The Trail Blazers’ 50-year anniversary season is temporarily on pause as the NBA goes on hiatus to slow the spread of COVID-19. During that break, Blazer’s Edge is counting down the top 100 Blazers: players, executives, and other influencers who made the franchise what it is today.
No. 11 | Jack Ramsay
Head Coach 1976-1986, 820 Regular Season Games, 59 Postseason
Regular Season Record: 453-367 (55.2% win percentage)
Playoffs Record: 29-30 (49.2% win percentage)
*Statistics are pulled from a player’s time in Portland
Joined Club: June, 1976
Departed Club: May, 1986
Place in History: The Portland Trail Blazers have had 14 head coaches in their 50-year history. Through those five decades, the one most associated with the team, the icon, the standard bearer in Portland and role model around the league, is Dr. Jack Ramsay. In an era that might as well be prehistoric now, he embodied many of the attributes that basketball fans still consider fundamental: speed, physical fitness, teamwork, sacrifice for the good of the whole. His teams played in a style envied by contemporaries, still considered beautiful by coaches generations later. He was at once celebrity and teacher, mentor and spokesman. He also helped earn the only NBA Championship in franchise history.
Few could have predicted Ramsay’s meteoric rise in Portland. He came to the team in 1976, a basketball journeyman. He was a minor-league player turned coach, a lifer who couldn’t shake his passion for the game. He made his bones at St. Joseph’s College in Philadelphia, taking the Hawks to a 234-72 record over 11 seasons. Then he skipped across town to the local NBA franchise, the 76ers, first as General Manager, then as coach. He led them for four years, earning modest success. He spent his next four years with the Buffalo Braves posting an adequate, not distinguished, record. When Buffalo’s owner decided to sell the team, Ramsay opted out.
The Blazers were also in transition at that time. For years they puttered along behind two stars: Geoff Petrie and Sidney Wicks. The duo scored more points than an apple farmer at a teacher’s convention, but wins were relatively scarce. Portland’s problems were supposed to be solved when they drafted UCLA center Bill Walton first overall in the 1974 NBA Draft, but chronic injuries had left the center unable to perform fully. With Walton down, their current coach, Lenny Wilkens, couldn’t bridge the gap between expectations and performance. He was let go during the Summer of 1976, just when Ramsay became available.
Ramsay had always been an East Coast guy. He was hard-driven, physically fit, near-religious in his zeal for exercise, the outdoors, and the sport he loved. The laid-back, middle-of-nowhere, wet-and-rainy Pacific Northwest was not his style. Nevertheless, Ramsay saw potential in a Walton-led lineup. The superstar-in-waiting provided an opening for the itinerant coach to leave a permanent mark on the game. Blazers management fancied Ramsay. Ramsay was ready to make the leap. He moved across country and began to build.
David Halberstam’s “The Breaks of the Game” provides the best look at the legendary coach during this period, alongside Ramsay’s own autobiography. In a nutshell, his philosophy was run quick, do it longer, and get every easy bucket possible. If the Blazers couldn’t score on the break, he wanted Walton in the high post near the free throw line with multiple players cutting underneath him off of screens or backdoors. If enough players picked and moved, the defense was going to make a mistake somewhere. Walton was near-prescient in his ability to read the floor; the pass was as good as caught and the bucket made the instant the defense blinked. If all else failed, Walton could wheel for the drive or a jumper from his perch. He had the offensive tools to carry the team by himself if necessary, particularly with so much court in front of him.
Ramsay’s philosophy delighted his new center. By the grace of the basketball gods, Walton was blessed with his first, maybe only, healthy season in 1976-77. With new coach and budding superstar in complete union, the team was off to the races.
