"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.