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Basketball coaching legend Jack Ramsay, WWII Navy frogman, dies

PHILADELPHIA — The Hawk may never die, but the man most responsible for St. Joseph’s University’s rich basketball heritage proved to be mortal after all.

Jack Ramsay, a cerebral hoops master who built a legend as he ascended through the world of Philadelphia basketball, bred a generation of coaching disciples and won NBA titles as both a general manager and coach, died Sunday night in Naples, Fla., at 89.

Ramsay, who tackled cancer with the same zeal he expended on his personal fitness, was diagnosed with the disease more than a decade ago and recently had stepped away from his longtime role as an ESPN analyst.

“The world is full of copycats,” said Jim Lynam, who played for Ramsay at St. Joseph’s and coached with him in the NBA. “The innovators are those who separate themselves. And Jack Ramsay was an innovator.”

Though his reputation was formed in the Philadelphia area — at Chester’s St. James and Wilmington’s Mount Pleasant high schools; at his alma mater, St. Joseph’s, and as the NBA champion 76ers rookie GM in 1967 — the second half of Ramsay’s colorful life played out far from his hometown.

Most notably, he guided the Portland Trail Blazers to the 1976-77 NBA title, an event that transformed that Oregon city into a pro basketball hotbed. Then at commissioner David Stern’s urging, he traveled the world, broadening the sport’s appeal. And a late-life broadcasting career with ESPN made him an iconic figure nationally.

Through it all, he maintained a residence in Ocean City, N.J., where, after his morning-Mass ritual, the physical-fitness fanatic could often be seen jogging on the beach or swimming in the Atlantic Ocean.

A natty dresser, a marathon and triathlon competitor, a fiercely devoted family man and Catholic, Ramsay, his former players insisted, possessed a spiritual aura.

“He could look at you with those eyes and get through to you,” said Don DiJulia, the St. Joseph’s athletic director who played for Ramsay in the early 1960s. “He was so genuine, such a good family man and so faith-focused, that his players instinctively sensed that.”

Known widely as “Dr. Jack”, for the doctorate in education he earned at the University of Pennsylvania in 1963, Ramsay brought an intellectual approach to what, when he began playing, was a gritty, often brutal sport.

He stressed rigorous mental as well as physical preparation. His St. Joseph’s teams, often outmatched in talent, were as thoughtful, disciplined and tough as their bald, steely-eyed coach.

“He was such a genuine person,” said Lynam. “People just automatically bought into his approach. He was very passionate, incredibly bright and way ahead of the curve.”

Paul Westhead, who also played for him at St. Joseph’s and like his mentor moved on to the NBA, said being coached by Ramsay was “a life experience. The enthusiasm ... he had for the game was contagious.”

The best coaching lessons he ever got, Ramsay liked to say, were those he picked up as a World War II Navy frogman, one responsible for planting underwater explosives in the Pacific.

“(In the Navy) I learned how important physical condition is,” he said in 2011. “I learned how to focus on an objective in spite of all kinds of hazards. I learned how to deal with stress too. If you make a wrong move with explosives, it could be deadly.”

He scouted intensely and his competitive nature led him to constantly seek an edge. With the Trail Blazers, for example, he studied the techniques of Soviet high jumpers, hoping it would improve his big men’s leaping ability.

“The next day,” recalled Lynam of the day the Trail Blazers tried the drills, “they could barely walk. But that was Jack. He was always investigating something.”

Ironically, for all the fame and success he accrued in the sport, Ramsay figures to be as well-remembered for two historic gaffes in which he played a prominent role.

Before the 1968-69 season, by then also the 76ers coach, he dealt Wilt Chamberlain to the Lakers after the enigmatic superstar demanded a trade.

“I never traded Wilt,” Ramsay often said in his own defense. “He traded himself.”

Then in 1984, with the second choice in the NBA draft, Ramsay chose 7-foot-2 Kentucky center Sam Bowie for Portland instead of Michael Jordan.

The decision has lived in sports infamy. Bowie’s career would be short-circuited by injuries while Jordan led the Bulls to six NBA titles and is widely viewed as one of the sport’s all-time greats. Ramsay always insisted he’d make the same choice again since his team’s most pressing need was a dominant center.

It was at his alma mater, St. Joseph’s, between 1955 and 1966, where Ramsay burst onto the national scene, leading the Hawks to 10 postseason appearances in 11 seasons and helping make the Big 5 into a unique and wildly popular Philadelphia institution.

There he developed both a pipeline of coaches — some of whom, like Lynam, Westhead, Matt Guokas Jr. and Jack McKinney, followed him to the NBA — and a killer zone press that confounded opponents.

Ramsay’s 1963 instructional book, “Pressure Basketball”, became a must-have for coaches everywhere, as did his follow-up work, “The Coach’s Art”.

“He used to give credit for the press to people like Pete Newell,” said Lynam. “But if he didn’t invent it, he dang-sure refined it to a level that made it unique.

“When he first came to NBA [with the 76ers] I saw a preseason game against the Knicks. He brought out the press and turned it into a 40-point game. I was getting a kick out of it because it was very evident the Knicks had never seen anything like it.”

Born in Connecticut, Ramsay came to Philadelphia as a toddler when his father, a banker, was relocated here. A 1942 graduate of Upper Darby High, he enrolled at St. Joseph’s with the idea that he would become a doctor.

“That’s what his mother wanted,” said DiJulia, “but basketball kept getting in the way.”

