From Harrisburg to the Hall of Fame
Dr. Jack Ramsay's rise from Eastern Pennsylvania leagues to NBA history books
It was an off-day, early in the 1976-77 season. Portland coach Jack Ramsay flew to San Francisco to watch the Golden State Warriors play the Philadelphia 76ers. When he returned to his team, he was excited about what he'd learned.
If basketball outcomes were decided on talent alone, Philadelphia's lineup of Julius Erving, George McGinnis, World B. Free, Doug Collins & Co. could level anyone. But Ramsay saw some weaknesses. They were not a team, he decided. Their habit of loping back on defense often lapsed, selfishly, into one-on-one play. He thought his quintet could turn the tables on them in a running, passing game. He was right.
The next night Philadelphia arrived in Portland. Ramsay's troops carried out his battle plan and buried Philly. "I remember looking up at the scoreboard and saying 'Are we ahead by 40?'" he said. The Blazers won 146-104. After enjoying the victory with his team in the locker room, he could barely contain his high spirits. He walked outside, drinking in the crisp night air.
"I thought we could win it all," he recalled thinking.
In one night of scouting he had gained an edge that he wielded like a trump card. In six years in the NBA, Portland had never won a playoff series or even finished .500. Ramsay won a title in his first season there.
The big question in evaluating coaches is: Did he make his teams better? With Ramsay the answer was "yes" more often than not.
All told, he won 864 games in the pros and 234 in college and was inducted to the Basketball Hall of Fame in 1992. As part of the NBA's 50th anniversary in 1996, he was voted one of the 10 greatest coaches in league history.
Since he was a boy growing up in Milford, Conn., Jack Ramsay's life involved sports. "I was playing sports all the time and my parents, Anne and John, encouraged me to play in grade school and high school," he said. "My mother was very strong on me to go to college. No one had ever been to college, including my parents."
His family moved to a Philadelphia suburb and Jack attended Upper Darby High School. He played basketball, baseball and soccer in high school, paring it down to the first two at St. Joseph's College, where his time was interrupted by three years of service in the Navy. In his senior year at St. Joe's, the 1948-49 season, he also played baseball for coach Pep Young, who had played on the great Detroit Tigers teams in the 1920s and 1930s with Ty Cobb. "But I was not Major League caliber," Ramsay said.
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But he was good enough to play professional basketball in the old Eastern Pennsylvania Basketball League, which fielded teams in towns like Harrisburg, Williamsport, Lancaster and Sunbury. In his second season, Ramsay, playing guard, was the second-leading scorer for the Harrisburg Senators. In all, he played six seasons for Harrisburg and Sunbury, averaging 14 points.
"It was very competitive," Ramsay said. "They paid about $50 a game; some guys got less and some more." Ramsay supplemented his playing by coaching at St. James High School in Pennsylvania and then Mount Pleasant High School in Delaware.
By now he had a longing to coach, a love that began a decade before. "I got interested in coaching while I played at St. Joseph's," he recalled. "Because we played a national schedule we played teams coached by Nat Holman, Joe Lapchick, Hank Iba and others. I could see the impact the coach had on their teams and I thought, 'That's a pretty good thing to do.'
"I wanted to become a college coach. I got game films of all the good college coaches -- Pete Newell at California, Eddie Donovan with St. Bonaventure, Ken Loeffler at LaSalle ..."
His big break came quite unexpectedly.
"I got the job at St. Joseph's by sheer good luck," he said. "I had gone to see a Phillies game one night and bumped into the priest who was the moderator of athletics. He knew I was playing in the Eastern League and coaching high school. St. Joe's wasn't doing well, hanging around .500, and I got the sense that they were looking to make a change. The next day he calls me up and says, 'Would you like to talk about coaching here?' I said I certainly would. I had an interview with them and he offered me the job that night. He offered me $3,500 for the 1955-56 season."
The rivalry among the "Big Five" in Pennsylvania -- Penn, Temple, LaSalle, Villanova and St. Joe's -- was huge. But the Hawks held their own under Ramsay. "We had success that first year," said Ramsay, who went 23-6 in his first season on the bench. "We won the Big Five, beating Temple, which was one of the top-rated teams in the country. We went to a postseason tournament for the first time." In the 1956 N.I.T., St. Joseph's lost to Dayton and finished third.
