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Jack Ramsay Brought Credibility to Pacers

by Mark Montieth |

April 28, 2014

Before Jack Ramsay, the Pacers were at their lowest point in franchise history. They had won 26, 22, 26 and 20 games over the four previous seasons, and were mired so deep in defeat that mediocrity was an admirable goal.

Two things happened in the off-season of 1986. Donnie Walsh was hired as the general manager, and he hired Jack Ramsay to coach the team. The franchise would never suffer so badly again.

Photo Gallery: Jack Ramsay, Pacers Coach

Ramsay, who died on Monday at the age of 89, brought instant credibility to the Pacers, with a presence built by a career that even then was as luminous as it was lengthy. He had been general manager of the Philadelphia 76ers team that won 68 games and the NBA championship in 1967, and the coach of the Portland Trail Blazers team that 10 years later won the NBA championship.

Related: Herb Simon, Larry Bird, Donnie Walsh on Jack Ramsay's Passing

They finished 41-41 his first season, 1986-87, making the playoffs for the first time since 1981, and won the first NBA playoff game in franchise history while losing to Atlanta 3-1 in the first round. Given where they had come from, it was a major step forward. They failed to make the playoffs the following season, finishing 38-44, and then he and Walsh mutually agreed that he should step down when the Pacers started the following season 0-7.

Some would argue the game was passing Ramsay by. Others would say his players weren't able or willing to meet his high standards, or that he simply didn't have the talent on his roster to continue winning. Starting center Steve Stipanovich, after all, missed that third season with what would turn out to be a career-ending injury, and rookie center Rik Smits was forced to play too much too soon.

“We didn't have good enough players at that time,” Walsh said. “Once you took Stipo off that team, it made a huge difference.”

None of that matters now in the bigger picture of Ramsay's career and life accomplishments.

Related: Jack Ramsay Was A Great Coach, Great Person

Walsh only talked with one other person about coaching the Pacers in 1986. Jerry Sloan was an assistant at Utah at the time, but was being groomed to replace Frank Layden as the head coach. The job wasn't offered, or requested, because of that understanding. Walsh hired Ramsay without hesitation, or regret.

“He brought a lot of credibility,” Walsh said. “He was a great teacher, had a very good basketball mind and was a great coach. And, he was a better man than all that.”

Walsh remembers Ramsay's role in drafting Reggie Miller in 1987, after Ramsay's first year as coach.

“Yeah, I'd take this guy in a minute,” Ramsay said after viewing a video tape.

A year later, Ramsay worked out Smits before the draft and gave another hearty endorsement.

“He said, 'Donnie, you've got to take this guy for the franchise,'” Walsh recalled. “Those were his exact words. He knew it wouldn't benefit him because it was going to take time (for Smits to develop).”

Beyond his Hall of Fame coaching career, and his work as a broadcast analyst, Ramsay is remembered most for two things: physical fitness and personal integrity. He worked out incessantly, competing in triathlons into his eighties. He once told Walsh that his fitness regimen consisted of four elements: bicycling, swimming, running and weightlifting. He did three of them each day.

Walsh remembers driving home from work at times and seeing Ramsay up ahead, bicyling home. He also recalls the final time the 1987-88 team was together, on the bus after the season had ended. Walsh asked Ramsay what he was going to do with his free time before the draft.

“I'm going to ride my bike,” Ramsay said.

Chuck Person, who had been Rookie of the Year in Ramsay's first season, overheard and asked where he was going to ride.

“To Philadelphia,” Ramsay said.

Walsh recalls the phone calls the two had about the draft, with Ramsay talking from the side of the highway, trying to be heard over the trucks rolling by.

“He was a standing example of why you should work out,” Walsh said. “He was a vital person. It made his life fuller and longer.

“And everybody who came in contact both liked him and respected him to death.”

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