A common consensus in our society is that Michael Jordan is the best basketball player of all time, the former Chicago Bulls standout winning six NBA titles during his 15 seasons in the NBA.
Former Boston Celtic and Dixon Bank President Frank Ramsey only played nine seasons in the NBA, but his success during his time in Boston not only somewhat devalues what Jordan accomplished, but it also adds whole new meaning to the word “efficiency”.
Under the legendary Red Auerbach, Ramsey and his Celtic teammates brought home the title a staggering seven times in a decade that is the most decorated and colored in all of Celtics history. It was simply a transition from one historically significant dynasty to the next, as Ramsey spent his college years playing for college basketball legend Adolph Rupp at the University of Kentucky, winning one national championship in 1951.
Drafted by the Celtics in the first round in 1953, Ramsey did not participate in his rookie year until the 1954-1955 season, opting to play at Kentucky one more year as a graduate student. That particular Wildcat team is regarded by many as one of the famous in school history, finishing the season with a perfect 25-0 record.
Ramsey played one season for the Celtics, averaging before being drafted into the army in 1955.
“I played one year, and then I went into the service,” said Ramsey. “In fact, when we won our first championship in 1957 I was still in the army. I had taken 60 days leave and 10 three-day passes. I didn’t get discharged from the army until two days after we won our first championship.”
It was not uncommon for NBA players to also serve in the military at the time, and the structure of the organization was quite different then what we see in the NBA today, where players oftentimes ‘run the show’.
“It was different because when I first started there were only eight teams, so there were only 80 players in the NBA,” said Ramsey. “Most of the guys had been in the service. It was different. You accepted discipline. We would have a timeout at the end of the game and Auerbach would ask us ‘What do you think?’. We’d tell him and then we would make the decision. And him making the decision was like the general telling a private what to do. We went out and played like we were told to. But it was completely different from college, where Coach Rupp was the absolute boss, because everybody in the NBA had an opinion. At one point in Boston we had eight future Hall of Famers on the same team.”
So Ramsey had a good deal of competition. Ramsey did not get to start many games for Boston but he provided a valuable spark off the bench for Auerbach and the Celtics.
“You have to remember when I first started out as a rookie I was playing behind two All-Star guards, Bob Cousy and Bill Sharman,” said Ramsey. “I was happy. I got to play plenty of minutes and I knew that after Tommy Heinsen joined the team, and he was a ‘two cigarette at halftime man’ that after seven minutes passed I would get to play the rest of the time.”
This was not an uncommon practice at the time. In fact several players were like Heinsen at the intermission, with some players even chugging down a can of beer between halves.
This is just one difference in the NBA then and the NBA today. Another thing that Ramsey discussed was how he and his teammates interacted with their opponents.
“We were all friends,” said Ramsey. “I think some of the guys that play today do not like even their own teammates.”
“You have to realize that we were playing the Eastern division teams 12 times a year. If you played them in the playoffs that’s possibly 19 games a year against one team. So if you got into a fight in the first or second game then that would carry into all the other games the rest of the season. “We were just all friends. I know we played in Cincinnati one night and Jack Twyman invited us (the Celtics) all over to his house to have sandwiches after the game.”
It was also a different time as far as the reciprocation that Ramsey and his teammates received for all their valiant efforts on the hardwood.
“We didn’t make a whole lot of money,” said Ramsey. “The first year we won the championship the whole team’s salary was under $200,000. I think some of the players today make that much for one game.”
“I was certainly happy with that though. We were winning, we all got along, our wives got along which made home life a whole lot better.”
The home life was more of the reality at the time, too, with the NBA being more like a part-time job for the players.
“It’s a completely different atmosphere (today),” said Ramsey. “The minute the season was over when I was playing we all had summer jobs. We didn’t make enough to support a family year-round and the minute the season was over we didn’t touch a basketball until we started training the next year.”
“The house I lived at in Boston was owned by a couple who went to Florida during the winter. We’d live there during the season, I’d call them the minute the season was over, and then we’d come back on down to Madisonville.”
Ramsey worked various jobs in Madisonville during the summer months, being employed by anything ranging from a grocery store to a construction company.
According to Ramsey, the team had to report back to Boston in September for training, with the season beginning a few weeks after that.
“We would go up there in the fall and it would be right at the end of baseball season,” said Ramsey. “We didn’t have our own training facility so we trained with the Boston Bruins (the hockey team).”
“We had two-a-day practices for two weeks. Auerbach tried to kill you to get you into shape. And then we travelled by car for two weeks to play a teams around New England, and then we started the season. So were in very good shape.”
Ramsey retired from the NBA in 1964, and his best statistical season was 1957-1958, when he averaged 16.5 points and 7.3 rebounds per game. Ramsey averaged 13.4 points per game throughout his career, and his #23 is retired by Boston---a place where he will always be a Celtic basketball immortal.
Upon retirement Ramsey had a certain opportunity that would have made him a legend in the Boston and New England area but he declined to go to the place that he said would always be home: western Kentucky.
Reach CAMERON BROWN at firstname.lastname@example.org