St. Joe's dipped a bit the next two seasons, to 17-7 and 18-9, but the Hawks would finish first in the Middle Atlantic Conference seven times under Ramsay, including five straight seasons from 1959 to 1963. In 1961, they reached the Final Four.
It was an amazing distinction for a school of just 1,400 students. Everything about his program was small. For good performances players were rewarded with hats. The recruiting budget was miniscule, so six players on the 11-player roster had been discovered at high schools within two miles of the campus.
But any hopes of going farther in the tournament were dashed when three of St. Joseph's best players -- Frank Majewski, Jack Egan and Vincent Kempton -- were discovered to have fixed games. Charges by a grand jury showed that three games -- against Dayton, Seton Hall and Xavier -- had final scores manipulated to suit the betting spread.
Powered by future Hall of Famers John Havlicek and Jerry Lucas, Ohio State destroyed St. Joseph's in the Final Four 95-69. But in the consolation game, the Hawks edged Utah in four overtimes 127-120, as Egan led the way with 42 points and was selected as an all-tournament player. A Sports Illustrated photo showed Ramsay beaming, with Kempton and Egan, accepting a third-place trophy. But after the scandal the trophy had to be returned, and the three players were expelled from the school.
Two years later his Hawks bounced back, beating Princeton and West Virginia and reaching the round of eight before losing to Duke in the eastern conference final. St. Joe's finished 50-8 over Ramsay's last two seasons -- 1964-65 and 1965-66 -- wining the MAC each time.
All told, he had led his school to 10 tournament appearances in 11 seasons. His record was an astounding 234-72 (.765). His performance over those years -- his longest stint with any team, college or pro -- constituted, arguably, his best body of work as a coach.
Ramsay did not leave St. Joseph's because he needed a change of scenery.
The team was 24-5 in 1965-66 and there was no urgent need to change. Then 41, Ramsay had an edema (an abnormal accumulation of water in the tissue) on the retina of his right eye. "I couldn't see out of it," Ramsay recalled. "I couldn't read, I had no depth perception -- the doctors I went to attributed it to stress. They recommended that I get away from coaching for a while."
Ramsay took their advice.
"That summer, [Philadelphia 76ers owner] Irv Kosloff called and said 'I need a general manager, would you be interested?' It just fit together."
In August of 1966, Ramsay signed a three-year, $25,000 deal as the general manager of the 76ers. "I thought, 'I can try this. If it doesn't work, I can go back to college coaching,'" he said. In his first season, the results were historic. The 76ers steamrolled the league, finishing 68-13, then the best record in league history. They averaged 125 points. Wilt Chamberlain averaged 24 points, 24 rebounds and eight assists per game in what was perhaps the greatest all-around regular-season performance ever.
For the first time in nine seasons, a team without the word "Boston" written across their chests had won an NBA title.
"I think [coach] Alex Hannum did a great job, too," Ramsay recalled. "It was his first year there. He had lost his job at San Francisco, when they were the Warriors. Wilt had been traded and there were a couple of lean years there. So Alex was anxious to re-establish himself as an NBA coach. He had a good game plan and he was the obvious leader of the group. He insisted on everybody doing what they were supposed to do, and he worked it out with Wilt, which was the main thing. Wilt was willing to pass it."
The following season, Chamberlain received a reported $250,000, the largest sum ever paid to an athlete. But then he wanted more.
One report claimed that Wilt asked for a three-year deal worth $1 million and a piece of the team. When Hannum quit as coach, after the 1967-68 season, Chamberlain said he wouldn't play unless the new coach met his approval and that maybe he, Wilt, should coach. But Ramsay preferred an experienced replacement for Hannum. As for money, Ramsay said Chamberlain wasn't entitled to more since he hadn't played well that season, when Philly blew a 3-1 series lead and lost its title to Boston.
"Chamberlain wasn't the most consistent guy," Ramsay said. "You never knew what he was going to do. He kept to himself and was kind of guarded that year. But we were ahead 3-1 and lost at home to make it 3-2 and lost at Boston to make it 3-3. We came back to Philly in Game 7 and he did not take a shot in the second half.
"He did not take a shot. Here's a guy who once averaged 50 and once scored 100 and did not take a shot in the whole second half."
