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Jack Ramsay: Remembering a gem, a Hall of Fame coach and popular ESPN and Miami Heat broadcaster

Ramsay was a teacher at heart and a mentor and idol to many; He led by example; The stories he shared were priceless

 

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Halberstam

Coach Jack Ramsay, born February 21, 1925, was a popular broadcast analyst for ESPN and the Miami Heat. He died at 89 on April 28, 2014.

Last Friday, I posted his birthdate on social media as I do routinely for other broadcasters both alive and deceased.

The responses were heartfelt and filled with praise. No surprise. Ramsay was a gem of a man who touched many, a star-studded Hall of Fame coach and more importantly a Hall of Fame human being.

One of the tweets was from an Armand Broady who suggested that I do a piece on Jack whom I got to know fairly well in the 90s.

For those unfamiliar with Ramsay, he first excelled on the bench at St. Joseph’s in Philadelphia and later in the NBA, where he led the Trailblazers to their only world title in 1977. Ramsay had a doctorate in education and never groped for the right word. Crossword puzzles were often within his hand’s reach. Finishing them kept him sharp mentally until the end.

He was also a triathlon athlete who hardly missed a day working out. Ramsay maintained what Vin Scully would call a ‘washboard stomach.’

Jack was in his late 60s when he began to preside over the microphone. Age was not a deterrent. He went about his new role with the brilliance and determination that defined his coaching career. He was cheerful,  instructional and a fan favorite in South Florida.

Six of the eight seasons that Ramsay and Eric Reid teamed popularly on Heat telecasts in South Florida, there were four of us who traveled as a team. Jack, Eric, Jose Paneda, the team’s Hispanic voice and I were dubbed the Four Horsemen.

I called the team’s games on radio and it afforded me an opportunity to get to know Jack. He was a teacher at heart who was wise and irrepressible. To most, he was Dr. Jack. To others, he might as well have been Uncle Jack. There was no one more approachable, warm or generous with his time.

I learned lots about Ramsay and more about myself through him. I regret not having written anything down.

So in no particular order, these are some random recollections of stories he shared with me and the memories I have of him.

