When I signed with the Portland Trail Blazers in June 1976, Lenny Wilkens was still the coach. Jack Ramsay was hired about a month later.

Among my first impressions of Jack: His passion for the game, his belief in his system, and the importance of fitness.

The first thing I learned from Jack was fitness. I had never heard of stretching before. We were stretching before practice, after practice and in our sleep. As part of the preparation for training camp the first year, we all were required to run a mile in six minutes and do 300 rope jumps in two minutes.

Jack had given everybody ropes during the summer. I can remember being in my garage, practicing and practicing. How tough that could be — wow! I’d never jumped rope before.

To get in 300 jumps in two minutes, you could make two mistakes and recover. Three mistakes, no way.

I remember my wife, Kathe, and I would go up to the track at Lewis & Clark College. Kathe would be there with a stopwatch. Gotta get under six minutes!

It was a conditioning thing, but also a discipline thing. Jack would never ask you to do something he wouldn’t do. A lot of what I learned from Jack was from his teaching and coaching the team, but a lot of it came from the way he led his life and the example he set with his life. He was always in tremendous shape. He competed in triathlons until he was in his 80s.

When we were on the road, he’d take his bathing suit and always seemed to find a pool. He loved running and bike riding, too. As a player, you appreciated his striving for excellence and the work required to get there.

He had a true commitment to what he believed in. Jack was “all in” with everything he did. He expected you to be “all in,” too. That first season, he was a new coach and we had seven new players, so the learning curve was about the same for everybody.

Bill Walton was not the leader of our team. Maurice Lucas was not the leader. There was no one player who was the leader of our team. The true leader of our team was Jack Ramsay. We took all of our cues from him.

Jack was an extremely cerebral coach and expected everyone to have a high basketball IQ. That’s part of the reason why the team was put together the way it was.

His offensive system was fun to play in. We were encouraged to run, but it was a controlled fast break, with structure. Jack was comfortable enough in his coaching and himself that he gave players the freedom to improvise. You could improvise on the break and on offense, but ultimately it came down to the “system.”

There were many times during a timeout when Jack would say, “First possession, let’s run a ‘fist down.’ “ Someone would say, “I think we can get a ‘two out,’ Jack.” He’d say, “OK, go with that, then come back with ‘fist down,’ ” never feeling threatened by the input.

At shootarounds, going over how we were going to play the opponent, he might ask, “How do you guys want to play this?” He’d listen, process it and, if it had merit, he’d say, “Let’s go with it.” He was very secure in who he was as a coach and a person.

As cerebral as Jack was, his defensive philosophy was very basic and effective: To take away the opponent’s strengths and force them into their weaknesses. If you were beaten or made a mistake, you knew a teammate was there to cover for you. And he knew if he picked up your guy, you or another teammate would pick up his.

That was the team spirit Jack instilled in all of us. Of course, we had the luxury of having Walton back there as our defensive anchor. But Jack fostered the feeling of confidence that we were in it collectively, as a team.

Our goal at the beginning of the 1976-77 championship year was to just make the playoffs. We accomplished that, and more, by totally buying into and believing in Jack’s system. Individually, we were OK. But our roles were so well-defined, and we all accepted them, deferring individual stats for the well-being of the team. That belief in the system made the sum of the parts more efficient than the individual parts.

Jack had a tremendous amount of respect for Bill. His individual stats could have been better, but that was not what Bill or Jack were about. Bill had total respect for Jack and his philosophies about the team. It’s a shame Bill couldn’t have had an injury-free career. Jack always felt Bill could have been one of the best, or maybe the best center ever, had he stayed healthy. I agree.

As good a coach as he was, Jack was even more enjoyable to be around off the floor. People saw his demeanor during the game — all business — and thought he was like that all the time. It couldn’t be further from the truth.

Off the floor, he was so much fun to be around. You could joke around with him, and he was very willing to give it right back to you. He also was very willing to get involved in a practical joke. He had a tremendous sense of humor and was a pleasure to be around.

One year, Jack and I went to Astoria to be co-grand marshals of a parade. We were talking to set up a meeting point at a restaurant for the drive there. Jack said, “When I come in, there’s going to be something a little different about me.” I’m thinking mustache, beard, or maybe he permed his hair.

Kathe and I get to the restaurant first. Jack comes in. At first we didn’t realize it was him. Kathe and I both did a double-take. He was wearing a hairpiece. It looked like George Burns’ first toupee, circa 1948. Oh my God! Kathe and I cracked on him big-time about it. I’m not sure the toupee saw the light of day after our meal.

Jack was very well-read, an extremely intelligent person — a true Renaissance man. It wasn’t just about basketball with him. You could have a conversation with him on any number of subjects.

I last saw Jack late last summer. I made the 3 1/2-hour drive to his place in Ocean City, N.J., so we could visit. Best trip I ever made. Jack looked frail. He looked pale. But he was mentally as sharp as ever, as positive as could be and as funny as could be.

When I was there, (former Clippers and Nets head coach) Don Casey also stopped by. We had a fabulous time reminiscing. It was three to four hours that I’ll never forget.

Jack’s death is very sad. When you look at Jack and his fitness and the way he lived his life, you thought he was bulletproof. It proves we’re on this Earth for only a finite amount of time.

I believe the word “great” is an extremely overused word. Watch any sporting event. How many times do the announcers use “great”? Way too often.

But Jack was one of the great coaches. He had a fabulous system to play in. He defined roles well. He let you play. He let you express yourself individually, but ultimately, everything was about team. We took verbal cues from him. A lot of our cues were from his coaching, but many more were from the way he approached his profession and the way he approached his life.

Jack Ramsay was a great person. I’m very fortunate to have played for him, worked for him and was able to call him a friend for 38 years.

Dave Twardzik's No. 13 jersey stands among those retired numbers honored on banners hanging from the rafters at the Moda Center.

Twardzik, 63, was a starting guard for the 1977 National Basketball Association champion Portland Trail Blazers and a disciple of head coach Jack Ramsay, who died April 28 of cancer at age 89. Twardzik played four years in Portland for Ramsay and coached two-plus years with him at Indiana.

Twardzik was chosen by Portland in the second round of the 1972 NBA draft out of Old Dominion in Norfolk, Va., but chose to sign with his hometown Virginia Squires of the old American Basketball Association. After four seasons, the NBA and ABA merged, and the Squires folded. Twardzik then signed a free-agent contract with the Blazers, who had retained his rights. His playing career was cut short by a back injury.

After retirement, he worked five years with the Blazers — four years as Bill Schonely's radio analyst, another year in marketing — before moving on with Ramsay to Indiana. Twardzik later served as an assistant coach with the Los Angeles Clippers, as director of player personnel with Charlotte, as general manager with Golden State, and as director of player personnel and assistant GM with Orlando.

Currently living in Norfolk and working as a radio analyst and in community relations and fund-raising at his alma mater, Twardzik shares memories of his old coach here.

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