Walton was not the only weapon in Ramsay’s arsenal that year. The Blazers acquired Maurice Lucas in the 1976 ABA Expansion Draft. “Luke” was powerful and willing to throw his weight around, bullying any opponents that Walton’s finesse game didn’t intimidate. Utility forward Bob Gross and slashing guard Lionel Hollins had more offense in their game than the crowded lineup allowed them to show. Neither was selfish, both prospered from a faster, motion-based system. “Pinball” Dave Twardzik and lightning quick Johnny Davis distributed the ball. For one, glorious year it all came together exactly as Ramsay envisioned. The team was practically a blur during their 49-33 regular-season run. They would make the playoffs for the first time in their seven-year history.
They weren’t done by a longshot. Lucas’ intimidation and scoring took them through their first two series against the Chicago Bulls and Denver Nuggets. Walton out-dueled Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in the Western Conference Finals, raising eyebrows and establishing Portland as a serious threat. The final showdown was set: Ramsay’s system-based, ball-sharing Blazers versus Julius Erving, Doug Collins, George McInnis, and the star-studded 76ers for the trophy.
The Blazers got a rude awakening in the first two games of the NBA Finals series, falling by 6 in Game 1, by 18 in Game 2. Portland contained Philly’s big men, but Dr. J was having his way with them and Collins couldn’t be stopped. National pundits were clucking. Ramsay’s Blazers had made a plucky attempt...full marks to Walton for becoming the next big superstar. That narrative fit their expectations; superstars made headlines whereas Bobby Gross never would. The idea that a bunch of no-names could take on some of the biggest stars in the business and prevail was cute, but ultimately ridiculous. Reality was setting in. Star talent would overcome the system every time.
Fortunately the Blazers also had talent, and they believed in the system. Where many teams would have crumbled down 0-2, Portland termed the losses a setback. All they needed to do was get back home and start playing basketball the way they knew how. Every team would have said that, given the situation. The Blazers meant it. Following through to win four straight and earn the title speaks not just of player ability, but the will and attitude fostered by their coach. Ramsay’s unshakable belief in himself and the game filtered down to his players. Their faith in him and each other earned the ultimate reward.
Ramsay was now a champion and, all of a sudden, a star himself. The video of his players dumping champagne over his head in the victory celebration would become an instant classic. Portland practically worshiped him. He and Walton affirmed each others’ greatness in public whenever asked. An entire nation hungry to believe in the classic trope of teamwork lifting the underdog to victory heralded Jack as the consummate coach. When he spoke ever after, his words commanded respect. His otherwise-ugly mix of plaid pants and garish blazers on the sideline became a fashion statement. Balding and wiry became the new cool and sexy. Ramsay was in.
To his credit, the coach took all of this with the requisite dose of humility, crediting his team and his beloved philosophy of play. Everyone around him knew exactly who had advocated for the concepts that brought Portland victory; there was no need to become the kind of self-centered public figure off the court that his credo advocated against on it. As long as the team won, there would be plenty of accolades to share for everyone.
This was doubly true since the newly-sprung well of Blazermania seemed infinite. Practically everybody who had a television in Oregon had watched Ramsay and the Blazers win it all. The victory parade attendance was greater than Portland’s official population. If Ramsay had said he wanted to be Emperor of Oregon with Walton as his Grand Potentate of Vegetables, the state would have seceded on the spot. Neither billionaires nor politicians nor any celebrity you can name today south of Tom Hanks and Oprah had the kind of public acclaim Ramsay held in the Summer of 1977.
The Blazers famously started 1977-78 with a 50-10 record, all but unbeatable and firmly on their way to a second straight title during a period when that simply was not done. Fate would intervene. Walton injured his foot as the season wound to a close. He tried to return for the playoffs, ended up not being able to play more than two games, and the Blazers got ousted by the Seattle Supersonics.
There would be no third try. Walton would depart in free agency the following year, roundly criticizing the organization and suing its medical staff over treatment for his foot. The air went out of the balloon. The team that found a 50-10 start so effortless would not reach 50 wins again during Ramsay’s tenure.
The Blazers were still decent as the 1970’s turned into the 1980’s. Both system and style were sound. Players other teams considered marginal looked good playing for Dr. Jack. Thing just didn’t function the same way without the superstar in the middle of everything, though. The answer to, “Do you win with talent or with game plan?” turned out to be, “Yes!”
