better not show it, because their coach is in better condition than any of them. "Sometimes I feel like I'm 57 and he's 27," said Thompson, huffing and puffing after the traditional Ramsay Two-Mile on the opening day of preseason camp four weeks ago.
Ramsay is no less intense, of course, during the season, when he assumes his famous coaching position: in front of the bench, down on one knee, the quality of Portland's play directly readable from the shade of red of his bald pate. "You always knew where you stood by checking out Jack's head," says Dave Twardzik, the former Blazer guard who's now the franchise's director of community relations. Ramsay is the direct heir to Auerbach in the fine art of handling the refs—"the best one-liners," says Referee Earl Strom—and, of course, his players. When the situation calls for professorial tones, they are proffered. But the one thing Ramsay cannot tolerate is a player who doesn't give his best at every moment. When he needs to remind a player of this, Ramsay can turn on a glare that rivals the Ayatollah Khomeini's. Maurice Lucas, a 6'9" power forward who once played for the Blazers, used to call it "layin' on the brow."
"Man, Jack really laid the brow on me," Lucas would say, stunned. And, when even "the brow" wouldn't work, as it finally didn't with Lucas, Ramsay would come to the inescapable conclusion that the player, whom he once really liked, would no longer play for him. And he'd move that player—in Lucas' case, to the New Jersey Nets; (he has since gone on to the Knicks and then the Suns)—for one who would play for him, in Lucas' case, for the aforementioned Natt.
On occasion Ramsay has seen the game played on the floor the way he sees it played in his mind. For one brief shining moment he saw it being played that way every night—from the spring of 1977, when the Trail Blazers suddenly became one of the best teams ever assembled and won the NBA championship, until the winter of 1978, when they even more suddenly broke apart. During that time, Ramsay says, he knew how a playwright would feel seeing his work performed before SRO houses exactly the way he had envisioned it. "Coaching is a means of self-expression," Ramsay says. "I remember thinking then, 'I coach a team that can beat any other team in the world,' and it was the most satisfied I'd ever been in my life. With that team I had a perfect medium to express my art."
But Ramsay's art, like all art, is doomed to imperfection, because the closer the artist comes to perfection, the farther off he finds it to be. This has occasionally caused Ramsay trouble. He loves the fact that basketball has no limits—"I've gone from the era of the 6'2" center to the 6'9" guard," he says. "Who knows what we'll see in 20 years." He thinks, but he's not sure, that with the two teams that gave him his brightest moments, he tried too hard to reach the limits that don't exist.
"It's a dilemma to me," he says. "I still have in my mind the concept that athletes can always achieve more than they are achieving. But I don't know where that fine line is, where more becomes too much and things break down."
After the Trail Blazer championship team of 1976-77—which was even better, 50-10 at one point, the following season—began coming apart in the winter of '78 with an incredible string of injuries, accusations of cruel and inhumane treatment were leveled against Ramsay and the Portland medical staff. The critics included many Blazer players, the loudest of whom was Walton, who broke his left foot after compromising dearly held principles and taking painkilling injections in order to participate in the '78 playoffs. Walton demanded to be traded, and there went the team—suggesting that swift success and a hunger for more had seduced Ramsay into pushing his players over the line.
Further, some of the players said that Ramsay was a hypocrite, that he had set up a pecking order on the team, with special treatment for, in descending order, Walton, the star, Lucas, the second star, Lionel Hollins, the third. "And then eight other guys rolled into one," says Twardzik, a starter on the championship club and still a close friend of Ramsay's. "Jack knows how I feel," Twardzik says. "I've told him often enough. And he'll deny it."
Which he does. "I don't think I've ever given any player concessions that he didn't need," Ramsay says. "Walton needed a lighter practice schedule than other players [because of his fragile legs and feet]. But Walton followed the same rules that everybody else did. I think players tend to become very sensitive about what may be evidence of favoritism."
Four years after the fact, none of those Portland players feels any antagonism toward Ramsay—with the possible exception of Walton, who is attempting a comeback with the San Diego Clippers. "I can't talk about Jack Ramsay," he says. "I'll say he's a great basketball coach." But nothing more. The others—Twardzik, Bob Gross, Herm Gilliam, even Lucas—agree that, as Hollins, now a 76er, says, "the responsibility was on more than just the coach. We were all caught up in it. Jack was intense and he made you want to do a little bit extra for him. We were the first team he ever had that could do what he wanted done. He never had one before and he may never have one again. It's too bad...."
