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Former Buffalo Braves basketball coach Dr. Jack Ramsay remembered as exceptional man

A few months ago, out of the blue came an email from Paul Ruffner, who was a backup center on the Buffalo Braves’ 1973-74 NBA playoff team. He had read that Jack Ramsay had a terminal illness and wanted to know how he could reach him.

Ruffner was a rather obscure Buffalo player for two seasons, playing behind Bob McAdoo, Bob Kauffman and Dale Schlueter, but he had a great deal of respect for his old coach.

Multiply that by four cities – Philadelphia, Buffalo, Portland, Ore., and Indianapolis – a professional league and the entire basketball world for that matter, and you understand the impact Dr. Jack had on the lives of people he came across in his 89 years. Ramsay died in his sleep Monday at his home in Naples, Fla., surrounded by his family.

As it turned out, Ruffner never got in contact with his old coach, but Monday he had this recollection:

“I remember occasions when he took the time to answer my questions of how and where I fit into the team. I was one of the last ones on the bench, but he still took time for me. I appreciated his honesty and openness as we talked. I still, to this day, remember some of the advice he gave to me and to the team.”

Dr. John T. Ramsay lived a remarkable life.

Coaching was his life, but only when he wasn’t doing a lot of other things. At different times, he was as serious about tennis, golf, surfing, swimming, bicycling, running – he competed in more than 20 triathlons up to age 70 – and finally basketball broadcasting.

He always seemed to be interested in the lives of other people and gleaned lessons from their careers that he might incorporate into his basketball teaching.

One time in Toronto, riding a bus to the airport, he got involved in a conversation with a woman who was a ballet dancer. Jack was curious about her art and the training and discipline it demanded. It related to what he thought was needed to be successful in basketball.

When the young and talented 1973-74 Braves were enjoying their remarkable turnaround, it drew a lot of national media attention.

Jeff Greenfield, now a political TV analyst, followed the team to do a feature story for a magazine. Rudy Martzke, who was the Braves’ publicity director, remembered the incident.

“I had some fun introducing Greenfield, who like me was a product of the University of Wisconsin, as the author of famed book ‘The Greening of America.’”

“That sounded appropriate to most of the players and the traveling party. But not to our coach, avid book reader Dr. Jack Ramsay. When I told him of the ‘Greening of America’ tale, Jack interjected. ‘Nope, that was written by Charles A. Reich.’

He had friends everywhere.

Walk down the street in Philadelphia at lunch hour, and heads would turn, there would be nods and hellos. It seemed everybody in Philly with any interest in basketball knew Dr. Jack as a player and coach at Saint Joseph’s and then general manager and coach of the Philadelphia 76ers.

He had a wide circle of friends in all walks of life, not just basketball.

I remember joining in a Broadway show tunes sing-along at Dr. Jack’s 50th birthday at the home of Ed Brennan, a local Sears executive, who later became a CEO of Sears.

Ramsay had a summer home in Ocean City on the New Jersey shore, the hometown of writer Gay Talese. The two would play tennis often.

Once, Ramsay invited me and Bob Powell of the Courier-Express to tag along with him for dinner with Talese at Elaine’s, the uptown hangout of New York literati. Joining us was Pulitzer Prize-winning author David Halberstam, who later wrote a book about Ramsay and the 1977 Portland Trail Blazers NBA championship team.

Talese, a former newspaper reporter, was researching his book on the sex revolution in America. While he was quizzing Ramsay about how it related to professional sports, Powell, Halberstam and I talked basketball. It was an interesting evening where we also met writer Dan Jenkins, author of “North Dallas Forty,” and musician Paul Desmond.

When Ramsay left the Sixers and came to Buffalo in 1972, he inherited a team that had won only 22 games the previous two seasons. There were still holdovers from the 1970 expansion draft on the roster and other journeymen general manager Eddie Donovan managed to acquire, including Walt Hazzard (Mahdi Abdul Rahman), Dave Wohl, Howard Komives and Bill Hewitt. It also included three talented young players – Bob McAdoo, Randy Smith and Elmore Smith.

