Legendary Trail Blazer Coach Jack Ramsay succumbs to cancer

Legendary Trail Blazer Coach Jack Ramsay succumbs to cancer
April 28, 2014, 7:00 am
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Stotts talks legacy of Coach Ramsay

All due respect to Terry Stotts, Rick Adelman and all the others who came before and after him, but Portlanders lost their coach Monday morning.

Most people seemed to know him these days as "Doctor Jack."

But during his decade-long tenure as coach of the Portland Trail Blazers, I can't ever remember many people calling him that. Mostly, it was just "Jack."

The coach who brought Portland its only NBA championship, Jack Ramsay was known for paisley pants, loud sports jackets and a beautiful brand of basketball. Portland captured its only NBA title in 1976-77, Ramsay's first season in Portland. The following season Portland began 50-10 before injuries wiped out most of the starting lineup.

I began covering the NBA during the final stages of Ramsay's career in Portland. But what a coach to teach a young reporter about basketball. Probably the greatest I've ever been around.

Trail Blazer practices were open in those days. The team worked out at what's now called Mittleman Jewish Community Center. No fancy team practice facility at that time -- just a gym in southwest Portland. Ramsay didn't even attempt keeping the media out of practices -- or community center members, either. In fact, he'd pull a set of bleachers out of the wall for them to sit in during practice.

"I think the players play harder with people watching," he once told me. And he never had the sort of coaching paranoia or insecurity that would make him want to keep media out of there, either.

No matter how severe the loss the night before, Ramsay would bounce into that gym for practice and often lead the stretching exercises himself. An accomplished triathlete, he was more physically fit than most of his players. And there was always a smile the next morning -- as tough as he took losses, he was extremely resilient. The next day he was on to the next game.

And he was, at least at that point of his career, an incredible coach to cover. He wasn't consumed by basketball. He was a voracious reader and could speak on any topic, from the pop culture of the time to politics and religion. A dinner with him on the road on an off-night could take any turn, seldom dominated by basketball. He'd talk about anything you could think of -- and actually listen to what you had to say.

He was inclusive, too. A lot of nights, he'd make sure someone would call and invite me along to that dinner with coaches and broadcasters, which happened frequently on the road. He didn't want to leave anyone out. It was a chance to get away from the pressure of the game -- and in my case, he probably liked someone to tease and tweak. I remember once we were talking about the NBA Draft and I asked him, since the team always said it wanted to draft the "best athlete available," why it never took pro wrestler "Andre the Giant."

It was the only time I've ever seen him speechless. A year later, we saw Andre in the Phoenix airport, limping and way out of shape. He looked at me and frowned and I couldn't stop laughing. Yeah -- draft HIM!

In New York, we'd all catch a Broadway play or two if the team had an off-day. There were always things to do on the road and you'd also pay attention to whatever book he was reading at the time because it was probably a good one. He was so much more than a basketball coach.

"He wouldn't be drawing up plays," said his trusted athletic trainer with the Trail Blazers, Ron Culp. "The wins and losses mattered, but he wasn't consumed by basketball like so many other coaches. There was more to life for Jack than just bouncing a basketball."

His countenance could be stern and people often mistook him for a difficult man. I never found that. I believe him to be one of the happiest people I've ever met. A man who joined the Navy at 17 and was leading an underwater demolition team at 19, he was obviously tough-minded. Tough physically, too. But there was a big heart. On the court, he believed basketball to be more art than science.

In his first book, co-authored by Portlander John Strawn entitled "The Coach's Art," he talked about the way he perceived the game he loved:

What is this game that runs through my mind? It is a ballet, a graceful sweep and flow of patterned movement, counterpointed by daring and imaginative flights of solitary brilliance.

That "Doctor" thing wasn't just a respect for his basketball knowledge. Ramsay had a doctorate in education from St. Joseph's and knew how to lead and teach. He believed in a disciplined system that allowed for creativity from his players. Encouraged it, in fact. And his championship team, with fantastic ball movement, unselfish play and quick, smart decisions, was his masterpiece. It was a great TEAM -- not a group of talented individuals going their own way: The epitome of what the sport is supposed to showcase.

He was perfect for Portland. Obviously, the area offered him recreational opportunities -- lakes for swimming and plenty of room for his bicycling -- but there was something more. The people of Portland shared a love for NBA basketball that pleased Ramsay so much. He took great pride in coaching in a city that cared as much for the sport as he did -- yet had room, as he did, for other things.

And if Ramsay loved Portland, Portland loved him right back. There will never be another one like him -- here or anywhere else.

He died early Monday in Naples, Fla., at 89, after quietly fighting cancer on several fronts in the last several years of his life.