Jack Ramsay, one of the Founding Fathers of the Big 5, was one of the most successful coaches in the history of basketball and, at 82 after battling cancer, his voice, in an interview for an article in PHILLY SPORT in 2006 that is reprinted here, was as deliberate and his attitude as upbeat as it was 50 years ago
By Theodore N. Beitchman
Nine thousand screaming fanatics are in full throat at the Palestra, yet none is heard more clearly than The Voice.
“See the ball!” “See the ball!” “See the Ball.”
And almost like clockwork the team in crimson and gray springs into action, focusing like a laser beam, challenging the opposition’s right to move the ball upcourt as effectively as a police car’s siren challenges a driver who is weaving in and out of lanes on the Schuylkill Expressway.
The zone press was a fairly obscure defense back in the 1950s and 1960s. The only other team of note to use it effectively was a state school from west Los Angeles coached by a wizard named Wooden, and most teams responded to it like Superman responded to Kryptonite. They lost all ability to bring the ball upcourt, either on a 10-second violation or a desperate pass.
The chief local proponent of the zone press— a lean, bald, intense scholar of the court — would raise his arms in victory with each passing turnover. Then — in his trademark worsted suit with the middle button always buttoned, his argyle socks and penny loafers — he would whistle to get his team’s attention and call out an offensive play.
Welcome to the Big 5 in its heyday, when St. Joseph’s, Penn, Villanova, Temple and LaSalle regularly drew sellouts to the barn on 33rd street, which was and is the home of the Quakers and the bane of the brave who visited to play one of the Big 5.
This was before the NCAA tournament was named March Madness, and only 25 teams made the dance every year, so each game had more importance than they do today.
And each game seemingly meant more to The Voice, even more than Penn’s Jack McCloskey, Villanova’s Jack Kraft, Temple’s Harry Litwack or LaSalle’s Dudie Moore. It is not an accident that the watchword at 54th and City Line has always been, “The Hawk Will Never Die!”
If Jack Ramsay is not The Godfather of Big 5 basketball, he is assuredly one of its Founding Fathers. And although it has been 48 years since he last bellowed from the Palestra sidelines and 37 years since his Portland Trail Blazers skunked the Sixers in the NBA Finals, a telephone conversation in mid-February 2006 from his home in Naples, Fla., shows that Ramsay — a cancer survivor who at 82 is two years older than the Palestra — still possesses The Voice.
“That was a great period in Philadelphia sports,” Ramsay says of the Big 5 during his salad days. And he says it in his quintessential manner — at once deliberate and filled with certitude.
“The Big 5 had just started, and all five teams had fine coaches and we were all able to draw players from within the city and the suburbs of Philadelphia. Of course, this was before ESPN glorified talent the way it has now.”
Beginning with its inception in 1979, ESPN shined the spotlight on college basketball’s most glamorous college programs, and it wasn’t long before the inner city kids who had been ticketed for one of the Big 5 schools longed for UCLA or Kansas or Duke or Arizona. But when Ramsay became the Hawks’ coach in 1955, Philadelphia college basketball was like a religion and the catechism was shaped by the Catholic League, which was exemplified by tough defense, discipline, ball control and a strict adherence to fundamentals.
Ramsay inherited a Hawk team that had gone 12-14 the year before, and he, with essentially the same players, turned in a 23-6 record, which earned a spot in the National Invitation Tournament, then regarded as every bit the equal of the NCAA tournament. In addition, the Hawks swept the Big 5 crown. The legend was born.
Ramsay was born John T. Ramsay on Catherine Street in southwest Philadelphia, and his family moved to Connecticut — “my dad used to take me to Yale basketball games — that’s all there was where we lived” he remembers — until Jack was in the 10th grade, when they moved to Upper Darby.
“I was a 6-foot-tall, 150-pound guard, and we didn’t have a bad team,” Ramsay says. “Carson Thompson was the coach and he did a good job with us but we had the misfortune of playing Lower Merion, which went on to win the state championship.”
World War II had just broken out and Ramsay enlisted in the Navy, which sent him to San Diego as an officer in the Underwater Demolition Teams, a forerunner of the SEALS. Oh, yes, he also found time to play amateur basketball for the San Diego Dons.
Mustered out in 1946, Ramsay enrolled at St. Joseph’s, where he made captain of the team and was voted all-city twice. “That’s where I caught the coaching bug,” Ramsay remembers. “Our coach, Bill Ferguson, knew I was thinking about it. We had played a national schedule — UCLA, Arkansas, Utah State, Texas — as well as the tough city schools, and the coaches had a great influence on me and the rest of the team.”
And fate, as it often does, clarified Ramsay’s decision to become a coach.
“Midway through my senior season, I got low-bridged in a game against Western Kentucky and hit my head on the floor, causing a concussion. I sat out the rest of the year.”
After graduation Ramsay snagged the head coaching job at St. James in Chester, a small Catholic League school with a smattering of basketball talent.
