Jack Ramsay wasn't afraid to swim with the sharks. He didn't seek them out on the long open-water ventures near his Florida home, but fear couldn't keep him from the water, just as fear couldn't prevent anything in a long life of personal and professional accomplishment.
Plus, there always seemed to be dolphins that joined him along the way, sharing his joy, following his path, staying near his side.
The easy explanation is that Ramsay, who died Monday at the age of 89, had a charmed life. Those who played for and coached with the legendary basketball mind know it worked a little differently: Ramsay willed it to be charmed.
"I'm sure he had an overriding basketball philosophy, but he had a fine touch with people," said longtime coach Jack McKinney, who first played for Ramsay at St. James High School in Chester. "He was a tough man, but he was able to get others to believe in him and follow him. That's really the philosophy of coaching - to get them to play for you and the style you are teaching."
Ramsay didn't accomplish that by bending his will to keep his players happy. His practices with St. Joseph's were legendarily rigorous and the fitness regimens he required, long before that became vogue, were in keeping with the standards he learned as a frogman with the U.S. Navy during World War II.
"I think all of us who played for him felt we were so prepared in practice by him in every aspect of the game," said Harry Booth, who eventually became a head coach for St. Joseph's as part of a long coaching career. "Jump balls, out-of-bounds plays. Every situation that could come up in a game, we practiced. And anything we did physically in the way of drills, he always led us. He would show you that he could do it, and then you followed him."
Ramsay's physical discipline lasted his entire life, from his youth, through his days as a coach and general manager, and into his second career as a television commentator. His level of fitness probably allowed him to fight as long a battle as he did with cancer.
"He was more than a basketball coach. He was a life coach," said John Nash, who began his career in the 76ers front office when Ramsay was head coach of the team. "He was the consummate leader of men, a mentally very tough man."
Ramsay has been credited, deservedly so, with planting a coaching tree rooted in Philadelphia. Paul Westhead; Jim Lynam; Jim Boyle; McKinney; Booth; Billy Cunningham, who played for Ramsay with the 76ers; and others took up the profession after being influenced by Ramsay.
The phenomenon of Philadelphia's place in the history and teaching of the game is much broader than the work of just one man, of course. Long before Ramsay, the city had pioneers such as Billy Ferguson, who coached the St. Joseph's "Mighty Mites" in the 1930s; Eddie Gottlieb, the basketball entrepreneur who doubled as a coach; and contemporaries such as Harry Litwack at Temple and Jack Kraft at Villanova.
What Ramsay really did, however, was authenticate a Philadelphia style of basketball, at least at the collegiate level, and that style began with suffocating defense and a punishing physicality of play.
"He was one of the first ones to consistently use a full-court zone press," McKinney said. "It was scary at first, but once we played it, we wanted to do it again. It was so damn good. He stopped teams from doing what they wanted to do. It was a great feeling, because he had us believing."
That style was a reflection of the man implementing it: tough and physical and with an understanding that the opposition would have to choose either fight or flight as a result. That was fine. Jack Ramsay and his teams would take their chances either way.
"I got my scholarship immediately after holding Oscar Robertson to 25 points," Booth said. "I grabbed him the whole game and got four fouls. He wanted to punch me. The referee would say, 'You can't grab him like that,' and I'd say, 'I understand, sir.' But I was able to guard him because Jack told me I could play him."
If Ramsay said it, then it must be true, or it was at least worth a try. He was a tough man to convince about things, but if he believed in your skill as a player or your intellect as a coach, that was as good an endorsement as there was.
"He certainly might have been the most influential coach there was, and there have been so many," Nash said. "He touched lives in a positive way, and people wanted to emulate him."
A noble idea, but good luck with that. Not everyone can swim with the sharks.
Even fewer can summon the dolphins.
Jack Ramsay's Coaching Record
NBA REGULAR SEASON PLAYOFFS
YEAR TEAM W-L PCT. W-L
1968-69 76ers 55-27 .671 1-4
1969-70 76ers 42-40 .512 1-4
1970-71 76ers 47-35 .573 3-4
1971-72 76ers 30-52 .366
1972-73 Braves 21-61 .256
1973-74 Braves 42-40 .512 2-4
1974-75 Braves 49-33 .598 3-4
1975-76 Braves 46-36 .561 4-5
1976-77 Blazers 49-33 .598 14-5
1977-78 Blazers 58-24 .707 2-4
1978-79 Blazers 45-37 .549 1-2
1979-80 Blazers 38-44 .463 1-2
1980-81 Blazers 45-37 .549 1-2
1981-82 Blazers 42-40 .512
1982-83 Blazers 46-36 .561 3-4
1983-84 Blazers 48-34 .585 2-3
1984-85 Blazers 42-40 .512 4-5
1985-86 Blazers 40-42 .488 1-3
1986-87 Pacers 41-41 .500 1-3
1987-88 Pacers 38-44 .463
1988-89 Pacers 0-7 .000
Career 864-783 .525 44-58
1955-56 St. Joseph's 23-6 .793
1956-57 St. Joseph's 17-7 .708
1957-58 St. Joseph's 18-9 .667
1958-59 St. Joseph's 22-5 .815
1959-60 St. Joseph's 20-7 .741
1960-61 St. Joseph's 25-5 .833
(Final Four; adjusted to 22-4 by NCAA because of betting scandal)
1961-62 St. Joseph's 18-10 .643
1962-63 St. Joseph's 23-5 .821
1963-64 St. Joseph's 18-10 .643
1964-65 St. Joseph's 26-3 .897
1965-66 St. Joseph's 24-5 .828
Career 234-72 .765