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Frank Ramsey, NBA’s original ‘sixth man’ who won seven titles with Celtics, dies at 86

Coach Red Auerbach with jubilant Celtics players celebrated after winning the Eastern title against the Cincinnati Royals 142-131, in 1963. Mr. Ramsey was kneeling, in the middle, with, from left clockwise, Bob Cousy, K.C. Jones, Tom “Satch” Sanders, and John Havlicek.ASSOCIATED PRESS/FILE

Frank Ramsey, the National Basketball Association’s original “sixth man” during his nine-season career with the Boston Celtics, embraced the role.

“When our guys got tired, I went in. By just sitting on the bench, I got a chance to see how the flow of the game was going,” Mr. Ramsey said in 1982 during his induction into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.

And when Celtics coach Red Auerbach called on him, Mr. Ramsey said, “I knew what to do.”

Teammate Tommy Heinsohn said Mr. Ramsey “was the ultimate competitor whose mind was in the game before he put a sneaker to the floor.”


Mr. Ramsey, a member of seven NBA champion Celtics teams, died Sunday in Deaconess Midtown Hospital in Evansville, Ind. He was 86, lived in Dixon, Ky., and recently underwent surgery for an aneurysm, according to his son Tripp.

“When our competitive flame lowered a bit and we needed a little juice, Red would time it just right and put Rams in,” Celtics teammate Bob Cousy recalled. “He had that ability to raise his performance level in the most difficult situations, and he could do it in many ways.”

Mr. Ramsey, whose Celtics number 23 was retired, played for Boston from 1954 until retiring after the 1963-64 season. He was a catalyst on both ends of the court, whether muscling his way for an offensive rebound or mastering the art of taking a charge on defense.

A 6-foot-3 guard and forward often called “The Colonel” by the media because of his Kentucky roots, Mr. Ramsey averaged 13.4 career points per game in the regular season and 13.7 in the playoffs.

“Ramsey comes off the bench and turns it on,” St. Louis Hawks coach Alex Hannum told the Globe in the 1950s. “He looks like an angel with that sweet face, but he’s knocking people around and throwing them off their game, and the officials think he’s so innocent.”


Mr. Ramsey loved playing practical jokes on his teammates but took the postseason very seriously.

“When the playoffs started, Frank would write on the blackboard how much we could make by going all the way, and he reminded us we were playing with his money,” Heinsohn recalled.

When the Celtics won their first NBA title at Boston Garden in 1957 by defeating St. Louis, 125-123, in double overtime in Game 7, Mr. Ramsey scored 16 points and had eight rebounds. He sank several clutch baskets in the first OT and broke a 121-all tie in the second OT with a free throw and a jump shot.

That was the first of 11 titles in 13 seasons for the Celtics.

“I get tired quicker, and that’s why I know it’s time for me to go,” Mr. Ramsey told the Globe prior to the 1964 playoffs, which the Celtics won. “But I’ll be ready for these playoffs. I like to play when the chips are down.”

During his playing days, Mr. Ramsey owned or co-owned a lumber yard, two nursing homes, and a grocery store. He also sold eggs and housed chickens in two barns – all back in his hometown of Madisonville, Ky.

He lived with his family in Wellesley Hills during the basketball season and returned to Madisonville in the off-season. Many years ago, Mr. Ramsey became involved in running the Dixon Bank and was its CEO, president, and board chairman at the time of his death.


“I used to kid him that he was the only one of my teammates who owned a town,” Cousy said. “When Rams told us what to invest in, we listened.”

John Havlicek, who succeeded Mr. Ramsey as the Celtics’ sixth man, recalled that “Frank said he wanted to be as helpful to me as he could. I really benefited from being around him. He was my mentor and he got me interested in investing, but more importantly, he taught me about life.”

Frank Vernon Ramsey Jr. was the only child of Frank Sr., a farmer and dry goods store owner, and the former Sara Muncaster, a public school teacher in Madisonville.

In 1959, he told the Globe that when he was young, he realized how fast he could run when he and some friends absconded with watermelons from a man’s garden. “First thing I knew he was shooting buckshot at us,” Mr. Ramsey said, adding that he “beat the whole gang back home.”

A three-time All-American, he starred on the University of Kentucky’s 1951 national title team and the undefeated 1954 team. He also was an All-Southeastern Conference baseball player, graduating with a bachelor’s degree in business administration in 1954.

That same year he married Jean Hardwick, a University of Kentucky cheerleader.

He was a first-round Celtics draft pick in 1953, but played one more season for Kentucky.

Mr. Ramsey’s college teammate and roommate, Cliff Hagan, went on to play for the St. Louis Hawks. The two went head-to-head as NBA playoff finals opponents but remained lifelong friends. Mr. Ramsey’s son Cliff of Henderson, Ky., was named after Hagan.


“We first met when I played on a state championship team for Owensboro High and Frank played for Madisonville,” said Hagan, an NBA Hall of Famer who introduced Mr. Ramsey at the 1982 Naismith ceremonies. “As opponents, we brought out the best in one another. Frank always came to play.”

Mr. Ramsey, who missed the 1955-56 NBA season while serving in the Army, coached the American Basketball Association’s Kentucky Colonels in 1970-71. He is enshrined in the University of Kentucky and college basketball halls of fame.

At his Kentucky home, Mr. Ramsey built a lighted basketball court for his children and their friends, and Madisonville named a street in his honor.

For many years, he wore a watch that was given to Celtics players for winning the NBA title, but most of his mementoes were lost in 2005 when a tornado destroyed his home.

“Dad took shelter in a closet. All that remained standing were two closets, including that one, so he was thankful to be alive,” said Tripp, of Bowling Green, Ky.

After the tornado, Mr. Ramsey moved to a farmhouse he owned in Dixon.

In addition to his sons and his wife, who lives in Lexington, Ky., Mr. Ramsey leaves his daughter, Cynthia Cooper of Madisonville; seven grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.


A service will be held at 11 a.m. Friday, which would have been Mr. Ramsey’s 87th birthday, in First United Methodist Church of Madisonville. Burial will be in Odd Fellows Cemetery in Madisonville.

Former Celtics forward Tom “Satch” Sanders said Mr. Ramsey “wanted to outplay anyone he was up against. It was personal with him. When he came into the game, you knew there would be a momentum change. It was like pushing a button.”

Tripp said his father received letters requesting autographs until the day he died, and he responded to all of them, right up to his surgery.

“He was a humble man who kept life very simple,” Tripp said. “He had a desire to help others, whether it was a friend, a teammate, or a customer, and he never sought recognition for doing it.”

Marvin Pave can be reached at