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The Doctor who won an NBA title: CHD remembers the legendary Dr. Jack Ramsay

By the end of this month either Steve Kerr or David Blatt will become the first rookie coach to lead their team to an NBA title since Pat Riley did it with the Lakers in 1982.  It usually takes coaches a much longer time to win the coveted ring, often with several years of experience as a college coach on their resume.  Dr. Jack Ramsay spent more than a decade as head coach at his alma mater of St. Joe’s, during which time he made seven trips to the NCAA tourney.  After leaving the college ranks he won an NBA title as GM of the 76ers in 1967, then won another title a decade later as coach of the Trail Blazers.  Dr. Jack passed away in 2014, but CHD’s Jon Teitel got to chat with both Jack’s son Chris and St. Joe’s athletic director Don DiJulia, who played for Dr. Jack,  about one man’s life, legacy, and love of the game.

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In 1955 your dad became coach at St. Joe’s: why did he take the job, and what did it mean to him to return to his alma mater? CR: My dad was teaching and coaching at a small high school in Delaware and making no money while also playing in the Eastern League. One summer he was offered a pair of tickets to a Phillies game and ran into the St. Joe’s moderator of athletics at the game.  He was offered the job as St. Joe’s head coach and said of course he would take it. He loved the school, both playing there and coaching there.

What are your memories of the 1959 NCAA tourney (Jerry West had 36 points and 15 rebounds in a 3-point win by eventual national runner-up West Virginia)? DD: That was notable for us having 4-5 guys foul out after having a big lead during the game. Joe Spratt was guarding West well before fouling out and then West had a huge game in the second half.

In the 1961 NCAA tourney Jerry Lucas had 29 points (10-11 fg/9-10 FT) and 13 rebounds in a win by eventual national runner-up Ohio State: where did that game rank among the greatest shooting performances you have ever seen? DD: The Final 4 that year was in Kansas City and it was a big deal because the Buckeyes were one of the top teams in the country. After we won the regional to go to the Final 4 Jack took off his jacket and swung it around and flung it into the stands. When he got into the locker room and the players asked where their meal money was, he had to run back to the court because their money was in his jacket pocket!

He had a 7-point 4-OT win over Utah in the third place game, which tied the record for the longest game in Division-1 tourney history: was that the most intense game he was ever a part of, and how was he able to keep his team focused the entire time? DD: I do not know if it was the most intense ever but it is certainly near the top the list. He was able to remain calm and stay poised at all times and transfer that confidence to his players.

What are your memories of the 1963 NCAA tourney (Bill Bradley scored 40 points and made all 16 of his free throw in a 1-point overtime loss by Princeton)? DD: That was here in Philly at the Palestra. It was almost a big upset but “Dollar Bill” controlled the game. We celebrated the 50th anniversary of that team in 2013 and Jack’s recall of the team was like it was yesterday. There were only 10 players on the team that year but 8 of the 10 had played in the same high school league in Philly: the two foreigners were from Cherry Hill (NJ) and Jenkintown (PA).

What are your memories of the 1965 NCAA tourney (Toby Kimball had 21 points and 29 rebounds in a 6-point win over UConn)? DD: I happened to be on that team: our only regular season loss was to Providence and we met them again in the tourney…and lost to them again. Back then all the regionals were in the south unlike today. Providence was amazing and favored to win it all before they were upset by Princeton.

What are your memories of the 1966 NCAA tourney (Jack Marin had 18 points/15 rebounds in a 2-point win by Duke)? DD: They just shot the lights out against us down in Charlotte, but I do not recall us griping about any home-court refs. Marin and Bob Verga were both great. Ramsay did not aspire to go to the NBA: he just had to resign due to some eye issues. His greatest attribute was inspiring his team to be confident against any opponent they faced. He was very intense: he was a fitness-conscious person who had us do a lot of drills and he studied training theories from around the world to help build our stamina and conditioning. After practice he would call one of us over to play 1-on-1 with him: if we happened to get ahead then the game would be prolonged because he wanted to win every possession. We did not realize until later how hard it was to be a father of five and get his PhD at Penn: it was an amazing feat!

