Frank Ramsey, the Boston Celtics Hall of Famer who pioneered pro basketball’s “sixth man” role with hot shooting and savvy defense coming off the bench while playing on seven N.B.A. championship teams, died on Sunday in Madisonville, Ky. He was 86.
His death was announced by the University of Kentucky, which did not cite a cause.
An all-American at Kentucky and a member of the university’s 1951 N.C.A.A. championship team, Ramsey went on to spend nine seasons with the Celtics during the dynasty orchestrated by Coach Red Auerbach.
Auerbach used the 6-foot-3 Ramsey at guard or small forward when his starters needed breathers, but he was often on the court in tight games during closing moments as well.
Ramsey averaged only 13.4 points a game for his career, but he played an average of only 24 minutes or so per game, the equivalent of just one half. He was the first in a long line of so-called sixth men — players who are not in the five-man starting lineup, but who are put into the game at crucial moments — throughout the N.B.A.
John Havlicek, Kevin McHale, Paul Silas, Don Nelson and Bill Walton were among the Celtics who followed Ramsey in the sixth-man slot, which Auerbach conceived.
Ramsey was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Mass., in 1982. The N.B.A. created a Sixth Man of the Year Award in the 1982-83 season, with the Philadelphia 76ers’ Bobby Jones the first recipient.
“On a lot of teams they make a big deal out of the ‘starting five,’ ” Auerbach observed in “Red Auerbach: An Autobiography” (1977), which he wrote with Joe Fitzgerald. “If you don’t start, it implies you’re not as good or as valuable as the next guy.”
But as Auerbach told it: “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 out there and run them into the ground.”
When Auerbach called on Ramsey, he was ready.
“I never needed many shots in warm-ups to get loose; 10-15 would do it,” Ramsey was quoted as telling Terry Pluto in “Tall Tales,” an oral history of the N.B.A. “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.’ ”
Frank Vernon Ramsey Jr. was born on July 13, 1931, in Corydon, Ky., and grew up on a farm in Madisonville, Ky. Playing for Adolph Rupp, he was a sophomore on the Kentucky team that went 32-2 in capturing the 1951 N.C.A.A. championship.
The Celtics made Ramsey a first-round pick in the April 1953 N.B.A. draft and selected two of his teammates, Cliff Hagan and Lou Tsioropoulos, in later rounds, although each had a year of athletic eligibility left. Since Ramsey and the other two Kentucky players would have obtained degrees by the time the N.B.A.’s 1953-54 season began, they would have been eligible to play in the pros at that point.
But they decided to continue playing for Kentucky, which went 25-0 that season — and then decided not to enter the N.C.A.A. tournament because its three stars had graduated, rendering them ineligible for the tournament.
Ramsey joined the Celtics in the 1954-55 season, when they featured Bob Cousy and Bill Sharman in the backcourt and Ed Macauley at center.
After his rookie season, Ramsey went into the Army. When he returned midway through the 1956-57 season, the Celtics were on the brink of dominating the N.B.A., having obtained Bill Russell, who would revolutionize the center position with his defense and rebounding, in a deal with the St. Louis Hawks in exchange for Hagan, who was in military service, and Macauley.
The Celtics won the 1957 N.B.A. championship, then captured the title eight consecutive times, beginning in 1959, with lineups that at varying times also included Tom Heinsohn and Tom Sanders at forward and K. C. Jones at guard.
Ramsey retired after the 1963-64 season and coached the Kentucky Colonels of the American Basketball Association in 1970-71. He had a farm in Madisonville and was a bank president in the nearby town of Dixon.
Ramsey’s survivors include his wife, two sons, a daughter, six grandchildren and two great-grandchildren, The Lexington Herald-Leader reported.
Ramsey was adept at getting an edge, as he told Sports Illustrated in a December 1963 article titled “Smart Moves by a Master of Deception.”
“Drawing fouls chiefly requires the ability to provide good, heartwarming drama and to direct it to the right audience,” he explained. “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.”
The N.B.A. commissioner, Walter Kennedy, seemed shocked.
Speaking at a basketball writers’ luncheon in Manhattan a few days after the Sports Illustrated article appeared, he was quoted by The New York Times as complaining that Ramsey’s revelations of how “he draws fouls by hoodwinking the officials” was “not the best kind of reading for our fans — most particularly for youngsters who look up to prominent athletes.”
Ramsey was not fined, but he felt the effect of going public. “For a couple months after that,” he told Sports Illustrated many years later, “the officials let people beat the hell out of me.”