Dr. Jack Ramsay, 89, dies after longtime battle with cancer
MIAMI — Jack Ramsay served his country in World War II, coached Portland to the NBA title, was enshrined in the basketball Hall of Fame and became one of the game’s most respected and revered broadcasters.
His life was, by any measure, complete.
"Our father led the greatest life that one could lead," the Ramsay family said in a statement released Monday, hours after the man that just about everyone in basketball called "Dr. Jack" died in Naples, Fla., at the age of 89.
No cause of death was announced, but Ramsay had fought several forms of cancer for many years and more recently was diagnosed with a marrow syndrome. Ramsay ended his broadcasting career with ESPN last year because of health problems and word came last week that he had been placed into hospice care.
"From his coaching tenure to his broadcast work, Dr. Jack left an indelible mark on every facet of our game and on every person he came in contact with, including me," NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said.
Added Miami Heat president Pat Riley, who was close to Ramsay for many years: "This is a very sad day for basketball, not just professional basketball, but the entire basketball world. The game has lost a giant."
Ramsay coached in the NBA for parts of 21 seasons before embarking on a second career as an NBA analyst, eventually working for ESPN. He was diagnosed with melanoma in 2004 and later battled growths and tumors that spread to his legs, lungs and brain, as well as prostate cancer.
Through it all, his affinity for fitness never wavered.
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. He often spoke of his love of swimming in the Gulf of Mexico. Even in his final year as a broadcaster, it wasn’t uncommon for friends to marvel at how well he was moving about.
"Jack was a great man," Indiana Pacers president Larry Bird said, "and I don’t use that term lightly."
Ramsay also spent several years late in his life caring for his wife, Jean, who was diagnosed in 2001 with Alzheimer’s disease. She died in 2010.
"He was that rarest of men with a unique style that was inspirational and motivational about basketball and life itself," said Paul Allen, who owns the Trail Blazers.
Ramsay enjoyed enormous popularity within the league. To commemorate his 89th birthday this year, Portland coach Terry Stotts wore a loud checkered jacket and open-collared shirt for a Blazers game — a nod to Ramsay’s style of dress when he coached the club.
"Jack’s life is a beacon which guides us all," Bill Walton, who was on Ramsay’s 1977 title team in Portland, told USA Today in 2007. "He is our moral compass, our spiritual inspiration. He represents the conquest of substance over hype. He is a true saint of circumstance."
John T. Ramsay was born Feb. 21, 1925, in Philadelphia and enrolled at Saint Joseph’s in 1942, eventually becoming captain of the basketball team for his senior season. He earned a doctorate in education from the University of Pennsylvania in 1949, which explains the "Dr. Jack" moniker.
Ramsay’s began coaching Saint Joseph’s in 1955. He was wildly successful there, going 234-72 and taking the Hawks to the NCAA tournament seven times and the Final Four in 1961.
"Great man," Orlando Magic guard Jameer Nelson, who played at Saint Joseph’s a generation after Ramsay departed, wrote on Twitter. "The Greatest Hawk ever."
To Ramsay, the most significant part of the Saint Joseph’s years was this: "I met my wife there," he said.
He was a founding father of sorts for the growth of the Big 5, the annual Philadelphia basketball series involving Saint Joseph’s, La Salle, Penn, Villanova and Temple.
"The Big 5 was clearly the biggest thing any of those schools were involved in at that point," Ramsay said in a 2004 interview.
Ramsay became coach of the Philadelphia 76ers in 1968, joined the Buffalo Braves in 1972 and brought his craft to Portland in 1976. With a team featuring Walton, Lionel Hollins and Maurice Lucas, he delivered an NBA championship in his first season, beating the 76ers in six games for the title.
"It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience and one that I will cherish forever," Ramsay said in 1997.
Indeed, that was his lone NBA title. Walton got hurt the next year, crippling Portland’s chances of getting back to championship form during that era. Ramsay coached the Blazers for nine more seasons without another trip to the Finals. He spent the final three years of his NBA coaching career in Indiana, resigning from the Pacers in 1988 after the team started 0-7.
Ramsay was 864-783 in his NBA career and in 1996 was honored as one of the league’s all-time top 10 coaches. And when Micky Arison bought the Heat, the first person he turned to was Ramsay, who wound up long being considered part of the franchise’s family and even accompanied them to the White House to celebrate winning an NBA title.
"He will be sorely missed by us all," Arison said.
When he left the Pacers, 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 for radio and TV commentating before the 2000-01 season.
"So grateful that his path crossed ours," his former Heat broadcast partner Eric Reid wrote on Twitter early Monday. "Hall of Fame coach and man."
Ramsay’s funeral is Thursday.