By Tim Wendel
Any coach can win when he has enough players to run his system. It’s the rare coach who can find a way to win when missing key
pieces to the puzzle. That’s what made Jack Ramsay a Hall of Fame coach.
Famous for his plaid pants, Ramsay coached at St. Joseph’s in the collegiate ranks and four teams (the Philadelphia 76ers, Buffalo Braves, Portland Trailblazers and Indiana Pacers) in the National Basketball Association. He died last night at the age of 89 after a long battle with cancer.
Ramsay, like many of his coaching brethren, believed in big men. In his system, they not only anchored the middle of the defense but he looked to them to be an integral part of the offense as well. But in 1972, Doctor Jack (he earned a doctorate from the University of Pennsylvania) found himself without a bona-fide big man in a league that still had plenty of them. In adjusting to his talent, Ramsay transformed the Buffalo Braves into unlikely winners.
Bob McAdoo arrived in Buffalo about the same time as Ramsay. At 6-foot-9, McAdoo had played center at North Carolina and believed he could do the same in the NBA, even though many initially believed he was better suited to be a forward in the professional ranks.
When the Braves got off to a slow start in 1973-1973, only their third year in the league, Ramsay increasingly began to play McAdoo at center. Not only did the newcomer take charge of the Braves’ front court, outperforming veteran players, he would eventually be named rookie of the year.
In addition, Ramsay turned to Randy Smith to bolster his backcourt. Smith remembered that when the season began he and McAdoo were at the end of the bench. “We’d sit there and watch those guys make all those mistakes and we’d be on the bench knowing we could do better. We had to be better than that.”
Soon Ramsay came to the same conclusion, even if it meant playing a rookie like McAdoo at center, going against the likes of Kareen Abdul-Jabbar and Dave Cowens, and a second-year guard in Smith, who was better known for his soccer skills in college.
After Ernie DiGregorio, an acclaimed rookie out of Providence, joined the Braves, Ramsay realized that he had to go against his personal preferences if Buffalo was to succeed. Ramsay and general manager Eddie Donovan looked to trade for more big guys, but the price was too high. That’s when Ramsay decided to go all in on offense.
“With McAdoo at center, Garfield Heard at strong forward, Jim McMillian at small forward and Randy Smith and Ernie D. in the backcourt, we could run and score,” Ramsay once told me. “It seemed like we were destined to be that kind of team. We were like what the Phoenix Suns with Steve Nash became in this era of basketball. We had to outscore everybody else.”
And they often did. With Ramsay at the helm, the Braves made the playoffs the next seasons and became one of the NBA’s major draws.
Before the 1976-1977 season, the Braves and Ramsay parted ways. Ironically, the Braves would soon have the inside muscle the coach long cherished, with the arrival of rookie forward Adrian Dantley and briefly bringing in center Moses Malone. The next year Ramsay won the NBA Championship as coach of the Portland Trailblazers.