|BYU’s Danny Ainge is defended by Notre Dame’s John Paxson in the 1981 Sweet Sixteen round. Ainge put himself on the map with the winning shot. (1981 File/Associated Press)|
Old shooting guard Ainge was on target in resurrecting Celtics
The Danny Ainge who took on the entire Notre Dame basketball team 30 years ago, representing the entire state of Utah in those shorty-shorts and baby-blue uniforms, still exists.
After a coast-to-coast drive, and with one flip of his right wrist, Ainge brought Brigham Young athletics to the national forefront with a layup that defeated the Fighting Irish, 51-50, and put the Cougars in the NCAA Elite Eight.
And, in a way, Ainge has raced the length of the court again, though a few pounds heavier and with his hair grayer. This time, his mission was not to save BYU but to resurrect the Boston Celtics.
Reviving a franchise that had plummeted to unthinkable depths in the late 1990s couldn’t be accomplished with conventional thinking. Ainge was hired as executive director of basketball operations in 2003 after a three-plus-year stint as coach of the Phoenix Suns and a three-year hiatus to spend time with his growing family.
The Celtics would not have reestablished themselves as an elite NBA organization — or be championship contenders again this year — had it not been for Ainge’s unconventional and sometimes defiant style.
“It’s not my job to listen to the outside world, the media, or the fans,’’ said Ainge. “It’s my job to identify what our weaknesses are and to improve those weaknesses and not listen and respond to those outside forces.
“My experience as a player and my experience as a head coach has helped me do better and define the real reasons we were winning or losing. That is my job.’’
Ainge, 52, is remembered by many as the fiery Celtics shooting guard who after a short career in professional baseball helped Boston to NBA titles in 1984 and 1986, one of the faces of the workmanlike Celtics who battled the Showtime Lakers for NBA supremacy throughout the decade.
Now Ainge is the fiery Celtics president, determined to squeeze at least one more NBA title out of this Hall of Famer-laden crew. He is a risk taker, a headstrong general with enough arrogance to make brash decisions and enough humility to allow those under him to work without interference.
“The more we were together, the better it got,’’ said Celtics coach Doc Rivers, who was hired by Ainge in 2004. “That’s probably the league’s problem — the two parties [coach and general manager] don’t want to wait long enough to figure each other out.
“Danny knows what you want and goes and gets it, and I don’t know if there’s a guy who’s better at it. He just lets me do my job.’’
The hiring of Rivers, who was fired in Orlando after losing 10 of his first 11 games in 2003, wasn’t wildly popular in Boston. And neither was retaining him after he won just 57 games over a two-year period before the arrival of Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett to join Paul Pierce.
Turning point in 2007 While Ainge enjoyed the fruits of that 1980s run with the Celtics, he also watched as Larry Bird, Robert Parish, and Kevin McHale aged and faded away, leaving the franchise in ruins.
So as a Celtics executive, instead of taking the customary route of rebuilding through the draft and with younger cornerstones, Ainge made the daring move of trading a core of those players and draft picks for Allen and Garnett in a five-week period in 2007, instantly giving the organization credibility.
Before the Allen and Garnett acquisitions, Ainge’s seat was unquestionably hot. He had tried to rebuild through the draft, and his first move as GM was to trade former All-Star Antoine Walker. It was not a popular move, but Ainge never felt the flamboyant Walker was on board with the team concept.
But that only extended the suffering. The Celtics were quickly eliminated in the playoffs in 2005. Ainge then started banking on unproven youngsters, hoping they would turn into stars. Gerald Green was one of them, along with Al Jefferson and Sebastian Telfair.
The Celtics finished with the league’s second-worst record in 2006-07, but they believed the lottery balls would land in the right place this time, and make up for 1997, when Boston missed out on Tim Duncan.
But fate was cruel again. The Celtics fell to fifth in the lottery, missing out on Kevin Durant and Greg Oden. Ainge took one of his calculated risks on draft night, trading the fifth pick, Delonte West, and Wally Szczerbiak for Allen and Glen Davis.
