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Defensive genius, ability to motivate players lift Jack Ramsay to top rank of NBA coaches

By Phil Elderkin / March 1, 1984



When his Portland Trail Blazers are on the basketball floor, Head Coach Jack Ramsay hunches forward in front of the bench, his right knee resting on a folded towel, not unlike a man about to propose marriage. But what Ramsay is proposing is that his players get back quicker on defense.

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If this seems like a strange setting for a man whose PhD was earned in a classroom and not on a playground, so be it. Getting the most from his personnel is what the Blazers' coach is all about.

There is great accord among his players and many of his peers that Jack has the soundest and best-organized technical mind in the National Basketball Association. Although he is a little short on world titles (his only championship coming with Portland in 1976-77), his teams have won more games ( 655) than those of any current NBA coach.

What Ramsay teaches better than any other coach in the league is a trap-zone defense that has just enough man-to-man principles to fit comfortably inside the rules. While most players don't like to pay the physical price this kind of defense takes, Jack somehow makes it happen.

Basically this is Ramsay's personal Taj Mahal, and players who can't or won't accept the rigid discipline he teaches can expect to be traded. Maybe not right away, but soon if they don't react in the proper manner.

When Portland practices, it is never a simple run-through of plays but a physically demanding session in which Jack confronts his players with the sorts of problems that might have to be dealt with later in a game. While this approach is not unique in pro basketball, it is not all that common either once the season has started.

''All players need an offensive and defensive system they can believe in,'' Ramsay told me. ''They might not like it, but if it produces wins they will accept it. Eighty-two games is a long season even when you're winning. And when you're losing, it can seem like an eternity. In fact, part of a rookie's adjustment in this league is to get used to the traveling.

''Players also have to understand what their job is and how to do it,'' continued Jack, who was a frogman in an underwater demolition unit that trained for an invasion of Japan during World War II. ''I'm not sure I know what motivation is, but I know that you have to have it to win. My theory is that the best way to get a man's attention if he isn't following your instructions is to sit him down and not use him again until his attitude changes. If that's motivation - well, then that's the way I motivate.''

Asked what it takes to win night in and night out in the National Basketball Association, Ramsay replied: ''The obvious one is dedication. You can't have a bunch of guys out there who can't relate to a system or to their teammates. But the three things that really win for you are rebounding, getting to the free throw line regularly as a team, and keeping turnovers to a minimum.

''When I say rebounds, mainly what I'm talking about are offensive rebounds, '' Jack continued. ''But just getting the ball and putting it up a second time isn't enough. The ball still has to go through the basket before it's worth two points. And if you can't make that happen a majority of the time, you're probably not going to win.''

Ramsay also likes people who can penetrate inside, and who can draw a foul in traffic while laying the ball into the basket - because now they've got a chance or make it a three-point play. What probably upsets Jack most are mental errors, meaning turnovers that result in the other team coming up with the ball.

One thing Ramsay's rivals have always recognized is his ability to consistently beat teams with better personnel. Of course Jack first did this as a college coach at St. Joseph's (Pa.). But it has also carried over to his three NBA stops in Philadelphia, Buffalo, and Portland.

Although Portland does not have a center the equal of Los Angeles' Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, the Blazers have been challenging the Lakers for first place all season in the NBA's Pacific Division.

When a reporter wondered if Portland would be able to catch them, Ramsay said: ''I have never been a coach who has allowed teams above or below me in the standings to dictate my method of operation. I've always thought it more profitable to spend that time improving my own club and not worrying about the other fellow's problems.

''To win a division title in pro basketball, you at least have to split with the best teams you play, and not just the Lakers. Our problem has been the same all year; not winning enough games on the road. That's the key to where we finish - not what the Lakers might or might not do.''