April 28 Update: ESPN is reporting that Jack Ramsay has passed away at the age of 89 after a battle with cancer. We're running this post back from 2013 to remember Ramsay.
As you probably read last week, Dr. Jack Ramsay had to step away from the microphone at ESPN Radio for the remainder of the 2013 playoffs, perhaps calling it a career, due to medical issues. This seems like an appropriate time to reflect on the legacy he left to the Portland Trail Blazers and Portland's basketball community.
Jack Ramsay came to the Blazers in an era before basketball was big business. The NBA had been around for almost three decades but the perfect storm of Magic Johnson and Larry Bird hadn't hit yet. Front offices were neither populated with nor run by celebrities, ex-superstars, guys whose names preceded them into the room. Semi-anonymous Basketball lifers walked the halls and sidelines.
Ramsay came off the East Coast, coaching at his alma mater--St. Joseph's College in Philadelphia--through the 50's and 60's. He became the General Manager of the Philadelphia 76'ers in the mid-60's, then moved to the head coaching seat. Ramsay led the Sixers to three playoff appearances in four years before moving on to do the same for the Buffalo Braves.
While Ramsay coached the Braves, the Portland Trail Blazers were busy assembling a roster that would allow them to crack the NBA playoffs for the first time in the history of their young franchise. The lineup centered around Bill Walton, a superstar center from UCLA who spend his first two years in the league trying to find enough health and confidence to live up to his reputation. His disappointing performances in 1975 and 1976 led to sub-.500 records and the Blazers releasing head coach Lenny Wilkens at the end of the '75-'76 season, just as Ramsay was moving on from Buffalo.
In the Summer of 1976 the Trail Blazers benefited from an amazing influx of talent. Walton, ready to enter his third season, finally got healthy. The American Basketball Association shut its doors leading to a dispersal draft in which the Blazers picked up All-Star forward Maurice Lucas and starting point guard Dave Twardzik. The Blazers drafted crafty point guard Johnny Davis and bought scoring guard Herm Gilliam from the Seattle Supersonics. All four new players would play key roles in the upcoming season and three would eventually end up in coaching or front-office positions themselves. That off-season was nothing short of amazing.
The incoming--or in Walton's case rejuvenated--talent joined second year wings Lionel Hollins and Bobby Gross, veteran forward Lloyd Neal, and Portland's elder statesman, 6th-year shooting guard Larry Steele. The lineup was deep but inexperienced. What's more, they were all but untried together. Teams often have difficulty absorbing one or two significant players into a lineup. The Blazers had to shuffle in four brand new guys. They sported an under-performing superstar, a star from another league, two second-year players, and a new point guard in their starting lineup. A rookie, a new free agent, and a journeyman comprised their reserves. Average age of the starting lineup: 24. Average age of the top ten rotation players: 24.6.
People look back on Jack Ramsay's glorious first year in Portland and say, "Well, he stepped into a great situation." This turned out to be true, but it didn't have to be that way. That combination of youth, mixed performances, divergent backgrounds, and lack of playing time together could have turned into a disaster. Instead Ramsay conducted a stunning symphony of basketball that even now testifies to the way the game should be played.
It's easy to forget how far ahead of his time Jack Ramsay was. He stood among the early physical fitness gurus. Running, swimming, general conditioning...this wasn't just about basketball skill. He wanted you to go fast and to stay on the court as long as you were needed. He put his team through conditioning drills and took them seriously. He turned his team's youth into an advantage, dictating the fast break as the first option. He didn't want his bigs to hold rebounds or slow the game. Grab it, turn, fire the outlet, and get down the court. If the guards couldn't get a layup the center could fill the lane on the secondary break.
