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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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This particular morning is a beautiful one, but it's a bit late in the season for Ramsay to go plunging into the lake, which is frigid to most people's touch even in mid-August. So he hops on his bike and rides nine miles up and down the hilly roads around the lake. He returns home, puts the bike in the garage and goes out for a three-mile run. He then drives to Portland's Jewish Community Center for a two-hour practice with the Trail "Blazers, and when that's finished he swims 40 lengths of the 25-meter pool. After all that he's mildly annoyed because he has appointments the rest of the day and won't be able to get in his weightlifting.

At practice, when he leads the Blazers in exercises, he stretches better than any of them. On his back, he can touch his toes to the floor behind his head. A few years ago at a Trail Blazer practice, Lucas, who tested Ramsay's patience more than any other reasonable person might dare, kept up a running commentary while Ramsay led the team in stretching exercises. Finally, with his strictest schoolteacher voice and glare, Ramsay snapped, "No talking during stretching exercises!" There was a momentary silence. Then Lucas piped up meekly, "But Jack LaLanne talks during stretching exercises."

Anyone who wants to understand Ramsay need only measure his passion for physical conditioning. He'd been a swimmer all his life—he was a Navy frogman, remember—and a casual cyclist, but never a runner until he went West. When he was in Buffalo, Ramsay—a ham and eggs, steak and hamburger glutton—began to develop diverticulitis, an intestinal inflammation, which required that he change his diet and abstain from all meat and rich or fried foods. When he arrived in Portland, the fitness bug that runs rampant in Oregon hit him harder than most people. He set out to compete in a triathlon, the grueling event that combines swimming, biking and running. Loving aquatics, he was impressed to meet Don Schollander, the former Olympic swimmer, who introduced Ramsay to Tye Steinbech, Schollander's earliest coach, by then retired. Ramsay asked Steinbech if he wouldn't mind taking a look at his stroke. "I suddenly realized that I never really knew how to swim," Ramsay says. "He took my stroke apart and coached me like I was training for the Olympics." Ramsay, who had been building up his distance before he met Steinbech, really took off afterward: He swam each day until he was totally exhausted, usually doing a mile a day. Next, he sought out a local high school track coach, and then a triple jump coach named Roger Smith, to teach him how to run. The next thing he knew he had entered and finished his first triathlon, on Aug. 14, near Portland, swimming 1.2 miles in 46 minutes, biking 22 miles in 1:20 and running nine miles in 1:24.

"The triathlon is very appealing," he says. "Anybody can do it who wants to work at it. It isn't any great accomplishment." Maybe so, but the necessary training is too painful for all but the most dedicated souls. In fact, while Ramsay was training last summer, some of his friends thought he was going too far, particularly one day when he appeared near exhaustion. "I thought about making him quit," Buckwalter says. "Then I realized you can't make Ramsay quit."

Quit, hell. "Now that I've done it," Ramsay says, "I'd like to get my times down. Not that I think I could win it. But I know I could do a lot better. Maybe I could win one...." His goal is to complete the granddaddy of all triathlons, the Ironman in Hawaii. That one has a 2.4-mile swim, a 112-mile bike ride and a 26.2-mile marathon. The only problem is that it's contested in October, during basketball season.

Look at Ramsay as if he's crazy and he smiles back. "I think I could do it if I trained for it," he says. "I'm in better shape now than I was 30 years ago. I like to work hard. I have a constant feeling of well-being and alertness, and it keeps my mind clear—which I need for my job. I feel good, just as good as I can feel."

Which is really all you can ask of any athlete.

[This article contains a table. Please see hardcopy of magazine or PDF.]

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