Jack Ramsay, one of three Hall of Fame coaches who spent part of their careers in Buffalo, died Monday in Naples, Fla., after several years of dealing with various forms of cancer and marrow syndrome, a blood disorder. He was 89.
Family members say he died peacefully in his sleep, according to ESPN.com news services.
Known as “Dr. Jack” but never “Doc” after he received his doctorate in education from the University of Pennsylvania in 1963, he coached the Buffalo Braves for four seasons from 1972 through 1976.
Ironically, his death came exactly 38 years after he coached the Braves to a 124-122 victory over the Boston Celtics at Memorial Auditorium in Game Four of their series on April 28, 1976. It was the Braves’ last postseason victory in Buffalo.
Before he came to Buffalo, Ramsay was a hugely successful coach at Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia, then was general manager and coach of the Philadelphia 76ers. After he was let go by Braves owner Paul L. Snyder in 1976, Ramsay went on to coach the Portland Trail Blazers to the 1977 National Basketball Association championship and later the Indiana Pacers until he retired from coaching early in the 1988-89 season.
Starting in 1989, he spent 20 more years as a radio and television commentator on NBA games before his illness caused him to retire last May. He worked his last game on May 4, 2013 in Brooklyn before announcing that his health needed immediate attention and he would not be able to continue.
“I don’t want to make an issue of this,” Ramsay said of his health problems in an interview with The News in July 2013. At the time, Ramsay was resigned to the eventual outcome of his physical condition and that his only hope was that medication would extend his life another year or more.
Despite his grave illness, Ramsay spoke to News Senior Sports Columnist Jerry Sullivan last month for a column about the need at First Niagara Center for a banner commemorating the Buffalo Braves. Sullivan wrote:
“When I called Ramsay in Florida a week ago, he initially wasn’t up for an interview. But when I mentioned the Braves, he said, ‘Let’s try and do it.’
He spoke only briefly, for maybe a minute. His breathing was labored, and Ramsay had to battle to get the words out.
“‘I remember there was a lot of affection for the Braves,” he said. “In later years, you would see people on the street and they would remember that team with a lot of affection. It was nice to know this team was remembered so favorably.
‘Yeah, I enjoyed coaching them. It was a fun team to coach as well.’”
Ramsay was enshrined in the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Mass., in 1992. Scotty Bowman of the Sabres and Marv Levy of the Bills are other Hall of Fame coaches who came to Buffalo after Ramsay.
Although his stay in Western New York was relatively brief, it included some important times for him and his family. His late wife Jean obtained her bachelor’s degree in English from the University at Buffalo at the age of 47. His oldest son, John Jr., now the provost at Muhlenberg College in Bethlehem, Pa., earned his doctorate there. His other son, Chris, attended Bishop Neumann High school in Williamsville and graduated from DeSales in Lockport.
Ramsay spent part of his youth in Milford, Conn., before moving back to his native Philadelphia. He graduated from Upper Darby High where he played basketball and earned a scholarship to Saint Joseph’s. His college years were interrupted by wartime service in the Navy. Ramsay was a member of an underwater demolition unit that was being trained for an invasion of the Japanese home islands that never came. He then resumed his college career at Saint Joseph’s.
When his NBA coaching career ended in 1989, he was second only to the great Red Auerbach in total victories with 864.
In his personal life, Ramsay was a devout Catholic, a devoted family man and advocate of physical fitness. He competed in major Triathlon competitions until he was 70, and after that still swam a mile a day in the ocean near his homes in Naples, Fla., and Ocean City, N.J.
Over the final years of his life, though, he underwent treatment for prostate and brain cancer and melanoma before finally developing marrow syndrome, a condition that prevents the body from producing enough blood cells.
A Funeral Mass will be said Thursday at 11 a.m. at St. John’s the Evangelist Church in Naples, Fla. Plans for a viewing on Wednesday were pending.