  • I first made eye contact with Jack when I was the back-up announcer for the Knicks. It was the second game of the 1987-88 season and we were at old Market Square Arena in Indianapolis. At some point in the game, Jack, the Pacers’ coach, was slapped with a technical. If looks can kill, the ref would have been DOA. As I got to know Ramsay, it reinforced a lesson. Don’t judge those whom you don’t know at first blush.
  • Ramsay and I started the same year with the Heat, 1992-93. During our first three seasons, we traveled on the team charter, often sitting near one another. It gave me a chance to pick his brain. When Pat Riley took charge in 1995, the chartered aircraft became the exclusive sanctuary of the coaching staff and team. The four broadcasters were relegated to commercial flights and coach seats. I still have visions of Ramsay stuck in a middle seat on a crowded flight. He was hardly robust but he wasn’t small either. Still, Jack never complained. It spoke of his character. It spoke of a Navy vet. It spoke of a man raised in what Tom Brokaw dubbed, The Greatest Generation.
  • Money was almost unimportant to Ramsay. He never made a ton, yet was always generous. When we as a group went out to dinner, he often picked up. Jack told me that his biggest paycheck as a coach was his last season in the league, 1988-89. He was with the Pacers and made $400,000. Assistants today make twice or three times that amount. Oddly, his last season was truncated. He left the Indiana bench after a difficult start, 0-7. 
  • Image result for alligator alley photos at nightRamsay was fearless. He and his wife had a winter home in Naples. Home games in Miami were almost road games for him. In his 70s, he drove home alone through the 80-mile pitch-dark stretch across Alligator Alley. There was and still is just one rest stop along the way. When he felt fatigued, he might stop for a Coke. Alligator Alley is hardly a roadway to wind up with a disabled vehicle in middle of the night. Just in case, Jack kept a pistol handy on the passenger’s seat.
  • Ramsay was in his 70s when we were at the Old Forum in Los Angeles. The Lakers opened the floor to the media one morning to allow the group to engage in a pickup game. There was Jack in middle of it all against men half his age. He held his own. What a competitor!
  • One thing that Jack didn’t talk much about was his 1960-61 St. Joseph’s University team. What he experienced almost killed him. Ramsay led the Hawks to the Final Four but three of his players were caught taking bribes, Frank Majewski, Jack Egan and Vince Kempton. As a result, St. Joe’s had to vacate its Final Four appearance that season. Otherwise, Ramsay would have been in rare air, winning an NBA title and taking a college team to the Final Four. (The only coach to win both is Larry Brown.) Only once did he tell me that it was a difficult time in his life but I didn’t push it.  I later read a piece that indicated Jack blamed himself. He had told one of the wrongdoers to quit his job as a $40 a week bartender and focus more on his coursework and game. The three offenders each made less than $1,000 for shaving points. Jack eventually left St. Joe’s and joined the 76ers as General Manager. Eventually, he would coach four NBA teams,
  • Through the years, we talked about other broadcasters. I asked him about Chick Hearn, the iconic Lakers announcer. Jack chuckled and proceeded to share a story. “One morning, I walked into the Forum in Los Angeles where the NBA held summer league games. And there was Chick at center court, with a lanyard around his neck and a whistle in his mouth, Chick the ref!”
  • On his longtime Blazers announcer, Bill Schonley. “Oh Schonz. He called our games sitting at the table right near our bench. After losing our third straight game one season, I hear Schonz tell the audience, ‘This is the worst stretch in the history of the franchise!’ I just turned around, looked at him for a couple seconds and shook my head. Oh that Schonz!”
  • On Van Miller in Buffalo: “Van was a prankster. We only flew commercial. We landed one day and we’re all filing off the plane. Van turns to a stranger, a woman walking down the aisle behind him. He says, ‘Mam, you’re wearing two different earrings.’ The woman screams, ‘Oh my goodness.’ Van was long gone before the poor woman had a chance to check and realize that Van was pulling her leg.”
  • Jack had lots of respect for the late Hot Rod Hundley, legendary Voice of the Jazz. He told me that Hot Rod was one of the few play-by-play voices who understood the game he called.
  • One night, we were playing somewhere out west. Knowing that we both appreciate a good word, Jack came up to me before the game and said, “Bill Spooner is one of the officials tonight.” I knew where he was headed. “Yes, coach. The word is spoonerism.”
  • Ramsay shared an in-game experience that he found unforgettable. On April 25, 1975, one of the all-time great NBA referees, Mendy Rudolph was working a playoff game between the Washington Bullets and Buffalo Braves when he suffered a major heart attack. As he was being taken off the court on a stretcher, Mendy motioned for Jack, then coaching Buffalo. In a life-threatening state, Rudolph still wanted to apologize to Jack for being unable to complete the game. Jack told me the story with a puckered forehead which said a lot about Mendy’s integrity and fortitude. Shortly thereafter Mendy retired. He died at age 53 in 1979.
  • Jack told me that after tough losses on the road, he would sometimes leave the hotel and walk off his anger. He’d do so at midnight or later. The neighborhoods around some of those downtown hotels weren’t the safest. But Jack was undeterred. He was ready to tackle the toughest of the undesirables at any hour.
  • Other than my dad and a couple senior business associates who’ve guided me through the years, there were three people whom I got to know well and regarded with enormous reverence. The overarching legacies of pioneering broadcaster Marty Glickman, former St. John’s University Athletic Director Jack Kaiser and Jack Ramsay were that they happily helped others and that their words were their bonds.

In closing, Jack will be one I’ll personally remember to my dying day. Not long after I met him, when my wife Donna and I had two young kids, we were considering a third. On one of those chartered flights, I asked Jack what he thought. “It’s a no-brainer. Have another kid.”

Well, our youngest, our third, Jaime is now a law student at NYU. She has her mother’s smarts.

What a man. Jack Ramsay! Rest in peace!

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David J. Halberstam
David J. Halberstam

David is a 40-year industry veteran who served as play-by-play announcer for St. John's University basketball in New York and as radio play-by-play voice of the Miami Heat in South Florida. He is the author of Sports on New York Radio: A Play-by-Play History.

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