"We were the best," says Ramsay, with a wistfulness that can't be exaggerated. "We could beat anybody." He holds no grudge against Walton, who he feels was misled by his advisers, sports radical Jack Scott and Portland attorney John Bassett. "I like Bill," Ramsay says. "If he'd been as durable as Russell, he'd have been the best ever."
A generation of fans has grown up thinking that basketball was exported directly to Kentucky and Indiana and Westwood, Calif. immediately after debugging was completed in Springfield, Mass. Too few remember—few knew at the time—that Jack Ramsay was considered a genius in Eastern collegiate basketball and a god figure in Philadelphia, where he coached at St. Joseph's for 11 seasons, from 1955 to 1966. He had a 234-72 record, won seven Middle Atlantic Conference championships and made 10 postseason tournament appearances. Whether Ramsay actually invented the zone press is a matter of some debate, but he certainly refined it, popularized it and won with it, employing small, scrappy white players from the Philadelphia Catholic high schools who clawed and scratched all over the floor.
"We never got the great players at St. Joe's," says McKinney, who played for Ramsay in high school and on Ramsay's first St. Joseph's team and was his assistant at St. Joe's and then in Portland before becoming an NBA head coach himself. "But Jack always did a great job getting 99 percent of the good player's potential out of him."
"Winning the Big Five was all I wanted out of life," Ramsay says now of the Philadelphia quasi-conference. "Philadelphia was my universe then."
Ramsay may have been a kind of basketball genius, but he was given to wild emotional extremes, which he has struggled with ever since. He's able to control himself better now, although he's still terrible company after a loss and giddy after a win. "He's nothing like he was," says Jim Lynam, a star St. Joe's guard of the early '60s who followed McKinney's path and currently is Ramsay's assistant at Portland. "If he'd acted for 82 games the way he used to act for 25, he would have died 10 years ago."
In the St. Joe's dressing room at halftime or after losses, Ramsay would often kick lockers and chairs and scream bloody murder. McKinney points out that Ramsay's anger would be caused only by the obvious—lackadaisical play, mental errors. He has never embarrassed a player for his physical shortcomings in front of his teammates. "As players we all felt that Jack was something special," says McKinney. "That he wasn't just a coach. To me he's a great teacher of life, particularly of how to get along with people. He always looked upon that as being the most important requisite for being a successful coach. Is there a dissenting player somewhere along the line? I doubt it."
On the floor, the young Ramsay would bait referees—he's most embarrassed about this sort of behavior today—and strut the sidelines, turning crimson with rage. But then he would compose himself and be as charming and funny as ever. Once at Wake Forest he tore off his jacket and threw it across the floor. Then, after the game, he suggested to the press that coaches' coat-throwing records should be kept, judged on form and the value of the thrown coat. "The one I threw today was cashmere," he said. "That should win me a flock of points." Speaking at a banquet after St. Joe's was eliminated from the 1965 NCAA tournament, he said, "We could have won the Eastern Regional except for an act of Providence." The Hawks had lost to the Friars 81-73.
One habit that never died was Ramsay's practice of taking long, solitary, mind-clearing walks back to the hotel after road losses—via the seediest streets of the seediest sections of town. (After home defeats, he'd simply go to his house and brood.) Of course, most of the college towns were relatively tame. But once he got to the pros, the towns weren't so tame. When he left the 76ers to take over the Braves in 1972, Philly's Billy Cunningham told the Buffalo trainer, "When this man loses a tough road game, he's never to be left alone afterward. I mean never."
"I never really wanted to get mugged," Ramsay says, "but there were times when I might not have minded." One night after a galling loss in Chicago he thought he had his chance. The neighborhood around Chicago Stadium is one of the meanest in America. Ramsay found himself on a dark, deserted street when a shady-looking character came right at him. "I was ready," Ramsay says. "I had my hands in my pockets and my fists clenched and I knew this was going to be it. So he comes up and asks me for a light." Since Ramsay has been in Portland, Inman has walked with him after losses for as long as an hour and gotten back to the Blazers' hotel without having exchanged a single word with him. "Not a word," Inman says. "The next morning he'd be at practice full of fun and enthusiasm, coaching just as if there's a playoff series about to begin."
