The longer I spend covering sports, the more my idea of a sports hero evolves.
There was a time when I held more admiration for a play-hard-live-harder kind of athlete—Rod Strickland, Rasheed Wallace, Jonny Gomes, Michael Jordan—because I once lived by a similar work-hard-play-harder ethos. The flare blazing across the sky and leaving a smoky trail captured my imagination far more than the reliable, relentless sweep of a lighthouse.
As I’ve gotten older (as opposed to growing up, something with which I still wrestle), my appreciation for those with staying power has grown. I now appreciate the discipline needed to seek improvement when it comes in tiny increments rather than leaps and bounds; the wisdom to gather and focus an energy supply that requires an occasional night’s sleep; and both the humility and hunger to work around strengths that have weakened and flaws that have become full-on hindrances.
Which brings me to Dr. Jack Ramsay.
By the time we first worked together some 15 years ago, his Hall of Fame career as an NBA coach was well behind him. I had just left The Washington Post to join ESPN as a senior writer for its magazine and, as it turned out, the chance to sit in front of a TV camera now and then. Ramsay was 10 years past the last of his 21 seasons and 1,647 games as a head coach.
In his first stint with the Buffalo Braves, he coached a guard named Randy Smith, whose photo was the first I could recall clipping out of a magazine and taping to my wall. It was a thrill to think I now had a tangible link, no matter how flimsy, to the bundle of muscle, massive 'fro and perpetually floating gold chain that first made the NBA a magical place in my head. I had interviewed Jack a handful of times for various projects in my days as a newspaper beat writer, but being able to call him a colleague felt like a rite of passage akin to my first press pass.
We first worked together on a weekly show then called NBA Today. It was taped in the early afternoon and aired a few hours later, 5 p.m. on the east coast, if I remember correctly. It was TV on training wheels—at least for me, because if you screwed up a segment, you simply did it over. Dr. Jack worked from a remote studio in Florida, and I did the same from one in San Francisco.
It was my first regular national TV exposure; I’m guessing it was not a benchmark of any kind for him.
A few years later, "NBA sideline reporter for TV and radio" was added to my cache of ESPN hats, which meant working on the same radio crew with Dr. Jack and Jim Durham for All-Star Games and the NBA Finals. Radio coverage of a live event meant putting on a suit and tie for no real reason but also offered a better platform for storytelling. That, combined with the chance to swap stories, points of interest and potential tactics over breakfast every game day with Dr. Jack and the rest of the crew made it one of my favorite and most valuable assignments of the year.
As far as on-the-job insight into the game, it was on par with attending Pete Newell’s Big Man Camp and learning about the finer points of pro basketball in a gym or over dinner from Newell and a coterie of disciples that included Kiki Vandeweghe, Rick Carlisle, Marc Iavaroni and Pete Gaudet.
Others, such as Dr. Jack’s son Chris, probably can offer more colorful anecdotes about Dr. Jack. I don’t have any other than the sight of him, nearly 40 years my senior, setting the pace to and from our rental car. Or hearing him sense the shift in a game and translating that to listeners so that they felt not only as if they were there but shared his power to anticipate what was about to happen.
Nothing gave me greater satisfaction than to report something from a huddle or the sideline that Dr. Jack felt worthy of amplifying. Or picking at a plate of eggs and bacon with butterflies, believing I had been granted a seat at a table with basketball royalty.
After each of my last few NBA Finals working with Dr. Jack, I made a point of sending him a note of thanks for his trust, insight and friendship. I did it because while I never felt particularly close to him—especially compared to his tight bond with his longtime radio partner, Durham—I did feel indebted to him. Every year, it seemed, he was battling another form of devastating cancer; and although year after year, he’d show up once more for that first breakfast in his sweatpants, T-shirt and beach sandals, I knew even “Rambo,” as ESPN radio chief John Martin called him, couldn’t beat Father Time.
I wish I had a specific insight he provided into the game or a specific piece of advice he provided on life in general to illustrate his impact, but that’s not how it worked with Dr. Jack. That would’ve been too scripted, too ostentatious. Aside from the godawful plaid jackets and bell-bottoms he wore on the sidelines during the '70s, he avoided all that.
Much like his marches across those parking lots, he didn’t tell you how to make it snappy; he simply showed you. He didn’t tell me to remain teachable; he showed me by continuing to solicit advice from, and ask questions of, lesser lights as myself, synthesizing the new information with what he already knew.
His attention and care for his family made me reflect on how much time I was spending away from mine, magnified by Dr. Jack always asking me how mine was doing, all of which ultimately prompted me to ask out of my contract with ESPN. Now and then I could sense his frustration with those the network chose to serve as experts, but it was merely a sense and, in spite of his reduced role and level of regard in their constellation, he still brought the same preparation and passion to the work at hand.
He’d also ask about my surfing and time in the ocean, a passion we shared. In spite of all his health issues, I’m told he continued his open-water swims well into his 80s. (He also dismissed, though, more apocryphal tales of doing hundreds of daily push-ups and sit-ups.) In any case, as my body’s resilience to impact sports wanes, he looms as a standard-bearer in that department as well.
I understand now, in a way I didn’t earlier in my career, what it’s like to see people and places slip into the rearview mirror and then out of sight altogether. I wasn’t surprised that after Durham unexpectedly died of a heart attack 17 months ago, Dr. Jack retired five months later. Nor was I surprised when Martin told me during Game 4 of the Warriors-Clippers series that Rambo was not doing well; as it turned out, he died in his sleep that night.
Martin gave me the news as I looked at my nine-year-old son and 11-year-old daughter, who, along with my wife, were with me at the game, because I’ve made a concerted effort the last few years to combine my love of the game, my hunger to keep snaring those professional increments and my love for my family.
So, one last time: Thank you, Dr. Jack, for showing me how to get it done. The butterflies are still there.
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