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A MAN WHO NEVER LETS DOWN
John Papanek
November 01, 1982
Whether coaching at St. Joseph's College or in the NBA, Jack Ramsay has usually had a leg up on his competition
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November 01, 1982

A Man Who Never Lets Down

Whether coaching at St. Joseph's College or in the NBA, Jack Ramsay has usually had a leg up on his competition

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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 doppelgänger, 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.

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