Because of Ramsay, St. Joe's was a place of high enthusiasm. The Palestra, a vintage 1927 arena on the Penn campus, shook on Big Five doubleheader nights as the St. Joe's students chanted, "The Hawk will never die! The Hawk will never die!" while Ramsay's zone press demolished Temple, LaSalle, Villanova or Penn. On the rare occasion that St. Joe's lost, the opponents' fans would delight in yelling back, "The Hawk is dead! The Hawk is dead!" Oh, how Ramsay hated that. McKinney remembers beating Wake Forest in an NCAA regional game and Ramsay whooping and hollering, jumping up and down, slapping backs and backsides, racing around the court like a dervish. The players watched this grown man run toward the locker room door yelling "Yaaaahooooo!" and execute a flying dropkick at the door. It was locked and Ramsay fell flat on his rear end.
Later, when he was coaching the 76ers, a win in Atlanta sent Ramsay into another paroxysm of ecstasy that lasted all the way back to Philly's hotel. There Ramsay and his happy entourage stuffed themselves into the elevator. When the door opened at Ramsay's floor, he got off, turned around to face several stunned writers, thrust his arms into the air and screeched, "The Hawk is deeeaaaaad!"
When reminded of these incidents, Ramsay reddens and grins with boyish embarrassment. For one thing, he can't seem to believe that so much time has passed. But then he shrugs his shoulders. "I like to win," he says. "And I guess I express that."
There was plenty of that boyish laughter during the five years at St. Joe's; Ramsay was living a dream. But it was shattered in 1961. The Hawks had gone 24-4 in the 1960-61 season and were the surprise Eastern Regional winner, beating Wake Forest, 96-86. They lost 95-69 in the national semifinals to the Ohio State team of John Havlicek, Jerry Lucas and Larry Siegfried, which went on to win the championship. Ramsay was satisfied that the better team won that night, but there had been other defeats that he simply couldn't understand, that had caused him the most intense moments of discontent he'd ever suffered.
McKinney recalls one of the worst, a 67-65 loss in December of 1960 to Dayton. Ramsay had been in a snit, and to compound matters, there was to be a St. Joe's faculty party at the Ramsay house that evening. Jean Ramsay had gone home to prepare for the party and asked McKinney to see that her husband got home in a proper party mood. McKinney knew that wouldn't be easy because Ramsay was more in a mood for a mugging.
At the party, as McKinney recalls, one faculty dowager cooed to Ramsay, "Oh, Jack, that's all right. You can't win 'em all." Ramsay, puttin' the brow on the woman, snapped, "Oh yes you can, if you're good enough." After a while McKinney dragged Ramsay into the dining room. "Jack," he said, "what's wrong with you? The game's over and we lost. You're going to have to be cordial to these people."
Said Ramsay: "I don't understand it. We should have beat those bleepers tonight. I just don't understand what happened. Kempton [the St. Joe's center] didn't get any rebounds. I don't understand all the turnovers and guys cutting to the basket for easy shots and not getting the ball. I can't understand this game at all."
The explanation came the following spring. In an investigation carried out by the New York district attorney's office, Three Hawk players—Vince Kempton, Jack Egan and Frank Majewski—were discovered to have shaved points in at least three regular season games, including the Dayton game. Ramsay, of course, was crushed. While he and McKinney sat in the tiny cubicle of an office they shared, taking phone calls from the press, Ramsay at times would lay his head down on his desk and weep.
He felt that he was at fault for the point shaving, that he had failed as a coach, and it took an impassioned plea from the faculty athletic moderator, the Rev. Joseph M. Geib, to keep Ramsay from quitting. The three players were expelled, but Ramsay, who later helped the three players return to school, came back the next year a different coach. And a better one. His team again went to the NCAAs.
