By now, enough words have been wasted on disgraced Clippers owner Donald Sterling. But as an NBA lover and a Buffalo guy, I have a personal reason for despising the guy.
One of the sad consequences of the Sterling story was that it blew up on the day Jack Ramsay died. It diminished the appreciation for Dr. Jack, reducing him to a sidebar on a day when he should have been celebrated throughout the basketball world, which he enriched and ennobled for most of his 89 years.
Oh, the old-time fans remember. They know Ramsay was a hoop giant. Buffalo fans have fond memories of Ramsay, who coached the Braves for four of their eight years, when they were one of the most entertaining teams of their time with Bob McAdoo, Ernie DiGregorio and Randy Smith.
But casual fans might not realize what a towering figure he was in the game. Ramsay was a basketball visionary, always on the cutting edge. He was up on fashion trends, too. Braves fans will recall the mod, colorful ensembles he wore as he roamed the sideline at the Aud.
Ramsay was a brilliant man and a fierce competitor. When he took over as the Sixers’ general manager in 1966, he was the first GM to use computer analysis of players. Philly won the ’67 NBA championship in his first season.
He wanted his teams to perform at a physical and intellectual peak. He valued structure, discipline and defense. But he also favored an up-tempo style that required his players to be in prime physical shape.
DiGregorio recalled that Ramsay would have his players run six-minute miles at the start of training camp. He said Ramsay, who competed in more than 20 triathlons in his life and worked out regularly into his 80s, might have been in better shape than any of his players – well, all except Randy Smith.
Ramsay was a workout fanatic before it was fashionable. His son Chris, who works for ESPN, wrote about his dad’s zeal for fitness in a tribute. He said Dr. Jack rode his bike halfway across the country in a week; taught himself to surf; and won the club championship one summer after working on his golf game.
Bill Walton, who was Ramsay’s star center on the NBA champion Portland team of 1977, has called Dr. Jack the best coach he ever had and said he made him the best player he ever was. Walton played for John Wooden, remember.
Walton said Ramsay had three words written at the top of the blackboard in the dressing room before games: “Run. Run. Run.”
Some of the best minds in basketball looked up to Ramsay as a mentor and inspiration. Red Holzman, who coached the great Knicks teams of the early 1970s, said Dr. Jack made him want to be a better coach. Hubie Brown said Ramsay “infiltrated” his coaching philosophy around the world.
Former Knicks and Lakers head man Pat Riley was an admirer of Ramsay’s. Former Braves great Bob McAdoo, who played for both men, has said Riley’s “Showtime” style with the championship Lakers got its inspiration from Ramsay.
“We were ‘Showtime’ in Buffalo with Jack,” McAdoo said in a statement. “He was so much into the physical fitness and that’s why we were so successful. It was very fun playing for him.”
Ramsay wanted a fit, fast team that pushed the ball up the floor, attacked the basket with quick passes and played a withering, physical defense. When he became coach of the Trailblazers soon after leaving Buffalo, Dr. Jack found a team that was the perfect expression of his basketball vision.
The ’77 Blazers won the title and began the following season 50-10 before Walton got hurt, putting an end to the “perfect team.” Ramsay coached another 11 years in the NBA, until he was fired early in the 1988-89 season after starting 0-7 with the Indiana Pacers when he was 64.
He was still in great shape, capable of coaching again in the NBA. As a rookie in ’88, Reggie Miller told me he could see Ramsay coaching for another 20 or 30 years. But Ramsay decided he’d had enough.
Like all brilliant people, Dr. Jack had never stopped evolving and looking for new challenges. You don’t excel in triathlons into your elder years if you’re content to stand still. So he consulted his old friend, Hubie Brown, who had gone into announcing two years earlier after being fired by the Knicks.
Brown, one of the great clinicians the game has known, urged Ramsay to do clinics and help promote the game overseas. Ramsay attacked them with his usual passion and spent many years conducting clinics in underdeveloped countries.
Ramsay refused to say he was retired after he stopped coaching. Like Brown, he turned to announcing and became one of the best in the business. He worked Sixers games and moved on to Miami, where he spent eight years as a Heat TV announcer.
In 2000, Ramsay went to ESPN, where he worked for 13 years, through cancer and various other physical ailments. He also cared for his wife, Jean, who died of Alzheimer’s in 2010. Dr. Jack was still doing national NBA games on radio up until last May, when he was 88.
Dr. Jack always remained fresh and current. He never looked down on current players or suggested the sport was somehow more pure in his day. He never stopped growing as a basketball intellect, right to the end. Modern players and journalists would approach him at games to seek his counsel.
David Halberstam’s “Breaks of the Game,” which chronicled the Trailblazers in the 1979-80 season, was the greatest book ever written about basketball. I’ve read it three times and given it to several friends over the years. It would not be such a literary treasure without Ramsay.
The book is a treasure largely because Halberstam chose the perfect coach as his focus. Dr. Jack was a close friend of both Halberstam and Gay Talese, two of the best journalists of their time. That figures, because Ramsay was much more than a basketball coach.
I admired Dr. Jack’s Braves teams from afar when I was in college. As a Rhode Island native, I idolized Ernie DiGregorio, who was from my home state. I hated it whenever Ramsay benched Ernie D., but I came to understand it in time. So did Ernie, for that matter.
Over the years, I’ve been amazed at how fondly Ramsay is remembered in Buffalo, even though he was there for only four years. In late March, I spoke with him briefly about the old Braves. I’m humbled to say the last interview he ever gave was to a writer from Buffalo.
Dr. Jack was one of a kind. He left the world of basketball a better place. That’s more than I can say for the creep in Los Angeles.