LAST WEEKEND, two big stories broke in the sports world - one of which involved one of the worst people who ever lived and the other about one of the best. Needless to say, the former got most of the coverage nationwide and the latter hardly a blip.
The story that was covered like a presidential election was, of course, about Donald Sterling and his vicious and outrageous comments about African-Americans. The story that was largely ignored nationwide was about the death of a man who might have influenced basketball as much as anyone, the great Dr. Jack Ramsay.
So much has been written about the Sterling affair that I'll make only a few observations. First, as the story unfolded, it became clear he was coddled and protected by the NBA and its owners for his prior indiscretions. I believe David Stern was the best commissioner in sports history, so I am baffled by this. I heard it explained that there was no finding of guilt in any of the actions brought against Sterling, but that ignores the fact he paid $2.7 million to settle a lawsuit filed by the U.S. Justice Department for racially discriminatory practices in his rental properties. Surely, in a league in which 75 percent of its players are black, this deserved a full investigation and severe discipline.
Second, I am at a loss to understand how the Los Angeles branch of the NAACP gave Sterling a lifetime achievement award and was planning to give him another. As a lifetime member of the NAACP, I think that branch should be taken over by the national office.
Third, although NBA commissioner Adam Silver is deservedly receiving praise for his swift, strong and decisive action, it is becoming clear he had little choice. Players spokesman Kevin Johnson, a former star player and now the mayor of Sacramento, made it clear that if Sterling wasn't banned for life, players would have refused to play that night's playoff games, and maybe all the rest, too.
Fourth, Dallas owner Mark Cuban's original comment that forcing Sterling to sell would be "a slippery slope" for the NBA to navigate was no excuse to not do something. As Pennsylvania governor, I was often told by my two general counsels, Leslie Miller and Barbara Adams, that something I wanted to do might be illegal or get us sued. I told them, "Fine! If we get sued and a court tells us we can't do, it we'll stop. In the meantime, we are going to do what I believe is best for the people of Pennsylvania."
Last, unless Sterling wants to go down in history as one of the most odious people in sports history, he should apologize; sell the team, preferably to the man he maligned, Magic Johnson; and then put the millions he is likely to get from the sale into funding scholarships for African-American college students.
At the other end of the spectrum, when Ramsay died in his sleep last weekend, his family issued a statement that said "he led the greatest life that one could lead." It would be impossible to argue with that. First and foremost, Dr. Jack was a great man. He was a great family man and he lived his life in such a way that Trail Blazers great Bill Walton called him "our moral compass."
He was full of boundless enthusiasm for life, for basketball and for people. I was fortunate enough to know him, and whenever we met, he said something to make me smile. He was impossible not to like, unless, of course, you were on an opposing team trying to penetrate the fullcourt press that became the hallmark of his "pressure basketball."
It's hard to think of anyone who impacted basketball more meaningfully at both the college and professional levels. After playing at Saint Joseph's and coaching high school ball in the Philadelphia area, Dr. Jack was hired by the Hawks to coach their 1955-56 team for the princely sum of $3,500. As would be the case in all of his basketball jobs, he had instant success, leading the Hawks to their first Big 5 crown and gaining the school's first-ever postseason berth, finishing third in the NIT.
In his 11 years at St. Joe's, he was as responsible as anyone for making the Hawks a national basketball power and for creating the magic of the Big 5. His teams went to the NCAA Tournament seven times and to the NIT three times. In 1961, he took the Hawks to their only Final Four, where they lost to Ohio State before winning the consolation game over Utah, 127-120, in four overtimes. But this achievement was tainted when three of his players were implicated in a widespread point-shaving scandal. The NCAA vacated the third-place finish, and Jack was devastated.
Dr. Jack left Hawk Hill in 1966 and was hired as the 76ers' general manager. Again, he had instant success, as the Sixers won the NBA championship. He went on to coach the Sixers, the Buffalo Braves, Portland and Indiana Pacers, in a 21-season NBA coaching career. Ironically, in 1976-77, his first year at Portland, the Blazers upset the Sixers in the NBA Finals.
After those 21 seasons of coaching, Jack became a broadcast analyst. His insight, no-nonsense approach and colorful wardrobe made him a popular commentator.
Upon Ramsay's passing, Silver said, "From his coaching tenure to his broadcast work, he left an indelible mark on every facet of our game and on every person he came in contact with, including me."
Commissioner, you got that right, too! Dr. Jack's funeral was held in Florida on Thursday, but I hope St. Joe's will hold a memorial service in Philadelphia, so all of us who love the Big 5 and love what he meant to Philadelphia basketball can pay our respects and demonstrate again that "the Hawk will never die!"