"What I reasoned was that my ego got involved," Ramsay says now. "I thought I'd been doing a good job coaching and helping these guys to become better citizens. Then I found out I hadn't done anything, at least for three of them.... I don't think I was aware of the needs of the players, or aware of the outside influences on them. My universe was quite narrow then. Jack Egan was our best player, and he was married with twin boys. His wife had to stay home in Bethlehem [Pa.], and Jack used to go home on weekends after games. It was very hard for him and he needed a job. But the only job he could get was as a bartender. Well. I didn't think that being a bartender was a proper job for a St. Joe's basketball player. So he gave it up. In retrospect I thought, 'Well, would it really have been so bad for him to have been a bartender? Could we have worked out a rooming situation so that his wife and kids could have lived in Philadelphia and still kept it legal with the NCAA?' Then I thought, 'Basketball is so important to me—this team at St. Joe's—I guess the players' needs should have been more important.' "
Ramsay couldn't substantially temper his intensity, and by the end of his 11th brilliant year at St. Joe's, he had developed edema on the retina of his right eye, which left him half blind. The condition was thought to have resulted from stress, and there was no guarantee the left eye wouldn't be lost as well. Ramsay was forced to give up coaching—he thought forever. In 1966 he became general manager of the 76ers, a job for which he wasn't really qualified, for which he found he had little interest, which he hated and which he wasn't very good at. In his first season the Sixers won 68 of 81 games and the NBA championship, but Ramsay didn't really feel a part of it. Alex Hannum was the coach, and Wilt Chamberlain wasn't only the main man on the team but also, Wilt later said, secretly a part owner of it. After co-owner Ike Richman died in 1965, Chamberlain said Richman had given him, in a verbal deal, 25% of the club. That claim could never be proved and furthermore there wasn't a written contract. Irv Kosloff, the surviving partner, didn't know about the arrangement and contested it. By now Hannum had grown sick of dealing with Chamberlain and quit in 1968 after the defending champs had won 62 games but lost to Boston in the playoffs. Ramsay had to find a coach. He sounded out Frank McGuire, John Kundla and Earl Lloyd, among others, but got no takers. The suggestion was that no one wanted to tackle Wilt.
Then one day Chamberlain approached Ramsay with an idea: "Why not let me be player-coach and you be my assistant?" Wilt said. It was a novel idea, though not nearly as novel as it would have been had not Auerbach two years before made Russell, Chamberlain's doppelg√§nger, player-coach in Boston. Ramsay thought about it—Russell, after all, had won the 1968 NBA championship—and in fact decided to go ahead with the scheme. Not only was Ramsay anxious to get back to coaching—his eye condition had cleared up—but he also felt that naming Chamberlain coach would motivate him to perform better. "I thought Wilt would want the team to do well because his name would be on it as coach," Ramsay says. "And I was kind of looking forward to it." But Chamberlain was being romanced by the Los Angeles Stars of the brand-new ABA, and after visiting the Coast he returned to tell Ramsay that he was no longer interested in being the 76er coach, and also no longer interested in being a 76er. He instructed Ramsay to trade him to the Lakers, which Ramsay had no choice but to do. And Ramsay became the 76er coach.
Trading Chamberlain could have wrecked the Philly team; L.A. hadn't exactly delivered a king's ransom for Wilt—Darrall Imhoff, Archie Clark and Jerry Chambers. But Ramsay cranked up the club. He still had Cunningham, Luke Jackson, Hal Greer, Chet Walker (whom he later traded away for Jim Washington in one of the worst deals ever made), Wally Jones and Matt Guokas, the star of his last St. Joe's team. Ramsay coached that 76er team to a 55-27 season, including five wins in six games against the Lakers of Chamberlain, Jerry West and Elgin Baylor.
After four declining seasons with the Sixers, Ramsay became exhausted by his inability to find a big man to replace Chamberlain. Ramsay knew the pro game would be different from college ball. And it didn't take him long to realize, for example, that no matter how well he coached in the NBA, he couldn't win, as he had at St. Joe's, without a superior center. Soon he grew to love the pros, and today he wouldn't touch a college job, which might surprise some people who think they know him well.