That 1972-73 team won only 21 games under Ramsay, certainly not an improvement, and his patience was tested. Martzke remembered that Ramsay was getting frustrated by McAdoo’s inability to pick up his offense and went to Donovan asking him to work a trade for McAdoo. This from the man who once gained infamy for trading away Wilt Chamberlain.

“Eddie said, ‘Jack, before I trade him, you’ve got to play him and showcase him for other teams,’” Martzke remembered.

Forced to play McAdoo at center because Elmore Smith was injured, all McAdoo did was finish his rookie season with games of 29, 39, 39 and 45 points, all on the road.

“That was the end of the trade talk,” Martzke said.

Of course, McAdoo learned his lessons and went on to become a three-time NBA scoring champion and the 1974-75 MVP for Buffalo. Ramsay soon built a fast-breaking team around McAdoo’s talents.

Ramsay and Donovan, though, were determined to reshape the Braves roster before the 1973-74 season. Offseason trades brought Jim McMillian and Gar Heard to Buffalo, and guard Ernie DiGregorio arrived via the draft. That reshaped roster – bolstered by the midseason trade that brought Jack Marin and Matt Guokas – went 42-40, made the first of the franchise’s three playoff appearances under Ramsay and played a memorable series against the eventual champion Boston Celtics.

You would think that with all his coaching experience, Ramsay would have learned to have an even keel dealing with the ups and downs of an NBA season. Far from it. Winning never seemed to get old – the beers were on Jack even after a meaningless win by his last-place team. And, even with a team that was destined to lose 60 or more games, he never accepted defeat.

Ramsay was demanding, but he treated his players firmly, fairly and with dignity. The morale always seemed generally good within the team, surprisingly so to one member of the NBA media.

Bob Logan, a visiting writer from Chicago, was in town on a night that the birthday of team trainer Ray Melchiorre was celebrated with a team postgame party in Williamsville. Players, coaches, front office staffers and wives were all there. Logan couldn’t get over the camaraderie.

Bob MacKinnon, the former Canisius star and coach, was Ramsay’s assistant coach for the first two years of his tenure here. The two were well acquainted from their years as college coaches but never had work together.

“We got along very well. He was a great boss,” MacKinnon said Monday. “It’s a big loss to basketball.”

Even with all the time he spent with basketball, Jack Ramsay was a devoted father figure in a remarkable family.

Youngest son Chris, now a producer with ESPN, wonders now how when all five children were under the age of 12, his father was able to coach a Saint Joseph’s team to the NCAA Final Four and at the same time write his doctoral thesis at the University of Pennsylvania.

Ramsay managed to accomplish a lot. In 2001, his wife, Jean, developed Alzheimer’s disease. In between commuting from Naples to Miami for his broadcast assignments with the Miami Heat and ESPN Radio, Ramsay took care of her until she died in 2010.

Oldest son John J., a University at Buffalo graduate, is the provost at Muhlenberg College in Bethlehem, Pa. John played a little basketball at Bucknell, and Chris played locally at Cardinal Neumann and DeSales High. The main basketball connection in the family was with daughter Sharon’s husband, Jim O’Brien, who coached at the University of Dayton and in the NBA with the Celtics, 76ers and Pacers.

He also is survived by two other daughters, Dr. Susan (Vincent) Dailey of Wilton, Conn., and Carolyn (Andrew) Goodman of Los Angeles as well as 13 grandchildren and four great grandchildren.

His impact went across international lines.

Monday, Chris Ramsay penned this on his Facebook page:

“Last summer when my dad was already very sick, a FedEx box arrived at his home with a DVD inside. On the video were dozens of kids doing basketball drills. Many of them were barefoot. The court was broken clay. The baskets were rusty and falling down. But these kids were working very hard, doing drills and more drills for 20 minutes. Kids and coaches working and sweating in the sun on a hot, hot day in Zimbabwe.

“The camera panned away from the action to a sign on a fence that said, ‘The Jack Ramsay Grassroots Basketball Development Clinic.’ As his life was ending, a hopeful project with his name on it was just beginning. Part of his legacy is there, on a basketball court in a clearing on the other side of the world.

“He did a lot of great things. Some were broadcast into millions of homes. Some no one knew about. He had integrity and ambition and a big imagination. His imagination might have been his greatest gift. It allowed him to envision the great life he led and to create the world in which he lived ... in which we lived.”