The halfcourt offense didn't slow down either. Ball movement put pressure on the defense and keyed scoring opportunities. In a league filled with Artis Gilmores and Darryl Dawkinses your star center was supposed to be an endpoint to offensive sets. Ramsay made Walton a conduit, passing the ball like a guard. Whether he posted high or low you never knew where the ball was going when it left Bill's hands. Single-cover him and he'd score. Send the double and you are a quick pass or two away from checkmate. In everybody else's offense burly enforcer Maurice Lucas would have been glued to the paint. Ramsay let him face up and hit open jumpers over equally huge power forwards who had no clue how to handle it. If you overplayed the big stars then Gross or Hollins would make you pay with their own deadly jumpers. The Blazers didn't care who shot it. They just wanted it to go in.
Running, peak physical conditioning, face-up fours, mobile centers getting their offense and creating for others within the system, attacking with the pass and not just the dribble, reversing the floor to move the defense, valuing whether or not a shot is contested as much as the place or player it comes from...this sounds like the modern NBA, right? It was 1976, folks. 1976!
Ramsay didn't invent these concepts but nobody ever brought them together, convinced his talent to buy in so quickly, or got so much out of a team so beautifully as Dr. Jack did in the '76-'77 season, the playoffs that followed, and the first 58 games of '77-'78 before Walton's foot injury ripped the heart out of the franchise.
The superstar-driven David Stern era would leave Ramsay in its wake as dominant isolation players broke apart pretty systems. Coaching became less about teaching and more about featuring your best talent. Teamwork was defined less by ball movement than by being a good soldier and getting out of your main scorer's way. But Ramsay continued his career through broadcasting, bringing his style back to Philly, then to Miami, and finally to ESPN where a national audience got to learn at the knee of the man who had educated a generation of Blazers fans from the sideline. Ramsay evolved with the game, his commentary highlighting the best aspects of each successive wave without pandering to the excesses. He never failed to get excited about a beautiful play. You always got the sense that he wasn't just celebrating a guy throwing down a dunk or hitting a three, but the effective execution that led to the beautiful finish.
Ramsay also left an enduring legacy to Portland fans. To this day Blazer fans tend to favor team basketball, hate lazy or soft players, and view one-dimensional, ball-hogging scorers with suspicion. Blazer fans get excited about role players, sometimes inordinately. Blazer fans applaud nearly as much for offensive rebounds, out-of-bounds saves, blue-collar plays, and hustle as they do for dunks. Throw-downs bring the crowd reaction you'd expect, but there's a near-involuntary swelling among the faithful every time someone dives to the floor or makes a precision pass. Our cultural memory still rises in response to plays embedded in our DNA during the Ramsay/Championship era.
Then, of course, there's the title itself. Without that trophy Blazermania doesn't explode in the same way, the Trail Blazers don't take on the same community significance, and Blazer fandom doesn't leap from generation to generation for four decades with the same fervor and passion. Other players and eras have added to the legend but the title provides the unbreakable foundation upon which they all sit. Without it there's no wailing wall upon which to mourn the lack of a Drexler-led trophy. There's nothing left after the leap of hope and crushing devastation of the Rasheed Wallace runs. Absent the championship the whole Blazer world would have plunged into chaos in 2003 and it might not have survived 2005 and 2006. The title is the reason Blazer fans say, "This is just today, there's hope for tomorrow still, you never know" and keep coming back for more...with enthusiasm...year after year.
More importantly, that title led to thousands upon thousands of kids taking to playground courts to learn a beautiful game, those kids passing it on to their own children, and so on. Skills learned, hopes hoped, excellence sought, friendships formed over dribbles and lofted jumpers...Ramsay's work taught us to dream and then work together to achieve it.
If this is the end of Jack Ramsay's long career the entire Portland basketball community can stand up and proclaim that he did something for us that mattered, endured, and has yet to be forgotten. He changed the way we viewed the game, our franchise, its players, and in some ways even each other. If Jack Ramsay had not graced Portland's sidelines 35 years ago the words we share every day and the community they form would not be the same. Blazer's Edge as you know it would not exist. No doubt something would be here, but I can't imagine that something being nearly as good.
Thank you, Dr. Jack. To a basketball world in a little corner of the country, your work meant everything.
--Dave Deckard (firstname.lastname@example.org) Trail Blazer fan since 1976...and still counting.
P.S. Feel free to share your Ramsay-related thoughts and memories below!