- TOP PLAYERSOffensePABLO S. TORRE | August 20, 2012
- TAMPA BAY buccaneersENEMY lines WHAT A RIVAL COACH SAYSJune 28, 2012
- Faces in the CrowdJune 11, 2001
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 pâté 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.