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Jack Ramsay is seated at a back table in one of Portland's most elegant seafood restaurants, and he makes a stunning attraction for all present. Foremost, there's the hedgerow of a brow dividing the famous bald head from the cool, slitted eyes and the chiseled Irish face. Ramsay is perhaps the most recognizable citizen of what he calls "the big little city" or "the little big city" of Portland—indeed of the entire state of Oregon. Had he been dining with Robert Redford, the other patrons would have been whispering, "Who's that guy eating with Jack Ramsay?"
For that reason he's less than comfortable at this moment, and he barely resembles the highly animated Coach Ramsay of the sidelines. For one thing, he's wearing a dapper navy blazer with an open-collared powder-blue shirt, charcoal slacks and soft black loafers. Until very recently, he was a vision in clashing plaids, checks and paisleys on game nights. His expression is serene, quite unlike that on his game face, and he's wearing thick bifocals so he can read the menu. Still, he must hold the menu close and squint, and the combination of the glasses and the squinting adds 15 years to his appearance. Not that he cares. Ramsay is funny about expressing his thoughts. Either he's circumspect, selecting and enunciating his words precisely—as when explaining his philosophy or his strategy or in discussing a player or a loss—or he loses control and babbles like an adolescent when he's happy, like a bull Irishman when he's mad.
He laughs when someone tries to make an issue of his age—aren't you too old to be riding that bicycle that hard?—as people often do. Seeing him in his training sweats or in his swimsuit, you'd say he has the body a 25-year-old would envy. And how many 57-year-olds are entering and finishing triathlons nowadays?
Ramsay is certainly more comfortable pedaling his bicycle the 110 miles from Portland to the Pacific, or swimming miles in the Atlantic off his summer home on the New Jersey shore, or kneeling on the sidelines orchestrating another Trail Blazers game than he is sitting here in his debonair restaurant rags with people watching him nibbling salmon pâté, spooning oyster bisque and sipping an Oregon chablis—Buy Oregon is a seriously taken commandment nowadays in that economically depressed state. That's because Ramsay's image is something of a sham. In his life the dominating aroma is, and always has been, sweat.
It is the night before training camp—Parris Island for Ramsay's players, but a beautiful time for him: springtime, when the basketball flowers bloom, when a discordant bunch of jammers becomes, ideally, a symphony orchestra tuned to a single discipline, Ramsay's discipline. At this moment the 1982-83 Trail Blazers are undefeated and anything is possible.
"I really like this team," Ramsay says. "I mean, I really like it. Mychal Thompson [his center] has a chance to become a great player. Not a good one, a great one. His ability to pass the basketball is superb. He could be a great passer. Jimmy Paxson, I think, is one of the best guards in the league. He moves without the ball as well as anyone I've ever seen. Darnell Valentine may be the best point guard in the NBA, you'll see. And Calvin Natt could be the best small forward. And we picked up Kenny Carr to be our big forward and Wayne Cooper to back up at center, and Jeff Lamp is going to be a very good player, and we have a rookie, Fat Lever—Fat's short for Lafayette—who's going to be terrific, and a free agent named Audie Norris who could shock a lot of people in the NBA. I mean shock them. And—"
"Jack..." his dining companion, who's no Robert Redford, interrupts. "You've been a basketball coach now for what, 27 years? Can you ever remember an evening before training camp when you didn't really like your team?"
A pâté-covered cracker freezes in front of Ramsay's mouth. His famous brow folds into a deep V, as though his nose had dropped an inch. The eyes narrow in thought. "Yeah. Hmm. Well...One year we had some contract problems...well, I still liked them...." He breaks into a grin, and his angular face smooths out, and he takes off his glasses and laughs and laughs as he catches the point of the question and savors it. Ramsay could no more dislike a team than Michelangelo could dislike a block of marble. There's always something that can be done with it.
Just then the waiter arrives to find out what the party would like for an entrée. "Thresher shark," Ramsay says. Clearly, he's ready for the season.
Pro basketball coaches come in various types. Many are former pro players who either love the game or, for lack of anything else to do, coach as a way to stay employed after the legs have gone. This isn't meant to denigrate anyone's credentials or to suggest that the role of an NBA coach isn't important to his team's success. But most of the ex-players happened into their jobs because they had names, or were particularly courageous, or were around at the right time, or all of the above (the Bullets' Gene Shue, the Hawks' Kevin Loughery, the Nuggets' Doug Moe, the 76ers' Billy Cunningham, the Clippers' Paul Silas, the Lakers' Pat Riley). Others pointed themselves toward coaching in their twilight years, perhaps to get some of the recognition they felt they deserved but didn't receive as players (the Sonics' Lenny Wilkens, the Nets' Larry Brown, the Bucks' Don Nelson). Some worked their way up from the college ranks (the Mavericks' Dick Motta, the Celtics' Bill Fitch, the Knicks' Hubie Brown, the Suns' John MacLeod). Others labored long as low-paid assistants (the Spurs' Stan Albeck, the Rockets' Del Harris). Very few were foolish enough to have made coaching their career when they were bright young men who could have succeeded in almost any field they chose if their limited size or talent ruled out pro playing careers. After all, until very recently, coaches' pay was lousy and job security was—in fact, very definitely still is—the worst.