Jack Ramsay, a Hall of Fame basketball coach who led the Portland Trail Blazers to the 1977 NBA championship before he became a broadcaster, died in his sleep early Monday in Naples, Fla., the team announced. He was 89.
Ramsay coached in the NBA for parts of 21 seasons before embarking on a career as an NBA analyst for ESPN. He was diagnosed with melanoma in 2004 and later battled growths and tumors that spread to his legs, lungs and brain, as well as prostate cancer and most recently a marrow syndrome.
His affinity for fitness never wavered, though. Ramsay, who competed in at least 20 triathlons during his life, worked out regularly into his 80s, even as he battled the various forms of cancer. He often spoke of his love of swimming in the Gulf of Mexico near his home in Florida or jogging in a pool or from wall to wall in his hotel room when on NBA assignments.
"He was that rarest of men with a unique style that was inspirational and motivational about basketball and life itself," said Paul Allen, who owns the Trail Blazers.
Ramsay enjoyed enormous popularity within the league. To commemorate his 89th birthday this year, Portland coach Terry Stotts wore a loud checkered jacket and open-collared shirt for a game — a nod to how Ramsay dressed when he coached the club.
"Jack's life is a beacon which guides us all," Bill Walton, who was on Ramsay's 1977 title team in Portland, told USA Today in 2007. "He is our moral compass, our spiritual inspiration. He represents the conquest of substance over hype. He is a true saint of circumstance."
John T. Ramsay was born Feb. 21, 1925, grew up in Philadelphia and enrolled at Saint Joseph's in 1942. His college career was interrupted by service in the Navy during World War II, but he returned to become captain of the basketball team at Saint Joseph's for his senior season. He graduated in 1949, then earned a doctorate in education from the University of Pennsylvania, explaining the "Dr. Jack" moniker by which most players and fans knew him.
He started coaching his alma mater in 1955 and was wildly successful, going 234-72 and taking the Hawks to the NCAA tournament seven times and the Final Four in 1961.
Ramsay left to become general manager of the Philadelphia 76ers, which won the NBA title in his first season there, 1966-67. He took on the team's coaching duties in 1968, then in 1972 became coach of the Buffalo Braves (which later became the San Diego Clippers and then the L.A. Clippers).
He was hired to coach in Portland in 1976. With a team featuring Walton and Maurice Lucas, Ramsay delivered an NBA championship in his first season, beating the 76ers in six games in the final series.
"For me, it was a once-in-a-lifetime experience and one that I will cherish forever," Ramsay said in a 1997 interview.
Indeed, that was his lone NBA title as coach. Walton got hurt the next year, crippling Portland's chances of getting back to championship form during that era. Ramsay coached the Trail Blazers for nine more seasons without another trip to the finals. He spent the final three years of his NBA coaching career in Indiana, resigning from the Pacers in 1988 after the team started 0-7.
Ramsay, who had a record of 864-783 as coach, was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 1992 and in 1996 was honored as one of the league's top 10 all-time coaches.
After leaving the Pacers, Ramsay began working as a television analyst on 76ers games. He worked on Miami Heat television broadcasts for eight seasons before moving full time to ESPN for radio and TV commentating before the 2000-01 season.
Ramsay spent several years late in life caring for his wife, Jean, who was diagnosed in 2001 with Alzheimer's disease. She died in 2010.