In his first year as GM of the 76ers in 1967 the team won 45 of its first 49 games en route to a then-all-time-best 68-13 record, and was later voted the best team in NBA history as part of the NBA’s 35th-anniversary celebration in 1980: why did he decide to take the job, and what made that team so phenomenal? CR: He left St. Joe’s because he had a problem with his eyes: the doctors told him it was due to too much stress in his life. He was looking around for something else to do and one of the 76ers part-owners had passed away and the main owner was looking for a new GM.

They beat the Celtics in five games to get to the 1967 NBA Finals: how were they able to dethrone the 8-time defending champions? CR: The team really came together that year after always struggling against Boston. Wilt played great and Alex Hannum did a great job coaching a team of stars like Billy Cunningham, Hal Greer, etc.

They beat San Francisco to win the title: what did it mean to him to win a title? CR: He was very proud of the team even though he was not coaching. It was his first year in his first job in pro basketball so he really enjoyed it, but he was more of a consultant to Hannum and did not want to meddle too much.

What are your memories of the 1968 NBA playoffs (Boston had a 4-point win in Game 7 of the Eastern Division Finals, becoming the first NBA team to ever come back from a 3–1 deficit in the playoffs)? CR: It was a real letdown for the team and a big disappointment.

In 1968 he traded away Hall of Famer Wilt Chamberlain, the first time a reigning NBA MVP was traded the season after being named MVP: how good was Wilt the previous season (becoming the first and only center in NBA history to lead the league in assists), and why did he decide to trade him? CR: The way the story was told to me is that nobody back then had a long-term contract. Wilt approached my dad and said that if Hannum did not come back then he wanted to be a player-coach just like Bill Russell in Boston while letting my dad handle the Xs and Os. Wilt disappeared to LA for the summer and after my dad checked in Wilt demanded to be traded to the Lakers or else he would just join the ABA. I think my dad was very disappointed that he was not going to be able to keep Wilt and coach him.

What are your memories of Game three of the 1976 NBA first round when he was coach of the Buffalo Braves (Bob McAdoo had 34 points/22 rebounds and made two free throws at the end of regulation while a fan shook the basket support in a 1-point overtime win over his former team to clinch the series)? CR: That is a true story: you can watch the video on YouTube! It was a very close game that went down to the wire in Philly and the fans were shaking the basket back and forth. The refs stopped the game and told the fans to stop, then the ref immediately gave the ball to McAdoo and he was somehow able to knock down the FTs.

What are your memories of Game 6 of the 1977 NBA Finals when he was coach of Portland (George McGinnis missed a jump shot with four seconds left in a 2-point loss by the 76ers as he won the title in his very first season there)? CR: I talked to my dad during training camp and he was really excited about the team. I was skeptical because the Blazers were a young expansion team who had never even made the playoffs but he thought they could win it all that year. They came together quickly and bought into my dad’s system. They had a good regular season but had a great run in the playoffs. Game 6 was very tense in the final  three minutes as Philly tried to make a comeback and there was a sense of relief when the clock finally ran out: I do not know if they could have held them off for another 30 seconds.  It was the highlight of his career.

In his second season with the Blazers he started 50-10 before Bill Walton broke his foot: how devastating was that injury, and do you think he would have defended his title if Bill had stayed healthy? CR: It was a crushing injury for the whole team and all the fans because it was going so great before it all came crashing down.

He finished his coaching career in 1989 with 864 wins (at the time the 2nd-most ever behind Red Auerbach) and in 1992 he was inducted into the Hall of Fame: do you consider him to be one of the best coaches in NBA history, and what did it mean to him to get inducted? CR: I think he was one of the greatest coaches of all time. When you look at his career in college and the pros you can see that he got the most out of every team that he coached. I consider him a great teacher and an innovator: he came up with a lot of stuff that had never been done before.

Your dad passed away in 2014: when people look back on his career, how do you think he should be remembered the most? CR: He had a PhD in education from Penn so I look back on him as a teacher: he loved to teach the game of basketball. Even after he left the NBA he traveled all around the world with Hubie Brown, Calvin Murphy, Bill Walton to conduct coaching clinics. All of the coaches who attended the clinics would go back to their club or national teams and hand down the instructions they received. Some people credit that foursome for elevating the level of basketball players around the world.

JonTeitel