“I knew we had to do something,’’ Ainge said. “There was pressure to win and to improve. And it may have taken many more years for that to happen if we followed the blueprint. We couldn’t do that.
“I am a risk taker. But I am a calculated risk taker. I just don’t do things off the top of my head. Losing drives me to work, and we were losing.’’
A fierce competitor That drive for success started long before Ainge returned to Boston in a management role. He left the comforts of Eugene, Ore., as a three-sport high school standout to join BYU in 1977. The Cougars had not advanced to the NCAA Tournament since 1972 before Ainge led them to the second round in 1979.
Ainge quickly earned the reputation as a cocky, hard-nosed player who drew triple teams. But there was more to Ainge’s approach than just being a silky scorer with a big mouth.
“Here’s a college player who knew the names of every opponent and what they could do,’’ said Roger Reid, a BYU assistant during Ainge’s tenure and now head coach at Southern Utah. “When he was on the floor, I never met a more fierce competitor. He demanded that from everybody that he played with. He brought the level of players up to another degree.
“He did come to practice early. He was here before anyone else. And when they left, he was still here. That’s the Danny Ainge I have always known.
“He brought BYU basketball back. We’re talking about 22,000 seats sold out every night. That tells you what Danny Ainge brought to the program.’’
Ainge played 14 years in the NBA, most as an annoying shooting guard known for his skirmishes with Atlanta’s Tree Rollins and Chicago’s Michael Jordan. The Celtics traded him to Sacramento during the 1988-89 season as the original Big Three began aging and the team declined from an Eastern Conference power to merely a playoff team.
As his career progressed and his athleticism decreased, Ainge became more of a role player and veteran leader. In his final three years in Phoenix, he began thinking about coaching, and a year after his retirement, the Suns named him to replace Paul Westphal. His tenure was mostly successful, save for a highly publicized incident in which Robert Horry flipped a towel in Ainge’s face during a game.
“It was extremely fun because every day we would challenge each other,’’ said Dennis Scott, who played for Ainge in Phoenix. “Danny was playing to everybody’s strengths and not worried about what guys on the outside world are thinking how you should play.
“That’s why I think he and Doc see eye-to-eye on things, because they are both ex-players and they can make sound decisions and bounce ideas off each other.’’
Ainge took the Suns to three straight playoff appearances — all first-round losses, but that’s not what encouraged him to leave after three-plus seasons. It was the wear and tear on his personal life, which included six children, and he left the Suns 20 games into the 1999-2000 season.
“I loved my experience of coaching,’’ he said. “I loved games. The thing that kind of drove me away from coaching was life and family and experience. That was the only thing I didn’t like about coaching. I loved teaching.’’
No looking back Joining the Celtics front office allowed Ainge to return to the game he loved and rejuvenate those competitive juices, while also spending time with his family. He rarely makes road trips with the Celtics, choosing to remain back in his Wellesley home doing such tasks as taking his grandchildren to school.
But “grandfather’’ is one title he refuses to acknowledge.
“My kids call him ‘Coach,’ ’’ said Ainge’s son Austin. “He said he’s too young to be called ‘grandpa.’ He took my son Andre to school last week. So my 5-year-old said to his teachers and the receptionist, ‘This is Coach. He’s really silly.’ He’s totally in denial.’’
That fierce competitor remains hungry to win another NBA title, and starting today against the Miami Heat, the Celtics will face one of their biggest obstacles in the Big Three Era. Ainge made the Kendrick Perkins trade to strengthen the bench, believing that Shaquille O’Neal would be healthy and productive enough to adequately replace Perkins. It hasn’t worked out that way, but Ainge is steadfast that the Celtics are a better team.
And he believes he knows best.
“I’m secure with myself in this job and don’t pay attention to a lot of this criticism,’’ he said. “I mean, I’m fine with anybody’s opinion. I really respect informed decisions, and not everything is all black and white like people want to make it.
“There’s definitely going to be some deals we do that we look back on we wish we wouldn’t have done. That’s just part of our business.
“I’m not ready to do that now. Somebody may be, but I’m certainly not. I love our chances of winning. I love our team.’’
Gary Washburn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.