Jack Ramsay, Portland perfect match
PORTLAND, Ore. -- There were trails where he could ride his bike and plenty of lakes to swim in. You could run anywhere, in an area that was jogging-crazy. For a serious weekend triathlete, this was the perfect place.
But that wasn't the only reason Jack Ramsay treasured Portland. This, too, was a place that loved NBA basketball, and loved it a lot more after Ramsay delivered a championship in 1977.
And it was the place where Ramsay, a coaching artist, found the perfect canvas for his masterpiece.
The Renaissance man
He was a great coach, a leader of men who deftly used his doctorate in education from Penn to lead pro basketball players, guys who never even knew he had played the game at St. Joe's. In fact, in those Portland days, from 1976 to 1986, he was seldom known as "Dr. Jack" -- just Coach Ramsay or Jack.
As in jack-of-all-trades, I always thought. He was a Renaissance man, a coach unlike any I've ever met before or since in any sport. Being a young Portland reporter, learning from Ramsay was an incredible experience.
During the game, he often coached from a spot in front of the bench, one knee resting on a towel. His sport coats and plaid pants were louder than the 12,666 fans who packed old Memorial Coliseum for every game. His stern visage belied the very happy, secure man inside. As much as he loved basketball, he had other interests. He never let the game consume him.
There were no charter flights in those days, and so media and the team traveled together on commercial airlines. It was a different time, and relationships were forged in those days unlike anything today. On road trips, he'd often be found at dinner, deep in discussions with the team's radio broadcasters, his assistant coaches, the trainer and even a sportswriter. The conversations might start with basketball but then often moved to politics, history or simply the events of the day. He was a listener, too, which is a skill not always common among his brethren.
"We'd go to dinner and you wouldn't see him drawing up plays on a napkin," said his trusted athletic trainer at the time, Ron Culp, who later served the Miami Heat. "Wins and losses made a difference, but they didn't dominate his life like a lot of other coaches. There was more to life for Jack than just the bouncing ball."
When we'd have an off day in New York, Ramsay would arrange for Culp to grab tickets to a Broadway show. In other towns, there were museums to see or music to hear. The memories of those off nights on the road with Jack burn brightly for all those who shared them. Dave Twardzik, a starting guard on the championship team who went on to serve as the team's radio analyst for a spell, remembers them fondly.
"As good of a coach as he was, he was a better person," said Twardzik, who now works at Old Dominion, his alma mater. "I loved being around him off the court. He had a tremendous sense of humor. The demeanor you saw on the sidelines was nothing like what you saw off the court."
Culp said, "[He had] a great sense of humor -- I learned a billion things from him, but the best thing I learned was an ability to laugh at myself."
Even with a great sense of humor and resiliency, Ramsay took losses hard. Sometimes very hard. He was legendary for his long walks after tough games.
"One night we played the Detroit Pistons when they were still downtown, in Cobo Hall," Culp said. "It was in kind of a rough neighborhood.
"Jack was a great walker after losses. And his walk was more like a jog for anyone else. We lost, so he wanted to walk back to the hotel. So we're walking down the street and some guy jumps out of the back of a station wagon carrying a spare tire.
"He'd just stolen it out of that guy's car. Anyway, the guy starts running with the tire and goes down a dark alley. Jack looks at me and says, 'Let's get him.'
"In Detroit at midnight and chasing a guy down a back alley? I looked at Jack and said, 'Are you nuts?'"
On the court, Ramsay saw basketball more as art than science. In fact, his first book, co-written with Portlander John Strawn, was called "The Coach's Art."
In it, you could find a simple assessment of the way he envisioned basketball:
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.
"As a coach, he has forgotten more than most coaches will ever know," Twardzik said. "He was very secure in himself. We had a system, of course, but he gave you the freedom to play outside the system -- but not to the point of being selfish.
"And he was secure enough that we'd be in a timeout and say, 'We're going to run a fist-out' and if somebody said, 'Coach, I think we can make a two-out work,' he'd go with that. He'd trust you and give you that freedom."
For many, including Bill Walton, Ramsay's teams represented basketball artistry and creativity at its very finest.
The 1976-77 Trail Blazers forever won the hearts of Portlanders with scintillating basketball. It was Ramsay's first season in Portland and the expansion team's first trip to the playoffs.
A healthy Walton was the hub of it all, as Ramsay put him often at the high post, where he was a threat to shoot, drive or pass to backdoor cutters.
Twardzik, Lionel Hollins and Johnny Davis were quick, smart guards who could score and pass. Up front, Maurice Lucas was the bodyguard -- rebounding, defending and keeping other teams from roughing up Walton or Bobby Gross, the perpetual-motion small forward.
The 1977 NBA Finals matched the team-first Trail Blazers against the star-studded Philadelphia 76ers, a group that appeared destined to win the title behind stars such as Julius Erving, George McGinnis, Henry Bibby, World B. Free, Darryl Dawkins, Doug Collins, Caldwell Jones and even Kobe Bryant's father, Joe.
The Sixers took the first two games before Portland roared back to win the next four and a championship. It remains the touchstone of Rip City basketball, the one and only NBA championship in the city's history.
Rise and fall
Probably only Portland residents remember the following season. The Trail Blazers jumped off to a 50-10 start. Ramsay's system -- and the creativity it sparked among the players -- was running on all cylinders during that time, as pretty a picture as you'd ever want to see on a basketball court.
When unselfishness collides head-on with intelligence and talent, the results can be electrifying. And this was.
But injuries to key players -- Walton, first and foremost -- derailed that team, and just as the big center never recovered, neither did the team.
Toward the end, it got tougher for the coach, and it didn't help that in 1984, the team passed up Michael Jordan in the draft for Sam Bowie.
Ramsay was ever the optimist, though, even in those tough times. When the team traded a huge package to Denver for Kiki VanDeWeghe, Ramsay was excited about the possibilities. When VanDeWeghe scored 47 points at Kansas City in his first game as a Trail Blazer, Ramsay was beaming in the locker room after the game.
"He didn't force anything," Ramsay said at the time. "It was all so easy."
When Bowie arrived, the coach was effusive in his praise. While he didn't see the next Bill Walton, he certainly knew he had a center who could block shots, run the floor and pass -- which was perfect for his system. But it never worked out as well as planned. Injuries struck again. Ramsay departed Portland after the 1985-86 season when his contract was not renewed.
The legend and his legacy
That didn't change his legacy in Portland. He returned here many times, either as a broadcaster or to be honored or help honor others for their career with the Trail Blazers.
You could tell he loved his broadcasting career, when he was the professorial TV and radio man -- Dr. Jack -- on ESPN and in Miami for a whole new generation of NBA fans.
"He just loved the NBA," Twardzik said. "His eyes would just light up every time he walked into an arena."
He'll be forever loved in Portland, where the team, involved in a hot playoff series against Houston, plans to honor him soon.
A banner with the number 77 already hangs in the Moda Center rafters for him -- a number signifying the year of the Blazers' title run, the year that made him an NBA and local legend forever.
With all due respect to Terry Stotts, Rick Adelman, P.J. Carlesimo and all those who came before and after Jack Ramsay, this must be said:
Portland Trail Blazers fans lost their coach Monday. And there will never be another one like him.
Dwight Jaynes (@dwightjaynes) has covered the Trail Blazers for more than three decades. He now writes for CSNNW.com.