In the afternoon he would sit on the hard wooden bleachers in those cramped and sweltering snake pit CYO gyms and they would point and whisper "It's him . . . really is . . . it's Dr. Jack." And that night he could be found coaching in the Palestra, the cathedral of hoops, coiled in that familiar crouch, Legend at work. The others gaped in awe.
Speedy Morris, who has become a Philly Ball legend himself, once said: "It was like seeing God twice in the same day."
Jack Ramsay - more familiarly Dr. Jack - who may have known more about basketball than anyone, passed Monday. He was 89 and for 15 years valiantly fought cancer to a standstill. As someone who was privileged to share a lifetime's worth of pregame buffets with him, I give you my word: A finer gentleman and a nicer man you will not meet.
It was said that his genius was that he could see all 10 players on every play.
That's wrong, they said.
"Eleven. First man off the bench."
It is only a slight exaggeration.
His name was Bernie Schiffran but everyone knew him as Yo Yo. He lived in the streets of Philadelphia, slept on the newsprint rolls on the loading dock behind the old Philadelphia Evening Bulletin building at 30th and Market. The Palestra was his adopted home. People were kind, none more so than the head basketball coach of St. Joe's.
One cold winter night Yo Yo showed me a new shirt. His voice was thick with pride.
"A gift," he said. "From Dr. Jack."
The other Big Five coaches quickly chipped in - pants from Temple's Harry Litwack, a suit coat from Jack McCloskey of Penn. Other gifts would find their way to Yo Yo from time to time.
"Dr. Jack," said Yo Yo, "is my friend."
A man could do worse for a legacy.
Dr. Jack gave Philadelphia an NBA championship, and then he took one away. He was the general manager of the champion 1966-67 Sixers.
A very large center, a man not given to lavish praise, once said in that familiar basso profundo voice: "Coach Ramsay knows about all there is to know about basketball."
When this assessment by Wilt Chamberlain was relayed to Dr. Jack, he smiled and said: "I know enough that it's smart to give him the ball."
A decade later, coached by the man with the rainbow wardrobe, the Portland Trail Blazers won their one and so far only championship, this one with another large center.
The Blazers ran their offense through Bill Walton, a pinpoint passer, and to watch them was an inspiring lesson in the fine art of unselfishness. It was, alas, to fall out of favor and be replaced by one-trick-pony dunkathons.
Dr. Jack's meticulous, patient style was in stark contrast to the aerial acrobatics of the Sixers and a certain other Doctor, who went down to a defeat in the NBA Finals that took them years to recover from. But the die was cast, the era of share-the-ball basketball would fade. Purists mourned its passing.
From The Coach's Art, by Jack Ramsay: "What is this game that runs through my mind? It is a ballet, a graceful sweep and flow of patterned movement, daring and imaginative flights of brilliance . . . in the exhilaration of a great performance the opposition vanishes and the game is a unified action . . . up and down . . . it is quickness, it is strength, it is skill, it is stamina, it is 5 playing as one . . . it is the determination never to give in . . ."
Rest in peace, Dr. Jack.
Bill Lyon is a retired Inquirer columnist.