Frank Vernon Ramsey Jr. was born July 13, 1931 in Corydon, Ky. His family moved to Madisonville when he was five years old. His parents, Frank and Sara, owned a farm and dry goods store.
He played for legendary coach Adolph Rupp at the University of Kentucky alongside future Hall of Fame forward Cliff Hagan. He was a two-time Consensus All-American and a member of the Wildcats’ 1951 national championship team. Ramsey averaged 14.8 points and 11.4 rebounds in three seasons at Kentucky.
Ramsey was selected by the Celtics with the fifth overall pick in the 1953 NBA Draft. The Celtics also selected Hagan (21st overall) and forward Lou Tsioropoulos (57th overall). The three did not begin their professional careers until the 1954-55 season.
Kentucky’s 1952-53 season was cancelled after a point-shaving scandal. The lack of basketball games enabled Ramsey, Hagan, and Tsioropoulos to really focus on their studies and they graduated with a year of eligibility remaining. Instead of joining the Celtics, they elected to return to the Wildcats for the 1953-54 season.
Kentucky went 25-0 with a 27-point average margin of victory. The Wildcats beat LSU (led by future Hall of Famer Bob Petit) for the SEC Championship and automatic bid into the NCAA Tournament but it wasn’t meant to be. A little-known rule at the time prevented graduate students from playing in the postseason. Rupp didn’t want to take a chance on the team’s unblemished record without its three best players so the Wildcats didn’t participate in the NCAA Tournament.
In addition to being a star on the hardwood, Ramsey also played baseball at Kentucky. He once referred to his career with the Wildcats as “a doctorate athletically”.
Ramsey joined a Celtics team in 1954 featuring the Hall of Fame duo of Bob Cousy and Bill Sharman in the backcourt and Ed Macauley at center, averaging 11.2 points and 6.3 rebounds. After his rookie season, Ramsey spent one year in the Army before returning to the Celtics midway through the 1956-57 season. The team had recently acquired Bill Russell from the St. Louis Hawks in exchange for Hagan and Macauley.
The Celtics went on to win the 1957 NBA title. Beginning in 1959, they won eight consecutive championships. Red Auerbach used Ramsey at guard or small forward when the starters needed to rest. He was also called upon during the closing moments of tight games.
Ramsey played an average of 24.6 minutes (the equivalent of just over one half of a game) averaging 13.4 points, 5.5 rebounds, and 1.8 assists in nine seasons with the Celtics. He was the first sixth man—a player who wasn’t in the starting lineup that is inserted into the game at critical junctures—in the NBA.
“On a lot of teams, they make a big deal out of the ‘starting five’,” Auerbach said in his 1977 autobiography. “If you don’t start it implies you’re not as good or as valuable as the next guy. That’s not the way we looked at the men on our bench in Boston.
“Psychologically, as soon as you pull one of your starters out of the game, the other team is going to let down just a bit. That’s when I wanted a guy like Ramsey or Havlicek to get there and run them into the ground.”
Auerbach gave Ramsey the green light and he didn’t need much to get going.
“I never needed many shots in warm-ups to get loose; 10-15 would do it,” Ramsey said in the NBA oral history “Tall Tales”. “I sat on the bench with my warm-up jacket open so I could rip it off as I ran to the scorer’s table the second Red called my name. I went into the game looking for a shot. People said I had no conscience. Red told me: ‘When you’re open, shoot it. That’s why you’re here’.”
In 623 career games, he scored 8,370 points to go with 3,410 rebounds and 1,134 assists. Ramsey’s best statistical season was the 1957-58 campaign, where he averaged 16.5 points and 7.3 rebounds. The Celtics were defeated by the St. Louis Hawks (featuring Ramsey’s college teammate Hagan) for the 1958 NBA title. It was the only season of Ramsey’s career that the Celtics didn’t win the championship.
Ramsey was a pioneer in another arena: the art of drawing fouls. He explained his technique in a controversial 1963 Sports Illustrated article.
“Drawing fouls chiefly requires the ability to provide good, heartwarming drama and to direct it to the right audience,” he 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.”
Ramsey wasn’t punished by the league for the article. He was verbally reprimanded by commissioner J. Walter Kennedy. He also noticed something from officiating crews in the aftermath of the article’s release.
“For a couple of months after that, the officials let people beat the hell out of me,” Ramsey said in a 2014 Sports Illustrated interview.
Ramsey retired after the 1963-64 season. His seven NBA championships tie him with his teammate Jim Loscutoff and Robert Horry for fourth all-time. Ramsey’s No. 23 jersey was retired by the Celtics in 1964. He was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 1982. The NBA handed out the first Sixth Man of the Year award to the Philadelphia 76ers’ Bobby Jones the following year. Ramsey was inducted into the College Basketball Hall of Fame in 2006.
Ramsey was Auerbach’s first choice to replace him on the Celtics’ sideline when he retired after the 1965-66 season. Instead, Ramsey moved back to Madisonville due to his father’s ill health. He would dabble in coaching with the ABA’s Kentucky Colonels. Ramsey was named head coach of the Colonels 17 games into the 1970-71 season. He went 32-35, leading the Colonels to the 1971 ABA Finals to face the Utah Stars (coached by Ramsey’s ex-teammate Sharman). The Colonels lost the series 4-3.
After his season of coaching, Ramsey returned to Madisonville. He settled into life as a president of a bank founded by his grandfather in nearby Dixon. In 2005, the family home was destroyed by a tornado. Ramsey, the only person home at the time of the storm, was unhurt but lost memorabilia. One of his plaques was found miles away. The family moved into the farmhouse but the family home was never rebuilt.
The Celtics released a statement on Ramsey’s passing.
“As a seven-time NBA Champion and the original ‘Sixth Man’, Frank Ramsey helped create a legacy of excellence and selflessness that carried through generations and remains part of the Boston Celtics ethos to this day. A true gentleman known for his elegance and thoughtfulness he remained a loyal and active member of the Celtics family throughout his days. We join those celebrating his life and mourning his passing.
Ramsey died at a hospital in Evansville, Ind., about 50 miles from Madisonville. No cause of death was released. He is survived by his wife, Jean; sons, Tripp and Clifford; daughter, Cynthia; six grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.
– Curtis Rawls is a Managing Editor for Full Press Coverage and covers the NFL, the New York Giants, and the NBA. Please like and follow on Facebook Twitter, and Twitter. Curtis can be followed on Twitter @CuRawls203.