"First of all," he says, "I like playing at the highest level of talent and competition that I can. I like the number of games. I like the rules. I like the players. Recruiting and the economics of college sports make it undesirable to me. We know ours is a business. And you've got to win to sustain your business." Ramsay doesn't believe that you have to have the best players to win. Very good players will suffice. All they need do is listen to and learn from the coach—and then work until they absolutely can work no harder. If they do this, they will win the championship. That a Ramsay team has won but one NBA championship in 14 years only means to Ramsay that players can always work harder.
"I find that players want direction," he says. "They want order and discipline. If a coach gives them that, then they have a responsibility to give the coach the hardest work they can provide in return. That is all you can ask of any athlete."
Ramsay has been thoroughly satisfied exactly once—that Blazer team. "There are no guarantees that you're going to win a game in the NBA," he says. "It would be entirely possible for a team to play a season without winning a single game. The league is that good."
Ramsay wants to believe that success in his chosen game is its own reward. "Don't let him snow you," Inman says. "The man has an ego." One suspects that Ramsay realizes that one reason the NBA is so good today is the breadth of his influence on it. St. Joseph's begat Ramsay who begat McKinney who begat Paul Westhead. McKinney played for Ramsay in high school and college; Westhead played for McKinney in high school and for Ramsay at St. Joe's, assisted McKinney there and at Los Angeles and then became the Laker head coach after McKinney's bicycle accident in 1979. Westhead now coaches Chicago. Once in the NBA, Ramsay begat Cunningham and Loughery. Counting Ramsay himself that means 22% of all NBA head coaches have ties to "Ramsay basketball." And two assistant coaches—Guokas of Philadelphia and Lynam—were stars under Ramsay at St. Joseph's.
The Ramsay imprint is all over the NBA. His fast-break and "turnout" (patterned continuous motion—essentially a fast break in place) offenses have served as models for nearly every other team. His theories on training and conditioning are widely copied, and Ramsay is considered a trailblazer, in the literal sense, in defensive theory. His St. Joseph's zone press, with which he won with invariably small teams, became in the NBA the zone trap—technically illegal, but ingeniously disguised and very successful. Los Angeles' zone trap became the most talked-about issue of last spring's NBA championship series. It's no coincidence that Laker Coach Pat Riley learned most of his stuff from Westhead, who learned it from McKinney, who learned it from Ramsay, who, to all intents and purposes, invented it.
"I don't think you should overemphasize what you've done as a person," Ramsay says, "because who knows, really, what you've done? And what difference does it make anyway? My job is to get the best team I can get. Let's suppose, for the sake of argument, that I have influenced these other people. Well, if I don't do the job with my team, what difference does it make? You've got to do your job to keep it."
Aside from winning 843 of 1,454 games, college and pro, Ramsay has taken his teams to postseason play in 21 of his 25 seasons. In none of his coaching jobs has he ever inherited a proven winning team. The 76ers with Chamberlain had gone 130-33 in the two seasons Ramsay was general manager, but when he took over as coach in 1968, Chamberlain was gone and Imhoff was his center. Could any other coach in NBA history have gotten 55 victories out of a team with Imhoff as its center? When Ramsay inherited the woeful Buffalo Braves in 1972 he went 21-61. After bringing in nine new players the following season, including, not insignificantly, a slow, pudgy guard from Providence named Ernie DiGregorio and unleashing the offensive potential of Bob McAdoo, the Braves had a 42-40 record and made the playoffs for the first of three straight years. Upon arriving in 1976 in Portland, which had won 37 games the previous year, Ramsay got rid of Sidney Wicks and Geoff Petrie, among others, and added Lucas, Twardzik, Gilliam and Johnny Davis, got a relatively injury-free season out of Walton and won the NBA championship.
There are things that happened early in Ramsay's career and things that happened later, but they are all unrelated moments to Ramsay, who seems to have no concept of time beyond units of minutes and seconds. Certainly not years. He's a man who deals exclusively with the present. "Oh, I'm sure age brings with it some limitations," he says, "but I'm equally sure that they aren't as great as we've always thought they are."
Bucky Buckwalter, a Trail Blazer assistant, tells of an afternoon Ramsay spent in Los Angeles this summer watching games in the Southern California Pro League. The coach had some free time and went to Manhattan Beach, where he knew there was to be a two-mile rough-water swim. And swim he did, finishing in the middle of the pack. "The guy is absolutely unbelievable," Buckwalter says.