“It was a difficult transition,” Ramsay admits. “I got my ears pinned back … the Catholic League was so tough! I went to clinics and watched game films of the most recent NCAA championship games, and I read everything I could get my hands on.
“Pete Newell was the coach at San Francisco and then Michigan State and Cal, and he was the first guy who put down on paper what I wanted to teach as a coach. He was very disciplined and his teams played a tough zone press. That was what I wanted to play. Pete was a great teacher — a real cerebral guy.”
So is Ramsay. After getting his BA from St. Joe’s, he got a masters in education from Penn in 1952 and a masters in education from Penn in 1963.
But it was on the court where Ramsay truly became a master. “I called the coach at PMC [then Pennsylvania Military College, now Widener University]. He was using the zone press, and I wanted our kids to see what it was like. This was a college, of course, and the kids were older and we got our ears waxed. But it was a good lesson for my kids, and they learned a lot.”
Ramsay’s record at St. James — 26-40 — was nothing to write home about, but he got a job at Mt. Pleasant High in Wilmington, where he went 40-18 in three years. That caught the attention of George Bertelsman, the St. Joe’s AD who had just helped to form the Big 5, and who needed a new coach to replace the retiring John McMenamin.
It was an 11-year marriage made in Hawk Heaven:
• 234 wins, which pales in comparison to the totals of Dean Smith and Bobby Knight and Herb Magee, whose season averages are in the Ramsay range of 21-plus;
• 10 postseason appearances, including a Final Four appearance in 1961, in which the Hawks finished third before it was discovered that three team members had been implicated in a point-shaving scandal — “The worst moment of my life was when I heard about those three kids,” he says;
• 7 Big 5 championships — “In those days the Big 5 games and the city series title were huge … bragging rights meant a lot more then they do today,” Ramsay says;
• Sports Illustrated chose the Hawks its preseason No. 1 team in December 1965, and they finished No. 3 in the country.
SI chose St. Joe’s that year on the heels of UCLA’s second straight national title victory, employing the same zone press that Ramsay had employed the year before to go 26-3. And it was that 1964-65 team that holds a special place in Ramsay’s heart.
“That team was my favorite,” Ramsay says in a rare show of emotion that could be discerned over the 1,000-mile conversation. Ramsay is ultimately a teacher, and to ask him to favor one of his students over another is anathema. But he did go on a bit.
“That team was made up of a lot of solid players — Clifford Anderson, Billy Oakes, Marty Ford and Tom Duff. But when Matty [Guokas] transferred from Miami we had the final piece of the puzzle.”
That team also included Dom DiJulia, who is now the St. Joe AD, and it had the element in common that Ramsay is perhaps proudest of: “They were all city kids,” he says. Anderson, the 6-4 center, came from the Public League, and the others from the Catholic League. And that meant that they were disciplined and focused on what emanated from The Voice.
The ’63-’64 Hawk team had gone a respectable 18-10, but Ramsay wanted to put the screws to his opponents with a zone press that utilized the athletic skills of all five players, but especially a long-armed, quick man in the middle who would create chaos and lots of turnovers.
“The summer between that team and the ’64-’65 season, I met John Wooden at a clinic in Asbury Park,” Ramsay says, “He had just won his first NCAA title with a team just like ours — small but quick, including Walt Hazzard from Overbrook. And he mentioned to me that his team and St. Joe’s were the only teams in the country using the zone press.” UCLA had Keith Erickson as the middle of the press, and Ramsay had Guokas, who was 6-6, slim as a rail and cat-quick. And Guokas’ addition made the Hawks a force few teams could reckon with:
They ripped off 10 straight wins to start the season, including a win over No.2-ranked Wichita State in the finals of the Quaker City Tournament. Shocker coach Gary Thompson was so outraged by what he thought was one-sided officiating that he vowed never to come back to the Palestra.
The only regular season loss was to Providence, and among their 26 wins was the immortal “bomb scare” game against Villanova, which was arguably the toughest ticket in the history of the Big 5 — both St. Joe’s and Villanova finished in the season-ending Associated Press Top 10, the only year two city schools achieved that. Someone called in a bomb scare at halftime and the 9,000-plus fans had to evacuate the Palestra into single-digit weather.
After losing again to Providence in the NCAAs, Ramsay posted a 24-5 record in 1965-66, and had to resign from coaching because of an eye ailment brought on by the stress that he imposed on himself.
Two seasons as 76ers general manager followed, and in 1968, Ramsay became one of the first college coaches to make the jump to the NBA, bringing a different mindset to coaching. He introduced the zone press and won a lot of games with it — 55 his first year as Sixers coach.
“When I was a high-school coach, I thought college coaching was the be-all and end-all,” Ramsay said. “I still thought that when I first started college coaching. But then I noticed the [NBA] was changing. There was better team play. You could get a feel that coaching was becoming important in the NBA.”
