Frank Ramsey, a native Kentuckian whose basketball legacy includes helping the University of Kentucky win the 1951 national championship and then becoming the original Sixth Man of the Boston Celtics, died Sunday morning. He would have turned 87 this coming Friday.
Richard Clark, a funeral director at the Barnett Strother Funeral Home in Madisonville, confirmed Ramsey’s death.
Ramsey teamed with Cliff Hagan on UK teams that won 86 of 91 games in the early 1950s. That run began with UK compiling a 32-2 record en route to winning the 1951 NCAA Tournament. After a 29-3 record in 1951-52, the Ramsey-Hagan era ended with the only unbeaten season in Kentucky basketball history: 25-0 in 1953-54. The Wildcats were ineligible to compete for the national championship that season.
“He was the one who came in and sparked them,” former UK Coach Joe B. Hall said of Ramsey’s role for Kentucky. “He played with a lot of enthusiasm and a lot of toughness. No one intimidated him.”
Although only 6-foot-3, Ramsey’s 1,038 rebounds rank second on UK’s career list (Dan Issel had 1,078).
Ramsey ranks 27th on UK’s all-time scoring list with 1,344 points.
“Ramsey wasn’t a great outside shooter, but few could deny him off the dribble,” Michael Bradley wrote in a book titled "Big Blue" and produced by The Sporting News. “He was a strong defender and a consummate team player.”
A first-round pick of the Boston Celtics in 1953, Ramsey played on seven NBA championship teams. In his 623 NBA games, he averaged 13.4 points.
Boston’s coach, Red Auerbach, made Ramsey the team’s Sixth Man, a role previously unrecognized. Ramsey began a tradition of famed Sixth Man players for the Celtics that was to include John Havlicek, Paul Silas, Kevin McHale and Bill Walton.
“I knew I was playing behind two all-star guards in Bob Cousy and Bill Sharman,” Ramsey said in 2009. “They were established pros when I got there. So I didn’t take it as an affront.”
Auerbach did not give Ramsey an explanation. “I was just the first substitute,” Ramsey said.
In an interview four years ago, Ramsey suggested the time he and many of his teammates had served in the military contributed to accepting whatever role assigned by the coach.
“We all knew to take orders,” he said.
Ramsey came to enjoy the role. He noted that opponents had grown accustomed to a reserve entering the game as a sign of weakness. A substitute was presumed to be less of a threat, so the opposition relaxed. “So I got a whole lot of shots,” Ramsey said. “To me, it was great. I was playing on a good team. We were all friends. There were no jealousies. And we were winning.”
As his career wound down in the 1963-64 season, Ramsey mentored Havlicek in the Sixth Man role. The NBA began a Sixth Man of the Year Award in the 1982-83 season.
“Frank was famous for being able to get on the floor and first touch he could make a shot,” said Hall of Fame sportswriter Bob Ryan, who covered the Celtics for the Boston Globe. “He didn’t need much warm-up time.”
Ramsey “wrote the book on the job,” Ryan wrote in his history of the Celtics. “Ramsey would handle more than one position and affect the game in numerous ways,” Ryan wrote. “Though just 6-3, he was tough enough and clever enough to play forward. Auerbach reasoned that bigger forwards would have more difficulty keeping up with Ramsey than Frank would have handling them. . . . And when Ramsey played guard, he was a real big guard for the era. He had an incredible capacity to come in cold and hit his first shot.
“It seldom took him long to get his name on the stat sheet.”
Ramsey became something of a controversial figure in his final NBA season. In the Dec. 9, 1963, issue of Sports Illustrated, he spoke candidly of how players would try to deceive referees into making favorable calls.
In the introduction to the article written in the first person, the magazine said of Ramsey, “No one has ever been better at the art of suckering an opponent into committing fouls than this former All-America from Kentucky.”
Ramsey demonstrated this ability to S.I. writer Frank Deford on a court at his Madisonville home. “Drawing fouls chiefly requires the ability to provide good, heartwarming drama and to direct it to the right audience,” Ramsey said. “I never forget where the referees are when I go into an act. The most reliable eye-catcher is still the pratfall. Particularly on defense. When everything else fails, I fall down.”
Then NBA Commissioner J. Walter Kennedy called Ramsey to his office to express his displeasure.
“The officials let me get killed after that,” Ramsey said in 2014.
Ramsey was born on July 13, 1931, in his grandfather’s house in Corydon, Ky. His father, also named Frank, ran a dry goods store. His mother, Sara, was a housewife and later taught school after her only child grew up.
His father wanted him to play baseball. He was an All-Southeastern Conference baseball player for UK. But basketball was his sporting future.
The 70-year bond between Ramsey and Hagan included being roommates at UK as juniors and seniors. And as Ramsey pointed out, he and Hagan both married women named Martha Jean.
Ramsey, Hagan and a third UK player, Lou Tsioropoulos, were drafted by the Celtics in 1953. They had played for Auerbach during a previous summer while working at a resort in the Catskill Mountains. Before playing for Boston, Hagan was included in a trade to the St. Louis Hawks that gave the Celtics a draft pick they used to take Bill Russell.
Ramsey played on Boston's NBA championship teams of 1957, 1959, 1960, 1961, 1962, 1963 and 1964.
Ryan recalled how Ramsey would write the number 5,000 on the blackboard before the start of each playoff season. This was the amount of bonus money each player could receive if Boston won the championship.
“He was very conscious of the monetary aspect of the playoffs,” Ryan said.
Perhaps not coincidentally, Ramsey worked in banking after retiring as a player. In 1896, his grandfather founded the bank in Dixon, Ky., that Ramsey joined in 1964 as a board member. He became president in 1972. He was still at his office when he agreed to an interview four years ago.
His good-natured, unassuming personality was apparent when asked how he’d like to be remembered.
After a chuckle, he said, “a fairly decent guy, I guess.”
Ryan, who lamented how the passage of time can cause a person’s legacy to fade, suggested something grander was appropriate. Ramsey was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 1982.
Ramsey was part of “one of the handful of greatest traditions in college (basketball), so he’s an integral part of that,” Ryan said. “And he’s an integral part of . . . one of the two greatest traditions (in the NBA).
“What a legacy to be part of both of those traditions.”
Ramsey is survived by his wife, two sons, a daughter, six grandchildren and two great grandchildren.