May 4, 2014

Jack Ramsay, who won title with NBA’s Blazers, dies at 89

Jack Ramsay, the longest tenured coach in the history of the Portland Trail Blazers and who led the team to its only championship in 1977, died last week after a long struggle with cancer. He was 89.

NBA Hall of Fame coach Jack Ramsay

What a loss, and what a shock to learn that cancer finally had beaten Ramsay because he always struck me as some kind of early devotee of living the right way, always looking as fit and trim as the players he coached.

I’ll always remember Ramsay, too, for his plaid pants, the kind of pants you couldn’t wear today without someone making a crack comment, but that he seemed to wear without a second thought. It was the 1970s, of course, although I don’t remember many other coaches who looked quite like Ramsay did.

And I doubt his sense of style generated a run on plaid or paisley pants.

But I had to have a pair, my mother or some family member finally getting me some plaid pants to wear and root on the Blazers, including the year the team put it all together in spring ’77.

There’s nothing quite like following and believing in YOUR TEAM as they march their way through the playoffs to make the finals. But the Philadelphia 76ers were no pushovers. They had some guy named Dr. J and another nicknamed Chocolate Thunder, not to mention George McGinnis, Caldwell Jones, Doug Collins and Henry Bibby.

The Sixers were favorites in the series, but the Blazers countered with Bill Walton, The Enforcer, Lionel Hollins, Johnny Davis and lesser known players — to those outside of Portland — such as Bob Gross, Lloyd Neal and Dave Twardzik.

And because it was MY TEAM, it was tough to watch the Blazers lose the first two games in the series, especially the second game because the team completely fell apart, including the ejections of both Maurice Lucas and Darryl Dawkins for fighting.

Lucas popped Dawkins for messing with Bob Gross, and then Dawkins swung and missed, accidentally hitting teammate Doug Collins.

But those two losses were quickly forgotten as the Blazers reeled off four straight wins and the championship was OURS.

The Oregonian, my hometown paper, did a nice job with Ramsay’s obituary, getting the right reaction from former players, coaches and others who knew him, and including information about Ramsay that was new to me.

On Ramsay’s health and player preparation:

Ramsay pushed preparation, requiring his players to run a 7-minute mile before the season, and lived the example. A former Navy demolition diver — a precursor to the SEALs — Ramsay ran, biked long distances and swam in Oswego Lake.

On Ramsay’s style:

Ramsay coached games from the sideline on one knee, often in plaid or paisley flared pants and a brightly colored jacket, his thick black eyebrows hooding his hawk eyes. He would get so worked up as he directed his ball-movement offense and the zone press defense he helped popularize that Ramsay often later forgot the things he yelled in games, former Blazers trainer Ron Culp said.

On Ramsay’s pregame speeches:

“I used to live for his pregame speeches,” said (Bill) Walton, the key to the ’77 team. “They were so compact, so organized, so tight, so brilliant, so analytical. And just right to the starting line. He would say, ‘OK, let’s go,’ and we would just hit that door running.”

Former Blazer Lionel Hollins on Ramsay:

“He got up and he worked out every morning,” Hollins said. “He ate correctly every day. There was so much discipline in his life, and you respected and admired that. He was such a good person. He genuinely liked the game of basketball. He genuinely liked the players. And all he wanted to do was win.”

On losing:

Losses transformed Ramsay. His face would redden with anger, and after the Blazers lost road games he would take off on long marches through the city.

On a long march in Chicago:

In a 2007 interview Ramsay recalled stomping through a rough part of Chicago, “hoping that somebody would accost me so that I could vent my anxieties. On one occasion, a guy did come up to me and I thought, ‘This is going to be it.’ It was winter and I had some kind of an overcoat on. My fists were ready in my pockets. 

“This guy comes up and says, ‘Do you have a match?’ ” Ramsay recalled, chuckling. “I said, ‘I don’t smoke.’ ”

Farewell, Jack Ramsay. We miss you already.

–Rolf Boone

Photo credit: Jack Ramsay, via Wikipedia

COMMENTS

Hi, I’m Rolf Boone and I love the Twins.

I became a fan of the Minnesota Twins after a friendly wager in the early 1980s. I survived Ron Davis, the meltdown in Cleveland, Phil Bradley at the Kingdome and then marveled at a rising generation of stars and two World Series wins in 1987 and 1991. Brad Radke made the 1990s bearable, while Kirby Puckett’s eye injury, exit from the game and eventual death made it almost too much to bear. The new century ushered in more talent — Joe Mauer, Johan Santana, Joe Nathan, Torii Hunter, Justin Morneau — and consecutive seasons of playoff baseball, followed by consecutive seasons of losing baseball. A winning season returned in 2015. So here we are. Go Twins.