Ramsay also coached the Buffalo Braves and Indiana Pacers but his greatest coaching moment came in the 1976-77 season when he not only took the Portland Trail Blazers to their first playoffs, but won the NBA championship in six games over the Sixers of Julius Erving, George McGinnis, Darryl Dawkins, World B. Free and Doug Collins.
The Sixers were a high-wire act that was as undisciplined as it was woefully coached by Gene Shue. The Blazers were a Catholic League team writ large — read: Bill Walton and Maurice Lucas with Bobby Gross playing the Guokas role in the zone press— with the court savvy that only Ramsay could impart. However, the Sixers won the first two games in Philly.
“We were really nervous, very edgy in Game 1,” said Ramsay, who says he remembers almost every game — high school, college, NBA — in which he ever played or coached. “The team had never been in the playoffs before and suddenly they’re in the Finals and it looked like we were running in sand.
“Julius was quoted as saying, ‘Portland needs some new plays. They’re running the same plays all the time.’ Well, we didn’t change anything, we started playing the way we knew how to play. The same emphasis on defense, rebounding, running the floor, executing crisply in half court, because Philadelphia wasn’t a very good defensive team.”
The Blazers were a one-and-done title team, even though they started the next season 50-10 before Walton’s injured feet caused him to miss most of the rest of the season and the playoffs. Walton at first was perturbed by Ramsay’s regular suggestions that he play through the pain, and that caused a rift in their relationship.
But time literally and figuratively heels all wounds, at least judging by their public pronouncements: “Coach Ramsay was the smartest coach,” says Walton, who also played three years for Wooden at UCLA. “He was so far ahead of his time, in terms of analyzing the opposition, in terms of calling plays, and in terms of maintaining physical fitness with yoga and nutrition and stretching. He was always ahead of the pace of the action. He dictated rather than reacted. Jack Ramsay was Bobby Fischer, he was Gary Kasparov.”
And Ramsay responds: “He was a great player, and a great guy to coach … the greatest passing center ever. If he had not been hurt he might have been the greatest center ever.”
In those seasons, Ramsay had only one assistant coach, former Hawk Jack McKinney. Ramsay led the pre-practice calisthenics. He lifted in the weight room with the players. His conditioning was as good as his players — he has since competed in numerous triathlons. And he had no video coaches.
Today teams have four and five assistant coaches, including video coaches. Many teams have two strength coaches. The staffs are swollen. “I wouldn’t know what to do with them all,” Ramsay said. “I’m kind of a hands-on guy. I would be uncomfortable with all those guys, but everybody has them. It’s just different now.”
After retiring from coaching in 1989, Ramsay called commissioner David Stern, told him he would like to stay involved in the league and asked Stern for suggestions. Stern sent Ramsay and Ramsay’s good friend Hubie Brown, ABC’s analyst, around the world, commissioning them to give coaching clinics, asking them to help grow the game globally.
The influx of foreign players, who have given new life to the league, are the direct result of those clinics. “David saw this coming,” Ramsay said. “He told me, ‘We want to teach the game everywhere in the world,’ and Hubie and I went just about everywhere. The goal was to teach the coaches how to teach the game. The clinics were well received and you could just sense it all growing.”
The NBA is still the best show on earth, Ramsay believes. And, although he left his 10-year gig as an ESPN NBA radio game analyst and TV analyst last spring to treat his cancer, he also is leaving the door open for his return.
“I don’t know what my health will allow me to do,” he said, “but if it allows me to do something in the game, I’d like to. I’ll know by the beginning of next season how I’m going to be. I’ll see what happens.”
When he retired from coaching during the 1988-89 season, Ramsay’s 826 NBA victories placed him second only to Boston’s Red Auerbach. And although he now stands ninth on that list, his overall coaching record in high school, college and the NBA of 1,126-862 is unsurpassed. He was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 1992, the same year he and his wife Jean — whom he married in 1949 and with whom he has five kids, including Craig, who works at ESPN — moved to Naples.
“It’s about 80 degrees today, you should see it!” Ramsay exclaimed to the interviewer who is watching the snow fall in Philadelphia. And he is excited about attending the 30-year reunion of the ’77 championship Blazers at the All-Star game in Las Vegas.
Melanoma was discovered on the sole of Ramsay’s foot. It was removed and treated, but the cancer spread to his chest, lungs and brain. Chemotherapy successfully treated the lung cancer and he had two brain tumors burned out at Mass General.
“I’m 82 years old,” he told the Portland Oregonian last spring. “How many people 82 have been able to do what I’ve been allowed to do. If this is the end of my life, I have no regrets. I’d like to stay longer and I enjoy doing this and if I can, I’d like to continue to do this. “I’m getting good care. I’m doing whatever I can. If it works, that’s fine. If it doesn’t work, then that’s life. But looking back, I’ve had a charmed life. “I think the league’s in great shape,” said Ramsay, who still looks fit enough to compete in a triathlon.
And, of course, there is The Voice, as strong and authoritative as ever. Close your eyes and imagine you are in the Palestra:
“See the ball!” “See the ball!” “See the ball!”