Remembering Jack Ramsay (1925-2014)

Jack Ramsay

In 1978, Larry Colton was writing a book about the Portland Trailblazers as part of a trilogy of basketball books commissioned by local publisher Timber Press. Team President Harry Glickman, who acquired Portland's NBA franchise rights, was going to write an autobiographical account of his experience promoting events in Portland, then regarded as a remote outpost far from the main line of American professional sports. "Promoter's Not a Dirty Word" was echt Harry, clever and generous and candid, illuminating the strategic planning and tactical execution required to persuade people to part with their cash to watch NFL teams play exhibition games at Civic Stadium. Colton would write Idol Time, a quirky and intimate look at Portland's unlikely and unexpected championship team of 1976-77 as it prepared for a run toward a second title in 1977-78, the season which would be derailed after a fabulous start by Bill Walton's fragile feet. And Jack Ramsay, the professorial coach of the Blazers, famous for his plaid pants and his furrowed brow, was under contract to write a book about his approach to the game, to be titled The Coach's Art. When he realized as his deadline approached that getting the book done was going to be tough, given the demands on a championship coach's time, Ramsay asked Colton if he knew of someone who could help him finish the manuscript. Larry suggested me, so in August of 1978, I drove down to Salem, where the team had started its pre-season training camp, to meet with Coach Jack. 

I had met him briefly once before, when Tom Bates, then the editor of Oregon Times, had commissioned me to interview Ramsay right after he was named as the Blazers' coach. I loved the way Ramsay's teams played, especially the speedy, high-scoring jump-shooting Buffalo Braves of Bob McAdoo and Randy Smith. I knew of Ramsay's complicated tenure as GM and coach of the 76ers in his home town of Philadelphia, where a trade of Wilt Chamberlain was the catalyst for the team's downward spiral, but I was excited about the brand of ball he would be bringing to Portland. The Trailblazers' first season coincided with my moving to Portland, so I had always felt a kind of natal bond to the team. But what I remember most about that first meeting was how gracious Ramsay was, and how precise and thorough his responses were to questions he was probably answering for the four thousandth time.

When we met in Salem, I was also running a small construction company and writing free-lance articles for the local alternative press. Jack was a little skeptical of my bona fides, but when our conversation segued from basketball to larger subjects, his doubts lifted, and he asked me to help him with the book. That started a friendship which I have cherished for almost four decades, even though I saw very little of Jack during much of that time. As much as I liked Jack, I admired him even more. He was a generation older than I am, but he was always engaged in the present, always eager to learn, and always curious about what I was interested in. 

The book was constructed in what I imagine is typical ghost-writer fashion, with Jack dictating his thoughts, having them transcribed, and sending them on to me for shaping into a narrative. The book was narrowly focused on Jack's approach to coaching, and how his ideas had been perfectly translated into practice by his current Blazers' team, who were executing Jack's style with precision and flair. Most people who witnessed the '77-'78 team at its peak regard it as the finest team ever to play, and there is an enduring sadness, which Jack carried, too, that it was cut down during its prime. (David Halberstam's best seller, The Breaks of the Game, explores the effects of that team's downfall.) But working on The Coach's Art was a bit of a disappointment to me, because Jack was not interested in any personal revelations, and I was hoping to learn what really went on behind the scenes—why did you really trade Wilt? But it was Jack's book, and a perfect summation of his attitude toward his life's work: thoroughly professional, learned without any dogmatism, rigorous without rigidity. Personal stuff was irrelevant if the game was played well. The style of Jack's game was fluid—the players flowed according to principles designed to maximize their opportunity for success. It was the way Jack lived—disciplined, precise, well—planned and painstaking. Little was left to chance, but no worry was expended on matters over which he had no control.

I never met anyone who I admired or respected more than Jack. From 1978 until 1986, when he left Portland to coach the Indiana Pacers, I spent lots of time with Jack. I was writing an NBA column for Willamette Week. We rode our bikes together to the coast, to Jack's wonderful house in Cannon Beach. Wearing my contractor's hat, I remodeled his house in Lake Oswego, building a balcony off the second floor master bedroom so he could look out onto the lake where he enjoyed taking vigorous swims. In 1979, I mentioned to Jack that I was training for a mini-triathlon at Hagg Lake, and he entered, too, discovering the ideal sport for his competitive urges. He was a Navy Seal, after all, as comfortable in the water as on the hardwood. He was a world-class triathloner in his 70s. The only time I ever heard Jack talk about his Seal experience, though, was when he came to Wordstock in 2011 to celebrate Larry Colton's No Ordinary Joes, a book about submariners of Jack's generation. His admiring take on Larry's book was very effecting, precisely because it was personal. Jack only rarely spoke about himself or his feelings. He had trained hard for two years as part of the US Navy's Underwater Demolition Team # 30, he explained, expecting to participate in an invasion of Japan. He was twenty years old when the atomic bomb made his martial skills redundant, and he spoke movingly of the disappointment that young man he was felt at not being able to make the sacrifice he was prepared for.

Jack was at the apex of his profession when I knew him best, sought after and admired, but he never lorded over anyone—apart, perhaps, from the players under his charge, who he expected to devote the same focus and dedication to basketball which he brought to the game. He thought a team always reflected its coach's character, so if a team performed below his expectations, it was impossible for him not to take it personally. It's why he took those famous post-loss sojourns into the night, wrapped in anguish. Losses really hurt, however ephemeral they might be in the greater scheme of things. But no matter how preoccupied he was with preparing his team, Jack always had time for other coaches—and every time I witnessed this, I was impressed and amazed. It might have been a junior varsity coach in a rural Oregon high school, or a college coach, it didn't matter.

Whenever another coach introduced himself—or herself—to Jack, his reaction was always the same. He would shake hands, look him in the eye, and answer his question. No patronizing, no suggestion that his interlocutor might not understand the nuances of his reply, but rather a considered, personalized response. Jack brought dignity to his profession, and honored it with his solemnity and decency. I don't mean to suggest that Jack wasn't fun to be around. He had an energetic laugh and a beaming smile, and enjoyed the pleasures of life as much as he acknowledged the sorrowful costs of losing when you've given it your all. It hurts worse that way maybe than playing it safe would, but winning when the stakes are high vindicates the suffering.

When Jack left for Indiana, he sold his house on the coast. He had invited my wife and me to stay there on a couple of occasions. There were a pair of paintings hanging above the bed in the master suite which my wife admired. Jack had bought the house furnished, so knew nothing about the art. But on a bright summer evening in 1986, there was a knock on the door. When I opened it, there stood Jack Ramsay, the celebrated NBA coach, grinning in greeting. He was carrying those paintings from his beach house, a gift to Constance. They hang in a different house now, a daily reminder of a man whose example helped me define my own path through life. Jack Ramsay was not just a hall of fame basketball coach, he was a great man, who lived a life of purpose, dignity and grace. 

WWeek 2015

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