St. Joe's says a final thank you to Jack Ramsay

Cliff Anderson (second from left) and Paul Westhead (third from left), who played for Jack Ramsay at St. Joseph's, were among those at the memorial Mass. DAVID MAIALETTI / Staff
Cliff Anderson (second from left) and Paul Westhead (third from left), who played for Jack Ramsay at St. Joseph's, were among those at the memorial Mass. DAVID MAIALETTI / Staff (and Paul Westhead (third from left), who played for Jack Ramsay at St. Joseph's, were among those at the memorial Mass. DAVID MAIALETTI / Staff)
Posted: August 15, 2014

The other parts of the basketball world got to remember Jack Ramsay in their ways when he died in late April.

In the Pacific Northwest, he was the beautiful mind behind the unselfishness and brilliance of the 1976-77 Trail Blazers, the team responsible for Portland's only NBA championship.

In dozens of disparate countries, Argentina and China and Israel and more, he was the game's ambassador, running instructional camps, helping grow the NBA into a global brand. In the collective consciousness of post-cable-TV generations, he was Dr. Jack, wielding his insight and intellect each night on ESPN.

But at St. Joseph's, Ramsay was always something more: an alumnus, a coach, a professor of education, a teacher in every regard, "the touchstone," as his son-in-law Jim O'Brien put it. In turn, something more was required of the university to celebrate him in its way. So on Wednesday night, more than 600 people filed into Hagan Arena for a memorial Mass, right there on the court, to honor Ramsay - men who coached with him or against him or learned something about coaching from him, men who played for him over the 11 years he was the Hawks' head coach, alumni and staff members and media and people who had a connection, however tenuous or tangential, to him or the Hawks or the Big Five.

On a night such as Wednesday, the little campus on 54th and City Avenue never feels so large, and the Philadelphia basketball community never so tiny and tight-knit.

"Jack doesn't stand alone, but it was guys like him who fostered that - the Harry Litwacks, the Jack Krafts," said former St. Joe's and Sixers coach Jim Lynam, who played on Ramsay's 1961 Final Four team and coached under him. "And every school is a part of that. They saw the Philadelphia community as bigger than any one of us. There's something that ties us all together, and they realized how special it was. I don't try to make it bigger than life or bigger than what it was, but it was unique."

The timing of the service at first might have seemed odd, given that Ramsay died, at age 89 after a decade-long battle with cancer, on April 28. It was not odd. It was ideal. Ramsay had five children and 14 grandchildren, and the entire family would gather for a reunion in Ocean City, N.J., each year at this time - a weeklong event that began with a golf outing for his friends and former players at Atlantic City Country Club. Over those seven days, Ramsay was patriarch and mentor. He was Coach. He was Dad. He was Pop.

At last year's reunion, though, Ramsay did something that struck his family, that made them stop and think. By then, the cancer had begun to consume him at last, and a great American life had begun winding down. To call him a renaissance man still wouldn't do him justice. He had been an underwater demolition expert in the Navy, part of the unit that became the SEALS. At 21, he captained his own Navy ship. When he completed his Ph.D, all of his children were still under the age of 12. He authored several books. He competed in triathlons when he was 70. He cared for his wife, Jean, for nine years after she was found to have Alzheimer's disease and until she died in 2010.

He also had long been a devoted Catholic, tethered to St. Joe's Jesuit traditions and teachings, and a habitual communicant, sometimes slipping into the school's chapel in between the education classes he taught there, going so far as to seek out a 9 a.m. Mass in San Antonio or a 7 a.m. Mass in Los Angeles during his years coaching and broadcasting.

So at the dinner table one night in Ocean City, he "called a timeout," his son Chris said Wednesday, rising from his seat "to implore us to renew our relationships with God." They should make time, he said, for that which would give them lasting fulfillment, instead of immediate pleasure.

To stand in Hagan Arena on Wednesday night, listening to stories such as these, was to wonder: How many present-day college coaches would share such a perspective? How many of them could?

For months now, a debate has raged around the power of the NCAA and the purpose of college athletics, about whether schools should pay athletes or whether the biggest and richest institutions should break away and go play football and/or basketball by themselves - a debate that, more than anything, is about money. It's not about connecting to a community, and it's not about the notion of balancing academics and athletics and university life. It hasn't been about that for a long time.

"He'd turn over in his grave," said Don DiJulia, St. Joseph's athletic director. "He's at the essence of what it's supposed to be: developing young people to learn and grow through sports."

That was Jack Ramsay's way at St. Joseph's. For one night, it was nice to think of it again.


msielski@phillynews.com

@MikeSielski

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