O’Brien Carries Noble Legacy Of "Dr. Jack"
By Conrad Brunner | June 1, 2007
Heading into the 1988 NBA Draft, the Pacers faced a critical decision. Coming off a disappointing 38-44 finish, they held the No. 2 pick and had to determine whether to bypass a promising long-term prospect in order to seek more immediate help.
Donnie Walsh asked his coach, Jack Ramsay, to work out the prospect in question: a raw 7-4 center from Marist named Rik Smits.
"I knew he was going to be a couple of years away," Walsh said. "Jack worked him out and came to me and said, 'Look, Donnie, I know this might not be good for me, but the franchise has to take this kid.' I thought that was a great statement."
Jack Ramsay (L) helped turn around the Pacers 20 years ago, a feat son-in-law Jim O'Brien hopes to repeat in his first season as head coach.
It was typically analytical and selfless of Ramsay, who lasted just seven games into the 1988-89 season in part because Smits wasn't yet ready to fill the void left by the freakish knee problem that forced center Steve Stipanovich into a premature retirement. By the time Smits blossomed into an All-Star center and franchise cornerstone, Ramsay was retired from coaching and well into his second career as an NBA analyst.
Ramsay's noble legacy has returned to the Pacers in the form of new coach Jim O'Brien, his son-in-law, married to the former Sharon Ramsay.
"It's great because he really wanted to get back into it and the franchise got a very, very solid coach," said Ramsay by telephone Friday from his Florida home." The team will be a little better than you think it should be. The team will be better than the sum of its parts.
"Personally, you couldn't get a better person. He's off-the-charts in terms of human qualities. He's honest, he's intelligent, he's sincere. Professionally, he really understands the game, he's a good tactician and the players will play for him. They couldn't get a better guy."
From that description, O'Brien sounds a lot like Ramsay, which is exceptionally good news for the Pacers.
"My father-in-law Jack Ramsay has been a tremendous influence on my life," O'Brien said. "There are not many games that I've coached in the NBA at Boston or Philadelphia where I don't call Jack Ramsay after the game. He's been a great sounding board. A lot of times after a game when you're driving home, on the cell phone you're a little bit irate but he knows how to say the things that kind of get me into a good frame of mind."
Twenty years ago, Ramsay was the toast of Indianapolis after guiding the Pacers to a 41-41 record – a 15-win improvement over the previous season – and their second NBA playoff berth. In so doing, he helped entrench Walsh after just one season as G.M.
O'Brien is facing a similar situation, with Larry Bird having just assumed the decision-making mantle from Walsh, needing to reverse the fortunes of a team that won just 35 games in 2006-07.
None, however, are dealing with the challenge currently confronting Ramsay.
It started more than three years ago, with a barefoot run on the beach and the uncomfortable feeling that he must've stepped on something. When Ramsay had his foot examined, he learned it was much worse than suspected: he had melanoma, a malignant cancer.
Ramsay has since undergone chemotherapy as well as proton-beam therapy for tumors in his leg, lungs and brain and his most recent scan was encouraging. But it's clear that, at age 82, he has a major battle on his hands.
"I've been very fortunate," Ramsay said. "I've lived beyond what everybody thought already so every day is a bonus for me."
Because he has always been a man with a real aversion to adversity, Ramsay is approaching it with his typical selfless zeal. He reported no side-effects from the cancer therapy, to the amazement of his family, and has maintained a full work schedule as one of the most respected NBA analysts in the media. He is scheduled to cover the NBA Finals for ESPN.com, the same outlet that until Thursday employed O'Brien as a columnist during his hiatus from coaching.
"I feel good," Ramsay said. "I've had some kind of cancer since '99 and I haven't had a day that I didn't feel good. Of course, there are some days you don't have as much energy as others, but I've been blessed to be able to deal with this.
"I'm just going to take it one day at a time and try to squeeze the most out of it."
It seems like Dr. Jack already has recorded his biggest victory.
The New York Post's Peter Vecsey reported Thursday the Pacers were close to a deal sending Jermaine O'Neal to the Lakers in a package that could include forward Lamar Odom and center Andre Bynum. This very report, in fact, could well have been the reason Bryant opted to recant his trade request because it gave him reason to believe the Lakers were serious about acquiring some legitimate help.
"I didn't read Peter's story," said Bird. "You hear a lot of rumors this time of year. We've always said we'll move any player on our team if we think it can make us better. Jermaine's been a big part of our success here over the years and he's a very talented player. You would hate to give up on someone like that unless you got something back in return that's very, very good. I hear Kobe wants to leave L.A., so maybe we can talk."
Kobe, or not Kobe?
That is the question.
O'Brien has decided to retire to pursue other interests. He's giving up his blossoming career as a Web columnist to pursue an entirely different profession that will require him to work nights and weekends, not to mention travel frequently.
Believe me, I offered O'Brien, who has been serving as an ESPN Insider columnist during his sabbatical from coaching, the opportunity to continue blogging for Pacers.com. Alas, he respectfully declined.
The Website's loss, however, is the franchise's gain. From what I can gather, he's pretty good at his other job.