Nothing moves Ramsay like a challenge. On a recent morning, for example, a couple of days before training camp began, he arose at his customary 6 a.m. in his house, which overlooks the shore of Lake Oswego and is about 15 minutes from downtown Portland. He put on his sweats and a pair of running shoes and on the wooden deck overlooking the lake took several deep breaths of Oregon air. He then did an elaborate series of stretching exercises. He's so limber that he seemingly can touch any part of his body to any other. If it had been raining he would have climbed onto the stationary bicycle a few feet from his and Jean's bed and pumped furiously for 30 minutes. This is something Jean has had to learn to sleep through.
This particular morning is a beautiful one, but it's a bit late in the season for Ramsay to go plunging into the lake, which is frigid to most people's touch even in mid-August. So he hops on his bike and rides nine miles up and down the hilly roads around the lake. He returns home, puts the bike in the garage and goes out for a three-mile run. He then drives to Portland's Jewish Community Center for a two-hour practice with the Trail "Blazers, and when that's finished he swims 40 lengths of the 25-meter pool. After all that he's mildly annoyed because he has appointments the rest of the day and won't be able to get in his weightlifting.
At practice, when he leads the Blazers in exercises, he stretches better than any of them. On his back, he can touch his toes to the floor behind his head. A few years ago at a Trail Blazer practice, Lucas, who tested Ramsay's patience more than any other reasonable person might dare, kept up a running commentary while Ramsay led the team in stretching exercises. Finally, with his strictest schoolteacher voice and glare, Ramsay snapped, "No talking during stretching exercises!" There was a momentary silence. Then Lucas piped up meekly, "But Jack LaLanne talks during stretching exercises."
Anyone who wants to understand Ramsay need only measure his passion for physical conditioning. He'd been a swimmer all his life—he was a Navy frogman, remember—and a casual cyclist, but never a runner until he went West. When he was in Buffalo, Ramsay—a ham and eggs, steak and hamburger glutton—began to develop diverticulitis, an intestinal inflammation, which required that he change his diet and abstain from all meat and rich or fried foods. When he arrived in Portland, the fitness bug that runs rampant in Oregon hit him harder than most people. He set out to compete in a triathlon, the grueling event that combines swimming, biking and running. Loving aquatics, he was impressed to meet Don Schollander, the former Olympic swimmer, who introduced Ramsay to Tye Steinbech, Schollander's earliest coach, by then retired. Ramsay asked Steinbech if he wouldn't mind taking a look at his stroke. "I suddenly realized that I never really knew how to swim," Ramsay says. "He took my stroke apart and coached me like I was training for the Olympics." Ramsay, who had been building up his distance before he met Steinbech, really took off afterward: He swam each day until he was totally exhausted, usually doing a mile a day. Next, he sought out a local high school track coach, and then a triple jump coach named Roger Smith, to teach him how to run. The next thing he knew he had entered and finished his first triathlon, on Aug. 14, near Portland, swimming 1.2 miles in 46 minutes, biking 22 miles in 1:20 and running nine miles in 1:24.
"The triathlon is very appealing," he says. "Anybody can do it who wants to work at it. It isn't any great accomplishment." Maybe so, but the necessary training is too painful for all but the most dedicated souls. In fact, while Ramsay was training last summer, some of his friends thought he was going too far, particularly one day when he appeared near exhaustion. "I thought about making him quit," Buckwalter says. "Then I realized you can't make Ramsay quit."
Quit, hell. "Now that I've done it," Ramsay says, "I'd like to get my times down. Not that I think I could win it. But I know I could do a lot better. Maybe I could win one...." His goal is to complete the granddaddy of all triathlons, the Ironman in Hawaii. That one has a 2.4-mile swim, a 112-mile bike ride and a 26.2-mile marathon. The only problem is that it's contested in October, during basketball season.
Look at Ramsay as if he's crazy and he smiles back. "I think I could do it if I trained for it," he says. "I'm in better shape now than I was 30 years ago. I like to work hard. I have a constant feeling of well-being and alertness, and it keeps my mind clear—which I need for my job. I feel good, just as good as I can feel."
Which is really all you can ask of any athlete.
RAMSAY'S BENCH MARKS