Portland made the playoffs every season under Ramsay except 1981-82. They even made the second round a couple of times. This was a veritable bonanza compared to what they’d later experience. It didn’t feel like it, though. They could not escape nostalgic expectations, nor the standard they’d set in Year 1. Had they not won it all in 1977, 9 postseason appearances in 10 years would have seemed like a 90% success rate. Instead it felt like they achieved their goal once, then fell short nine times in a row.
As seasons progressed and the game evolved, Ramsay found himself trapped in his own system. He loved individual brilliance...depended on it, even. Nobody watching Walton, Lucas, or Hollins operate in those early years could say different. But individual talent always served the greater good. To Ramsay, “greater good” meant his system and style of play. Players who didn’t fit, no matter how talented, didn’t tend to prosper long.
Billy Ray Bates provided one example, brief and brilliant. Clyde Drexler would be the second, and more enduring. The young guard could jump out of the gym, score on anyone in isolation, and dazzle the crowd while doing so. Ramsay’s shooting guards tended to play off-ball. If they didn’t cut backdoor, they were supposed to hit a jumper or give it up quickly. Holding the ball was taboo. But ball control was Clyde’s lifeline.
A battle of wills would ensue between Ramsay and Drexler, titans of different eras with different needs. Back in the 60’s and 70’s, when a player and coach conflicted, the coach usually won. He was the arbiter of minutes, the boss of the yard. By 1985, it became apparent that the next wave of NBA evolution belonged to the players, particularly amazing wings like Michael Jordan and Drexler. Ramsay’s system didn’t deal well with hyper-athletic backcourt scorers who could bend the game, and entire defenses, to their will by dominating the ball. When Ramsay didn’t deal well with Clyde, Jack was the one to go.
In the Summer of 1986, the Blazers bid goodbye to a legend. At that point he was the only public-facing figure remaining from that glorious championship run. Like Sam saying goodbye to Frodo at the Grey Havens, the parting was bittersweet, even if necessary.
Ramsay would take one more NBA position, head man with the Indiana Pacers from 1986-1989. His team played .500 ball the first season, then won fewer the next. Ramsay left after the first seven games of the 1988-89 season after an 0-7 start. The Pacers’ talent at the time was too threadbare and inexperienced to support any system, let alone his.
After retiring at Age 63, Coach Ramsay took up broadcasting. He started with the Sixers and Miami Heat, then saddled up with ESPN Radio and eventually television, becoming one of the most respected and honored commentators in the business.
In 1992 Jack was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. In 1993, the Trail Blazers retired the number 77 in his honor, commemorating the championship season. In 1996 he was named one of the 10 Greatest Coaches in NBA History during the league’s 50th anniversary celebration. Ramsay is often cited by current Blazers Head Coach Terry Stotts as an inspiration and idol. His picture hangs in Stotts’ office, along with a classic Ramsay quote:
“Teams that play together beat those teams with superior players who play more as individuals.”
Ramsay fought health battles throughout his later years. He died on April 28th, 2014 at the age of 89.
Ramsay’s Trail Blazers legacy encompasses 820 games and 453 wins, most in franchise history. He has the fifth-highest winning percentage and the third-highest playoffs winning percentage among Blazers coaches.
Stop and think for a moment. The Blazers are celebrating their 50th anniversary this season. Ramsay here for a decade. A full 20% of the franchise’s games have been coached by Dr. Jack.
Ramsay will be remembered for the title, first and foremost, but also for his style and fierce commitment to winning. He always had the potential to be the best at his craft. When he finally got the personnel to achieve his dream, it turned out better than anyone could have imagined.
Portland still hasn’t gotten over it.
For the long service in a position known for turnover, for more wins and games than anyone, for giving Portland a new definition of beauty on the court, and for being at the epicenter of the event that changed the franchise and city forever, Jack Ramsay earns the 11th spot on our Top 100 list of Trail Blazers players and influencers.
Share your memories of Dr. Jack below, and buckle up as we crack the Top 10!