He’d been drawn to St. Joseph’s when, as an Upper Darby senior, he and a few others were asked by Hawks coach Bill Ferguson to work out privately at the St. Joseph’s Prep gym.

“St. Joe’s didn’t have a gym of its own in those days,” Ramsay said in 1996.

Ramsay passed the audition and won a full scholarship to the college on City Line Avenue. His stay at Hawk Hill was interrupted by World War II. But after three years in the Navy, he returned to get his degree and eventually captain Ferguson’s team.

Ramsay played semipro basketball in Wilmington, Sunbury and Harrisburg before establishing his coaching credentials at St. James and later Mount Pleasant. At the latter school, his teams went 40-18 in three seasons.

When coach John McMenamin retired in 1955 after just two seasons, St. Joseph’s hired Ramsay.

His first Hawks team won the inaugural Big Five title and was invited to the National Invitation Tournament. With a roster filled with Philadelphia-area players like Lynam, his teams reached the NCAA tournament seven times, building tiny St. Joseph’s reputation as a formidable basketball school.

Lynam said one the few times he ever heard of Ramsay being confused was when he was recruiting him out of West Catholic.

“He came to see West play and he went back to St. Joe’s and told the people there that he really liked me,” said Lynam. “He was talking about my shooting, saying I could get a shot off quickly and had great range. The other people were like, ‘Coach, the kid can’t shoot.’ Turned out he’d been watching Herb Magee.”

Ramsay won better than 75 percent of his games at St. Joseph’s, compiling a 234-72 record. The highlight and lowlight occurred almost simultaneously.

With Lynam as his point guard, the 1960-61 Hawks reached the only Final Four in school history. There they lost to Ohio State before winning an historic third-place consolation game over Utah, 127-120, in four overtimes.

That appearance, however, would later be vacated when three St. Joseph’s players — John Egan, Frank Majewski and Vince Kempton — were implicated in a widespread point-shaving scandal.

“It devastated him,” said Lynam. “In a lot of ways, he was a very simplistic person. The whole world of gambling and shady people was foreign to him. I don’t know that he’d have known what a point-spread was. His approach was that pure.”

The program recovered and with Guokas and Cliff Anderson, his 1965 team earned Sports Illustrated’s preseason No. 1 ranking. They stayed near the top of the AP Poll all season, winding up No. 3 after an East Regional loss to Duke.

But Ramsay’s ambition and intellectual curiosity guaranteed that he would seek bigger mountains to scale and in 1966, he left St. Joseph’s to become the GM of the 76ers. In his first season, Philadelphia, anchored by Chamberlain, won a then-record 68 games and the NBA championship.

Coach Alex Hannum departed following the 1967-68 season, and Ramsay, eager to return to the bench, replaced him. But, thanks in no small part to his trade of Chamberlain, the franchise slipped dramatically. Following four seasons on the bench, Ramsay left in 1972 to become the coach of the NBA’s Buffalo Braves.

“Dr. Jack Ramsay was a legendary figure in Philadelphia and a man whose passion and contributions to this city and the game of basketball will long be remembered,” said Sixers Chief Executive Officer Scott O’Neil in a statement on Monday. “He left an indelible mark on the basketball community — from the Big Five to our organization and throughout his storied career within the NBA.”

That 21-season NBA coaching career, in which he won 864 games and made 16 postseason appearances, also took him to Indiana and, most notably, Portland.

In 1976-77, with Bill Walton as his center, Ramsay’s Trail Blazers upset the 76ers in the NBA Finals.

“Some of the things defensively he brought from college to the NBA were really innovative,” said Lynam, who was an assistant in Portland. “But if you really look at those Portland teams, when Walton was still Walton, that was some of the best offensive play the league has ever seen.”

In Portland, his Zen-like approach to basketball and life was a good fit for the times and the town, and it appealed especially to the free-spirited Walton.

“Jack’s life has been a beacon which guides us all,” Walton said in 2007. “He is our moral compass, our spiritual inspiration. He represents the conquest of substance over hype.”

Following his coaching days, Ramsay became a broadcast analyst, first with the 76ers and later with the Miami Heat and ESPN. At ESPN, his nasal twang, insightful scrutiny, and colorful wardrobes him one of the network’s most familiar and popular basketball faces.

Those outfits, heavy on the bright plaids, became so associated with him that on Ramsay’s 89th birthday in February, current Portland coach Terry Stotts wore a similar outfit as a tribute to his dying predecessor.

Ramsay was elected to the Basketball Hall of Fame in 1992.

He caught the fitness bug in the Navy and maintained a rigorous workout routine for the rest of his life. He competed in marathons, in more than 20 triathlons and loved nothing more than a swim in the Atlantic or, after he relocated his main residence to Florida, the Gulf of Mexico.

“At 89, he was still swimming in the bay near his house,” said Lynam. “Up to his 70s, when he said he was going for a swim, he’d swim from Ocean City to Longport across open water.”

Diagnosed with melanoma in 2004, the cancer eventually turned up in his legs, lungs, brain, prostate and finally bone marrow. During his own physical battles, Ramsay often cared for his wife, Jean, who suffered from Alzheimer’s disease and died in 2010.

In 2009, St. Joseph’s named its new basketball facility — an upgrading and addition to Hagen Arena — the Ramsay Basketball Center. And last year, the coach’s son-in-law, ex-Sixers coach Jim O’Brien, endowed an education scholarship in Ramsay’s name.

A funeral Mass will take place Thursday at 11 a.m. at St. John’s the Evangelist Church in Naples, Fla. Plans for a viewing on Wednesday were pending.
 

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