Growing up in Milford, Connecticut, Jack Ramsay was encouraged to participate in sports in grade school by his parents, Anne and John. With his family moving to a Philadelphia suburb, Ramsay graduated from Upper Darby High School in 1942. Years after playing basketball, baseball and soccer in high school, he was inducted into the school’s Wall of Fame in 1979. Strongly encouraged by his mother to attend college, Ramsay entered Saint Joseph’s College. Ramsay’s college career was interrupted by three years of service in the US Navy during World War II. Ramsay played both basketball and baseball at St. Joseph’s. In his senior year, Ramsay was coached in baseball by Pep Young, a teammate of professional baseball star Ty Cobb. In 1949, Ramsay became the first member of his family to receive a college bachelor’s degree. In 1962, Ramsay obtained his master’s degree and in 1963 his doctorate degree in education, both from the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia.
After graduation, Ramsay played six seasons of professional basketball in the Eastern Pennsylvania Basketball League. As a sophomore playing guard, he was the second-leading scorer for the Harrisburg Senators in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Ramsay averaged 14 points in his career playing for the Senators and the Sunbury, Pennsylvania professional team. To supplement his playing income, he coached basketball at St. James High School in Chester, Pennsylvania and later at Mount Pleasant High School in Wilmington, Delaware.
After coaching in the high school and minor-league ranks during the early postwar years, Ramsay became head coach at St Joseph’s in 1955. Ramsay got the job after accidentally meeting the college’s moderator of athletics at a Philadelphia Phillies baseball game. Ramsay was hired as coach for the 1955-56 basketball season for $3,500.
In Ramsay’s first season at St Joseph, the Hawks went 23-6 to win their first Big 5 crown. This first season also marked the school’s first-ever postseason playoff berth, in which St Joseph placed third in the NIT after losing to Dayton University. Ramsay would remain at St. Joseph’s through 1966, leading the Hawks to six more Big 5 crowns, five straight seasons of first place finishes in the Middle Atlantic Conference, ten postseason appearances, and a Final Four stint in 1961.
At age 41, after leading his team to a 24-5 record in 1965-66, Ramsay was diagnosed with an edema on the retina of his right eye. Ramsay left his coaching job with the Hawks on the doctors’ recommendation that he reduce stress. Ramsay finished with a record of 234-72 games in his college coaching career.
After leaving St Joseph’s, Ramsay was hired as general manager by the Philadelphia 76ers. Team owner Irv Kosloff gave Ramsay a three-year $25,000 deal. In Ramsay’s first season, the 76ers won the NBA title after finishing 68-13, then the best record in NBA history. The team averaged 125 points with Wilt Chamberlain contributing an average of 24 points, 24 rebounds and eight assists per game. However, Ramsay was forced trade Chamberlain and Chet Walker, receiving little value in return.
In 1968, Ramsay became the 76ers head coach. In Ramsay’s first game coaching an NBA team, the 76ers zone press won 114-96 against the Los Angeles Lakers at the Spectrum, even though Lakers players Jerry West, Elgin Baylor and Chamberlain combined for 71 points. The 76ers finished that first season with Coach Ramsay 55-27. The 76ers led the NBA in scoring (119 points per game) as a result of Ramsay’s style of aggressive pressing defense.
In his four seasons as 76ers coach, Ramsay led the team to three playoff appearances. While the 76ers continued to be contenders, the team was much weaker than in previous seasons.The team’s collapse came in 1971–72, when the 76ers posted to 30-52 record and missed the playoffs for the first time in team history.