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But Ramsay didn't have the luxury of licking his wounds. Chamberlain was traded to the Lakers for forward Jerry Chambers, guard Archie Clark and center Darrall Imhoff -- "Los Angeles had a gun to our head in the [Chamberlain] trade," Ramsay recalled -- and without a coach, the job fell to Ramsay.
In his first game leading an NBA team, against the Lakers at the Spectrum, Jerry West, Elgin Baylor and Chamberlain combined for 71 points, but Ramsay's zone press shut down everyone else and the 76ers won easily 114-96.
Without Chamberlain, Luke Jackson returned to his natural position as center and was flanked by Billy Cunningham, Chet Walker, Matt Guokas and new addition Johnny Green. The 76ers led the league in scoring (119 points per game) and embraced Ramsay's style of aggressive, pressing defense. They finished 55-27 but were overrun in the playoffs by Boston, the eventual champion.
"I had a good team," said Ramsay, who just missed out on coach-of-the-year honors to Gene Shue. "The guys knew me and I knew them and I got to know them better the two years I was general manager. Had Luke not had that injury [popping his Achilles in the 25th game of the season], we would have been a contender."
Despite the promise it showed in 1969, Philadelphia got above .500 just once over the next three seasons. The 76ers were eliminated in the 1970 and 1971 playoffs by Milwaukee and Baltimore, whose dominant centers (Lew Alcindor and Wes Unseld) exposed that Philadelphia was giving away too much inside.
After a 30-52 season in 1972, Ramsay resigned. "The situation here was not conducive to my continuing as the coach," Ramsay said. "This team did not reflect my philosophy, which is to play as hard as possible for as long as possible."
Just 11 days after resigning as coach of Philadelphia, Ramsay got hired by the Buffalo Braves. Buffalo was basically a new team, two seasons removed from its expansion birth in 1971, but the Braves were a fun, speedy, audacious bunch. They weren't particularly good, however -- the Braves won only 21 games in Ramsay's first season.
"I don't think he ever lost the way he did his first year in Buffalo," recalled Chris Ramsay, Jack's son. "They lost 61 games. So that was a very difficult time for him."
Before the next season Ramsay told GM Eddie Donovan, "This isn't going to work. We have castoffs from other teams. We gotta clean house." Donovan agreed. They kept only Bob McAdoo (drafted that summer), Randy Smith and Bob Kaufman.
Buffalo finished first among the league's 17 teams in offense (111.6) and dead last in defense (111.8), but the Braves doubled their win total. They reached the playoffs and pushed the eventual champion Celtics to six games in the conference semifinals, losing the last two games by just three and two points, respectively.
Ramsay was soon saying what was on everyone's mind: "McAdoo's the best all-around offensive player in the league."
"There isn't another big man in the NBA who has his agility and scoring ability," Jerry West said. "He's like Annie Oakley: He shoots from anywhere," Kareem Abdul-Jabbar said.
The superlatives were justified. McAdoo couldn't be checked.
But Boston had the better team. After losing another six-game series against the Celtics in 1976, Ramsay was let go. "He's not fired," then-owner Paul Snyder explained in classically cryptic language. "He just isn't rehired."
"I was satisfied, more than the owner was," Ramsay said. "I had some confrontations with him. He thought we should win the championship, because he was paying big dollars to these players. He equated what he was paying to how good they should be. But we never were good defensively."
After 42-, 49- and 46-win seasons with Ramsay, four different coaches managed just 30 and then 27 wins over the franchise's final two seasons in Buffalo. In his four seasons there, Ramsay compiled a record of 158-170.
"That Braves team is still the only team to win a playoff series in franchise history," Chris Ramsay said.
The franchise that became the Los Angeles Clippers didn't make the playoffs again until 1992. They didn't win another playoff series until 2006.
While his former team sank, Ramsay flourished across the country.
Finding a perfect fit for his ball-movement offense in Portland, Ramsay's Trail Blazers won the NBA championship the following season, the first of his decade with the franchise.
That is how most likely remember Ramsay today. A No. 77 jersey, marking the year the Blazers won their one and only title, still hangs in Portland in his honor.
But it was clear in those first years coaching in the college ranks, and then in the pros with Philadelphia and Buffalo, what he could accomplish. In Portland, he simply found the perfect fit.
Said Bill Walton: "[It was] the best feeling I have had [playing basketball] in my life."
It was, perhaps, one of the best teams ever.
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