Jack Ramsay, a Hall of Fame coach who won an NBA title guiding the Portland Trail Blazers and later became a South Florida fan favorite for his colorful and cogent commentary on Miami Heat telecasts, died Monday after a long battle with cancer.
“The game has lost a giant,” Heat president Pat Riley said. “Dr. Jack Ramsay meant a great deal to me as a mentor when I was coaching and while I’ve been with the Heat running the team.”
His imprint on the Heat extended well beyond his announcing.
Heat owner Micky Arison said when he bought the team in 1995, “we had no basketball organization in place and Dr. Jack was the first person who I turned to. Over the years, I often turned to him for advice.”
Coach Erik Spoelstra said the Heat has an inbounds play that Ramsay drew up for him four years ago.
“He gave me a play that he used quite a bit during his championship year with the Blazers and it’s a play that I’ve used from time to time after timeouts and we’ve affectionately called it Ramsay,” said Spoelstra, who has known Ramsay since Spoelstra was 8 and attended all of Ramsay’s basketball camps.
“And it was one of the biggest plays in Game 7 [of The Finals] last year coming out of a timeout. We executed to perfection and Wade got that curl for a layup” with 2:56 left, putting the Heat ahead by five.
Heat play-by-play announcer Eric Reid, who teamed with Ramsay on Heat telecasts from 1992 through 2000, called Ramsay “a warm, wonderful man who made everyone around him feel great. As great a coach as he was, he was an even better person. He led an exceptional life.”
Ramsay, who has a doctorate in education from the University of Pennsylvania and is affectionately known as Dr. Jack, spent just over 20 seasons as an NBA coach, finishing with an 864-783 record with Philadelphia, Buffalo, Portland and Indiana.
After guiding his alma mater, Saint Joseph’s, to 10 postseason appearances and a Final Four in 12 years as coach, Ramsay took his first NBA position in 1967, as general manager of the 76ers, who won the championship in his first year on the job.
He moved to the 76ers sidelines the next season and remained an NBA coach for two decades before resigning after an 0-7 start with the Indiana Pacers in 1988-89.
NBA TITLE WITH BLAZERS
Inducted into the Naismith Memorial Hall of Fame in 1992, Ramsay experienced his most NBA success in Portland. When he took the coaching job in 1976, the Trail Blazers had not made the playoffs or produced a winning record in their six-year history.
In his first season, he guided that team, led by Bill Walton, to their only NBA title, as the Blazers overcame a 2-0 series deficit in the Finals against Philadelphia to win the next four.
“Jack’s life is a beacon which guides us all,” Walton told USA Today in 2007. “He is our moral compass, our spiritual inspiration. He represents the conquest of substance over hype.”
As a coach, Ramsay was known for his colorful plaid jackets, his teaching skills and for preaching a brand of basketball that emphasized selflessness, sharing the ball, precise execution and defensive tenacity.
“Teams that play together beat those teams with superior players who play more as individuals,” he once said.
That quote accompanies a mural of Ramsay that Trail Blazers coach Terry Stotts had constructed above his desk inside Portland’s arena.
When Ramsay left coaching, he ranked second on the all-time wins list, behind only Red Auerbach. He’s now 13th.
“Jack was a great man and I don’t use that term lightly,” Indiana Pacers executive Larry Bird said. “His contributions to the game, as a coach, advisor, broadcaster will endure forever.”
His popularity in South Florida resulted from his work as a Heat announcer, with fans often imitating his catch phrases and distinct vocal inflections.
Baskets by former Heat guard Voshon Lenard usually would be followed by an authoritative “Lenard!” When Tim Hardaway hit a three-pointer, Ramsay often would shout: “This away, that away, Hardaway!” Dunks would be punctuated with “Slamma!”
Ramsay, who has been living in Naples, left the Heat after the 1999-2000 season and worked as ESPN Radio’s lead NBA analyst before leaving the position last May to receive medical treatment.
In addition to his TV and radio work, Ramsay wrote several books, including The Coach’s Art and Dr. Jack’s Leadership Lessons Learned From a Lifetime in Basketball.
RENOWNED FOR FITNESS
Ramsay was always thin and muscular, a byproduct of his commitment to fitness, which began during his service in the Navy when he was a member of an underwater demolition team training for the planned invasion of Japan in 1945.
Until recent years, he would swim a mile a day in the Gulf of Mexico near his Naples home. He taught himself how to surf. A triathlete until age 70, Ramsay’s daily routine, which he sustained into his 80s, included 100 crunches, 100 push-ups and running as much as four miles a day.
“He would do pushups and run in place in his hotel room even if he didn’t have time to go to the gym,” Reid said.
But Ramsay has battled various forms of cancer over the past 14 years – on his left foot, his lungs, his prostate, bladder and his brain – and, as Ramsay said two years ago, “melanomas all over my body.” He conceded, at that time, that he was not expected to live before the cancer went into remission.
But the cancer returned last spring, and he expressed frustration that it had begun to affect his active lifestyle in recent months.
Ramsay lost Jean, his wife of 60 years, to Alzeimer’s disease in 2010. He cared for her for 10 years while her condition deteriorated.
Reid said “one of things I love so much about him is his compassion and patience. What I saw traveling around with Jack was the old school basketball people revered Jack for his great and longtime career as a college and NBA coach. But he also had a whole new generation of fans that television created for him.
“He had done TV for a few years for the 76ers before coming to Miami, but his beautiful TV personality really blossomed in his time with the Heat. He was able to explain the game in such an intelligent but also a warm way. That warmth you felt off the TV screen was so real.”
Miami Herald sportswriter Joseph Goodman contributed to this report.