The imaginative life of Dr. Jack Ramsay

The tributes for Naismith Hall of Famer Jack Ramsay upon his death at the start of the week were moving and powerful, perhaps most of all by his son, Chris, who concluded by quoting his father:

“Use your imagination. Imagine the life you want to live, and live it.”

Dr. Jack — he really was a Ph.D. — deeply embodied that ethos during his 89 years, doing so much beyond his wondrous playing, coaching and broadcasting career. He crafted a lifestyle that included a vigorous fitness routine and he competed in numerous triathlons into his 70s, pushing ahead even after he began battling several bouts of cancer for 15 years.

He will forever be remembered as the mastermind of the Portland TrailBlazers’ 1977 NBA title team, and the inspiration for David Halberstam’s heralded “The Breaks of The Game,” which chronicled the franchise during its rather rapid decline, accelerated by Bill Walton’s numerous foot injuries.

In a broader sense, Halberstam was profiling professional basketball in the United States just as it emerged as a vital sporting and entertainment force.

breaks of the gameRamsay and the Blazers triumphed shortly after the demise of the American Basketball Association and right before Magic Johnson and Larry Bird entered the NBA. As Bill Simmons recalled upon Halberstam’s death in 2007:

“The coach spent his life waiting for the perfect team. He walked the streets for hours after tough losses, frightened players with his passion, challenged them to fistfights in the locker room, never wavered in his belief that basketball should be played a certain way. Deep down, he worried his career could pass without ever finding the right blend of players. When he finally won a championship, it happened in the blink of an eye — a young group peaking at the right time, a beautiful mix of speed and teamwork, his vision come to life, a dream finally realized. Within a year they imploded, ravaged by injuries and jealousy and money and everything else that was ruining the NBA at the time. The coach would spend the next two years thinking about that perfect team. He had it, he had it … and then, it was gone. You could say he was haunted.”

By the time Halberstam’s book — largely made possible because of his friendship with Ramsay, and the access the coach provided — was published in 1981, “Showtime” had arrived.

Ramsay’s trademark flashy jackets also went out of style (revived this season by current Portland coach Terry Stotts in tribute). But a coaching philosophy utterly devoted to his unique brand unselfishness and teamwork continued to resonate in a substantial, and not a clichéd sense. Some of those who played for him went out into the coaching ranks, and became lifelong disciples.

Johnny Davis, the Blazers’ starting point guard on that ’77 title team and now a Lakers assistant, explained it this way over the weekend, as word spread that Ramsay had entered hospice care:

“The thing about Jack was he allowed freedom within the team concept. We were like a great jazz band, where each person could solo, but he had to come back to the group to keep the groove moving forward. Then, the next person might have a chance to solo the next night, but he needed the beat of the rest of us.

“And we just kept moving, in and out, playing great music along the way.’’

My friend Bob Starkey, a women’s assistant at Texas A & M, recalled on his blog this week notes he had jotted down while reading Ramsay’s “A Coach’s Art.” I particularly like this one: thecoachsart

“There are no original ideas left in basketball.”

And yet a large part of Ramsay’s legacy was to take that truth and create a marvelously rich tapestry of creative and exemplary basketball.

Another coach deeply influenced by Ramsay was Geno Auriemma, whose UConn women just won a record ninth NCAA championship, playing a relentless, signature brand of team-focused basketball. Auriemma, in fact, had Ramsay, a fellow Philadelphian, present him when he was inducted in Springfield in 2007.

The current Blazers are on a path to run deep into the NBA playoffs, and lead Houston 3-1 going into tonight’s first-round game. Wrote Jason Quick of The Oregonian, just two days before Ramsay’s passing:

“Never since Ramsay left in 1986 have the Trail Blazers played more like a Jack Ramsay team than this year under Terry Stotts.

“They move without the ball. They make the extra pass. They play together. And they do it all with such style and grace that sometimes it borders on art, etched right before our eyes.

“If the Blazers continue to play that brand, that style, that was made popular by Ramsay in 1977, hasn’t Ramsay really won, cancer be damned? Hasn’t he scored the greatest victory of all: leaving a legacy that goes beyond a gold trophy?

“Ramsay, you see, helped change basketball 40 years ago by teaching us how beautiful it can be when five players use one ball to work as one, to unite as one.

“That no team in the NBA plays that style more, or better than this year’s Blazers is not only fitting, I’m starting to believe it’s preordained.

“These Blazers are Dr. Jack’s Opus, his symphony of victory.”

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