PHILADELPHIA — The Hawk may never die, but the man most responsible for St. Joseph’s University’s rich basketball heritage proved to be mortal after all.
Jack Ramsay, a cerebral hoops master who built a legend as he ascended through the world of Philadelphia basketball, bred a generation of coaching disciples and won NBA titles as both a general manager and coach, died Sunday night in Naples, Fla., at 89.
Ramsay, who tackled cancer with the same zeal he expended on his personal fitness, was diagnosed with the disease more than a decade ago and recently had stepped away from his longtime role as an ESPN analyst.
“The world is full of copycats,” said Jim Lynam, who played for Ramsay at St. Joseph’s and coached with him in the NBA. “The innovators are those who separate themselves. And Jack Ramsay was an innovator.”
Though his reputation was formed in the Philadelphia area — at Chester’s St. James and Wilmington’s Mount Pleasant high schools; at his alma mater, St. Joseph’s, and as the NBA champion 76ers rookie GM in 1967 — the second half of Ramsay’s colorful life played out far from his hometown.
Most notably, he guided the Portland Trail Blazers to the 1976-77 NBA title, an event that transformed that Oregon city into a pro basketball hotbed. Then at commissioner David Stern’s urging, he traveled the world, broadening the sport’s appeal. And a late-life broadcasting career with ESPN made him an iconic figure nationally.
Through it all, he maintained a residence in Ocean City, N.J., where, after his morning-Mass ritual, the physical-fitness fanatic could often be seen jogging on the beach or swimming in the Atlantic Ocean.
A natty dresser, a marathon and triathlon competitor, a fiercely devoted family man and Catholic, Ramsay, his former players insisted, possessed a spiritual aura.
“He could look at you with those eyes and get through to you,” said Don DiJulia, the St. Joseph’s athletic director who played for Ramsay in the early 1960s. “He was so genuine, such a good family man and so faith-focused, that his players instinctively sensed that.”
Known widely as “Dr. Jack”, for the doctorate in education he earned at the University of Pennsylvania in 1963, Ramsay brought an intellectual approach to what, when he began playing, was a gritty, often brutal sport.
He scouted intensely and his competitive nature led him to constantly seek an edge. With the Trail Blazers, for example, he studied the techniques of Soviet high jumpers, hoping it would improve his big men’s leaping ability.
“The next day,” recalled Lynam of the day the Trail Blazers tried the drills, “they could barely walk. But that was Jack. He was always investigating something.”
Ironically, for all the fame and success he accrued in the sport, Ramsay figures to be as well-remembered for two historic gaffes in which he played a prominent role.
Before the 1968-69 season, by then also the 76ers coach, he dealt Wilt Chamberlain to the Lakers after the enigmatic superstar demanded a trade.
“I never traded Wilt,” Ramsay often said in his own defense. “He traded himself.”
Then in 1984, with the second choice in the NBA draft, Ramsay chose 7-foot-2 Kentucky center Sam Bowie for Portland instead of Michael Jordan.
The decision has lived in sports infamy. Bowie’s career would be short-circuited by injuries while Jordan led the Bulls to six NBA titles and is widely viewed as one of the sport’s all-time greats. Ramsay always insisted he’d make the same choice again since his team’s most pressing need was a dominant center.
It was at his alma mater, St. Joseph’s, between 1955 and 1966, where Ramsay burst onto the national scene, leading the Hawks to 10 postseason appearances in 11 seasons and helping make the Big 5 into a unique and wildly popular Philadelphia institution.
There he developed both a pipeline of coaches — some of whom, like Lynam, Westhead, Matt Guokas Jr. and Jack McKinney, followed him to the NBA — and a killer zone press that confounded opponents.
In 2009, St. Joseph’s named its new basketball facility — an upgrading and addition to Hagen Arena — the Ramsay Basketball Center. And last year, the coach’s son-in-law, ex-Sixers coach Jim O’Brien, endowed an education scholarship in Ramsay’s name.
A funeral Mass will take place Thursday at 11 a.m. at St. John’s the Evangelist Church in Naples, Fla. Plans for a viewing on Wednesday were pending.