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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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"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.

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