After the 1971-72 season, Ramsay became the head coach of the Buffalo Braves. After compiling a losing 21-61 record in that first season in Buffalo, Ramsay had the team double their win total the next season by finishing first among the league’s 17 teams in offense (111.6) even though they were last in defense (111.8). That second season in Buffalo had Ramsay leading the Braves to the playoffs, where they pushed the eventual champion Celtics to six games in the conference semifinals. His Buffalo tenure was almost a mirror image of his time with the Sixers—four seasons, three playoff berths; however, he did not leave Buffalo in the sort of wreckage that had occurred in Philadelphia. Instead, owner Paul Snyder was in the process of selling the team to out-of-town interests (the economy of Western New York was unable to support both the Braves and hockey’s Sabres as evidenced by the Braves’ attendance figures at the time but Snyder lost interest) and Ramsay requested not to be a part of the upheaval. In his four seasons with the Braves, Ramsay compiled a record of 158-170.
In 1976, Ramsay became the head coach of the Portland Trail Blazers. When Ramsay arrived, the Blazers had not made the playoffs or compiled a winning season record in their six-year history. However, a Blazers young team, led by Bill Walton was starting to gel. Ramsay also benefited from the 1976 ABA dispersal draft, in which the Blazers obtained power forward Maurice Lucas.
In his first season in Portland (1977), Ramsay led the Blazers to their first NBA title. In his second season, the Blazers were 50-10 after 60 games and favored to repeat as NBA champions. However, Walton broke his foot, ending the Blazer’s winning prospects. Ramsay continued to coach the Blazers until 1986 with general success. However, he never equaled the achievements of his first seasons. During Ramsay’s last nine seasons in Portland, the Blazers only won two playoff series. He also coached the Western Conference side in the 1978 All-Star Game.
Ramsay took over as coach of the Indiana Pacers for the 1986–87 season. Ramsay coached the Pacers to their second winning record as an NBA team. However, Ramsay was unable to duplicate that success in later seasons. Ramsay resigned as Pacers coach during the 1988–89 season after a 0-7 start.
When Ramsay left the Pacers, he was second on the all-time wins list for NBA coaches with 864 wins, trailing only Red Auerbach. In 1996, he was voted one of the 10 greatest coaches in NBA history. In 1992, Ramsay was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame.
After his coaching career ended, Ramsay spent nine years as a television color commentator for the Philadelphia 76ers and the Miami Heat. The games were broadcast from South Florida’s Sunshine Network (now Sun Sports),Fox Sports Florida, and sometimes local Miami station WBFS (then a UPN affiliate). Ramsay worked alongside announcer Eric Reid.
During Ramsay’s tenure as Heat commentator, he developed some memorable nicknames and phrases for the Heat players. Whenever point guard Tim Hardaway made a three-point shot, Ramsay shouted, “this away, that away, Hardaway!” When Alonzo Mourning dunked the ball, Ramsay exclaimed “Zo with the stuffa!”. Whenever a Heat player made a nice shot, Ramsay screamed “bottom of the net!”
In addition to his TV and radio work, Ramsay authored several books, including The Coach’s Art and Dr. Jack’s Leadership Lessons Learned From a Lifetime in Basketball.
Ramsay’s son-in-law Jim O’Brien has been the head coach of the Boston Celtics, Philadelphia 76ers, Indiana Pacers and The University of Dayton. Grandson Geoff Dailey played baseball at Wesleyan University. His two eldest children, Susan and John, have doctoral degrees and taught at the college level. Another son, John, was an assistant dean at Carleton College. Ramsay counted on the late David Halberstam and Gay Talese as his friends. Ramsay was a devout Roman Catholic.
Ramsay had a pair of brain concussions in his playing career; one happened while playing a college game in 1948, the second in 1954 during an Eastern League game. In 1999, a routine medical exam revealed an early diagnosis of prostate cancer. The ensuing therapy led to a successful treatment that Ramsay didn’t miss a single game that season as commentator. In October 2004, Ramsay was diagnosed with melanoma. He had another bout with the disease in his later years. On May 10, 2013, Ramsay announced that he was again starting cancer treatment, ending his broadcasting career.
Ramsay died of cancer in his sleep the night of April 27, 2014. He was 89. Ramsay’s longtime employer ESPN announced his death on Twitter.
- February, 21, 1925
- Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
- April, 28, 2014
- Naples, Florida