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."