Jack Ramsay, a Hall of Fame coach who led the Portland Trail Blazers to the 1977 NBA championship before he became one of the NBA’s most respected broadcasters, died April 28 at home in Naples, Fla. He was 89.
ESPN, for whom he worked as a broadcaster for many years, announced the death. The cause was cancer
Dr. Ramsay coached in the NBA for parts of 21 seasons before embarking on a second career as an NBA analyst. He was diagnosed with melanoma in 2004 and later battled growths and tumors that spread to his legs, lungs and brain. He later fought prostate cancer and most recently a marrow syndrome.
Despite health struggles, he never lost his affinity for fitness. Dr. Ramsay, who competed in at least 20 triathlons during his life, worked out regularly into his 80s, even as he battled the various forms of cancer that he was stricken with. He often spoke of his love of swimming in the Gulf of Mexico near his home in Naples or jogging in a pool or from wall to wall in his hotel room when he was traveling on NBA assignments.
Dr. Ramsay also spent years late in life caring for his wife, Jean, who was diagnosed in 2001 with Alzheimer’s disease. She died in 2010.
John Ramsay was born Feb. 21, 1925, in Philadelphia, where he enrolled at Saint Joseph’s in 1942, eventually becoming captain of the basketball team there for his senior season. He earned a doctorate in education from the University of Pennsylvania in 1949, explaining the “Dr. Jack” moniker that most players and fans simply knew him by.
Dr. Ramsay’s biggest impact on Hawk Hill would be when he started coaching his alma mater in 1955. He was wildly successful there, going 234-72 and taking the Hawks to the NCAA tournament seven times, the Final Four in 1961 and to a No. 1 preseason ranking by Sports Illustrated in 1965. In 2009, St. Joseph’s named its new basketball facility the Ramsay Basketball Center.
He was a founding father of sorts for the growth of “Big 5” basketball, which is what the annual series between Philadelphia-area schools Saint Joseph’s, La Salle, Penn, Villanova and Temple was dubbed.
“I felt a lot of personal pride and interest in the outcome of those games,” Dr. Ramsay told the Associated Press in 2004. “There wasn’t as much interest in conference play. There wasn’t the impact of a national championship or conference championships like there is today. The Big 5 was clearly the biggest thing any of those schools were involved in at that point.”
Dr. Ramsay took over as coach of the Philadelphia 76ers in 1968, moved on to the Buffalo Braves in 1972 and took his craft to Portland in 1976 — where he took a team with stars Bill Walton and Maurice Lucas and delivered an NBA championship in his first season, beating the 76ers and Julius “Dr. J” Erving in six games. Portland, which entered the league in 1970, had its first winning record and its first playoff appearance during that title season.
That was his lone NBA championship. Walton got hurt the next year, crippling Portland’s chances of getting back to championship form during that era. Dr. Ramsay coached the Blazers for nine more seasons without another trip to the finals. In 1984, Portland had the second choice in the NBA draft and chose Kentucky center Sam Bowie over North Carolina’s Michael Jordan, who led Chicago to six championships.
He spent the final three years of his NBA sideline career in Indiana — resigning from the Pacers in November 1988 after the team got off to an 0-7 start.
Dr. Ramsay was 864-783 in his NBA career, being named one of the league’s Top 10 all-time coaches in 1996. He was elected to the Basketball Hall of Fame in 1992.
When he left the Pacers, Dr. Ramsay carefully did not use the word “retire” and began working as a television analyst on 76ers games. Eventually, he worked on Heat television broadcasts for eight seasons before moving full-time to ESPN as a radio and TV commentator before the 2000-01 season.
Survivors include five children and many grandchildren.