It was an off-day, early in the 1976-77 season. Portland coach Jack Ramsay flew to San Francisco to watch the Golden State Warriors play the Philadelphia 76ers. When he returned to his team, he was excited about what he'd learned.
If basketball outcomes were decided on talent alone, Philadelphia's lineup of Julius Erving, George McGinnis, World B. Free, Doug Collins & Co. could level anyone. But Ramsay saw some weaknesses. They were not a team, he decided. Their habit of loping back on defense often lapsed, selfishly, into one-on-one play. He thought his quintet could turn the tables on them in a running, passing game. He was right.
The next night Philadelphia arrived in Portland. Ramsay's troops carried out his battle plan and buried Philly. "I remember looking up at the scoreboard and saying 'Are we ahead by 40?'" he said. The Blazers won 146-104. After enjoying the victory with his team in the locker room, he could barely contain his high spirits. He walked outside, drinking in the crisp night air.
"I thought we could win it all," he recalled thinking.
In one night of scouting he had gained an edge that he wielded like a trump card. In six years in the NBA, Portland had never won a playoff series or even finished .500. Ramsay won a title in his first season there.
The big question in evaluating coaches is: Did he make his teams better? With Ramsay the answer was "yes" more often than not.
All told, he won 864 games in the pros and 234 in college and was inducted to the Basketball Hall of Fame in 1992. As part of the NBA's 50th anniversary in 1996, he was voted one of the 10 greatest coaches in league history.
Since he was a boy growing up in Milford, Conn., Jack Ramsay's life involved sports. "I was playing sports all the time and my parents, Anne and John, encouraged me to play in grade school and high school," he said. "My mother was very strong on me to go to college. No one had ever been to college, including my parents."
His family moved to a Philadelphia suburb and Jack attended Upper Darby High School. He played basketball, baseball and soccer in high school, paring it down to the first two at St. Joseph's College, where his time was interrupted by three years of service in the Navy. In his senior year at St. Joe's, the 1948-49 season, he also played baseball for coach Pep Young, who had played on the great Detroit Tigers teams in the 1920s and 1930s with Ty Cobb. "But I was not Major League caliber," Ramsay said.
But he was good enough to play professional basketball in the old Eastern Pennsylvania Basketball League, which fielded teams in towns like Harrisburg, Williamsport, Lancaster and Sunbury. In his second season, Ramsay, playing guard, was the second-leading scorer for the Harrisburg Senators. In all, he played six seasons for Harrisburg and Sunbury, averaging 14 points.
"It was very competitive," Ramsay said. "They paid about $50 a game; some guys got less and some more." Ramsay supplemented his playing by coaching at St. James High School in Pennsylvania and then Mount Pleasant High School in Delaware.