He was also something of a spiritual presence, former players said. He could fix you with an unblinking gaze that could work its way right into your soul.
His players loved him, as everybody loves a winner. And Dr. Jack, as he was affectionately called, was all about winning.
John T. Ramsay, who finished out his sports career as a respected broadcaster, died early yesterday in Naples, Fla., after a long battle with cancer. He was 89.
Jack Ramsay, who earned a doctorate in education from the University of Pennsylvania, began his coaching career at his alma mater, St. Joseph's University, in 1955.
Over 11 seasons, he amassed a 234-72 record and guided the Hawks to five straight NCAA Tournament appearances and nine consecutive postseason bids - both school records.
In the 1965-66 season, the Hawks were chosen as the pre-season No. 1 team in the nation by Sports Illustrated.
In 1966, he left St. Joe's to become general manager of the 76ers. In his first season, the Sixers - anchored by Wilt Chamberlain - won a record 68 games and the NBA championship.
When coach Alex Hannum resigned, Jack got back to the coaching bench, which he had missed.
It was then that he stirred controversy when he traded Chamberlain to the Lakers and the team slumped badly.
He denied he traded Wilt. "Wilt traded himself," he said.
Jack left the Sixers in 1972 to become the coach of the Buffalo Braves. His star player was Hall of Famer Bob McAdoo, who said in a statement: "He was so much into physical fitness and that's why we were so successful. It was very fun playing for him."
In his first season as coach of the Portland Trail Blazers, 1976-77, the team won the NBA championship. The star of that team was Bill Walton, who once said: "Jack's life is a beacon which guides us all. He is our moral compass, our spiritual inspiration. He is a true saint of circumstance."
Jack coached the Indiana Pacers from 1986 to 1988, when he left coaching for a broadcasting career. He became an analyst for 76ers games, and later with the Miami Heat. When he joined ESPN, his producer was his son, Christopher Ramsay, now ESPN.com's NBA senior deputy editor.
In a tribute, Christopher described his father as "a basketball genius, a true innovator. He taught a team game, a pure form of basketball, sharing and giving. With the right personnel, it was unbeatable."
While fighting his own battle with cancer, Jack took care of his wife, the former Jean Duffey, whom he married in 1949. She suffered for 10 years with Alzheimer's disease and died on Jan. 30, 2010.
"He was really sweet with her," Christopher wrote. "She didn't know who he was half of the time, but he held her hand when she was scared and fed her and tried to ease her through the confusion for days and months and years."
Jack Ramsay was born in Connecticut and came to the Philadelphia area as a child. He graduated from Upper Darby High School. When he went on to St. Joe's, the school didn't even have a gym. Basketball coach Bill Ferguson asked Jack and a few others to try out, using the the gym at St. Joseph's Prep.
Jack won a a full scholarship to the university, but his studies were interrupted by World War II. He served in the Navy as a member of an underwater demolition team (UDT members dislike the term "frogmen"), used to reconnoiter enemy beaches and plant explosives.
His unit was preparing for the invasion of Japan, but two atomic bombs rendered that unnecessary.
Jack always claimed that his Navy training sparked his passion for physical fitness.
"I learned how important physical condition is," he once said. "I learned how to focus on an objective in spite of all kinds of hazards. I learned how to deal with stress, too. If you make a wrong move with explosives, it could be deadly."
After three years in the Navy, Jack returned to Philly and resumed his education, and his basketball.
Over the years, Jack ran marathons and competed in at least 20 triathlons. He was a natural athlete. He rode his bicycle halfway across the country, learned to surf, and when he took up golf, won a championship at his country club. He even played baseball at St. Joseph's University for a season.
When he was living in Ocean City, N.J., Jack's idea of a recreational swim was to take off over open water from Ocean City to Longport. While living in Florida, he also took long swims in the Gulf of Mexico.
"Dr. Jack Ramsay was a legendary figure in Philadelphia and a man whose passion and contributions to this city and the game of basketball will long be remembered," said 76ers chief executive officer Scott O'Neil. "He left an indelible mark on the basketball community - from the Big 5 to our organization and throughout his storied career within the NBA. He was a friend and mentor to those who knew him, both on and off the court."
"The entire ESPN family is saddened by the loss of our beloved NBA analyst, Dr. Jack Ramsay," said ESPN president John Skipper. "It was our great pleasure to work with Dr. Jack, and his energy and zest for life resonated in all that he did. He leaves an amazing legacy of helping fans understand and appreciate the game he loved."
Interestingly, Jack's legacy has extended as far away as Zimbabwe in Africa.
His son said that last summer, the family received a DVD showing dozens of kids doing basketball drills.
"Many of them were barefoot," Chris wrote. "The court was broken clay. The baskets were rusty and falling down, but these kids were working very hard, doing drills and more drills for 20 minutes. Kids and coaches working and sweating in the sun on a hot, hot day in Zimbabwe."
Then the camera panned to a sign on a fence: "The Jack Ramsay Grassroots Basketball Development Clinic."
"Part of his legacy is there," Christopher wrote, "on a basketball court in a clearing on the other side of the world."
Besides his son, Jack is survived by three daughters, Susan Dailey, Sharon O'Brien and Carolyn Ramsay; another son, John G. Ramsay; 13 grandchildren; and one great-grandchild.
Services: Funeral Mass 11 a.m. Thursday at St. John the Evangelist Church in Naples, Fla.