The NBA regular season is set to tip off Tuesday night when the Boston Celtics visit the Miami Heat. The C’s have undergone some tweaking to get ready for another push at the Finals. Ray Allen out, Jason Terry in. The man who pulls the strings in all this is Danny Ainge, the President of Basketball Operations, who’s been overseeing the Celtics since 2003. Given his long track record in Boston, both as a player and now a GM, it seems fitting that BST&N honors Ainge our Vintage Athlete Of The Month for October.
During the 1981 NCAA Tournament, Ainge became a national figure. After a regular season that would eventually win him the John Wooden Award as national Player of the Year, Ainge’s BYU team trailed Notre Dame 49-48 in a Sweet 16 game in Atlanta. The ball was inbounded to Ainge with just seconds left. He took off a coast-to-coast drive that was essentially seven-on-one, as he beat two Irish players twice, en route to a layup that won the game 50-49. Though BYU lost to Virginia and their towering center Ralph Sampson the next game, Ainge’s play remains one of the epics in March Madness lore.
Baseball was Ainge’s first love though, and he opted for a career with the Toronto Blue Jays, still in the embryonic years of their existence and offering opportunities for playing time. Ainge played as a utility infielder but it was apparent that his MLB hopes were going nowhere, as he hit .220. He decided to re-enter the NBA and the Celtics held his rights.
Ainge was a reserve on the 1982 team, playing backup to Tiny Archibald for a team that won the title the previous year and would reach Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals this season. Ainge earned starters’ minutes a year later, a disappointing Celtics season—at least by the standards of the Bird Era—when they were swept out of the playoffs by Milwaukee. For 1984, Boston paired up Gerald Henderson and Dennis Johnson as the starting guards, while Ainge played backup again, but this time the season ended in a championship.
It was 1985 that Ainge’s career reached a new level. He was a starter again and his shooting began to improve, as he hit over 50 percent from the floor. The percentage dipped a bit in ’86, but he had a good all-around year and improved sharply in his three-point accuracy. Ainge then was a solid contributor in the playoffs. He had a pair 20-plus point games in a first-round elimination of Chicago, with its young ascendant star in Michael Jordan. Ainge banged home three treys (a decent number in an era when teams didn’t attempt the volume they do today) in an East-clinching win over Milwaukee.
In the Finals it was sweet revenge—not so much for the C’s, who had no axe to grind against the Houston Rockets. But the Rockets had Sampson, and Ainge got even for the lost Final Four berth in college. He shot 56 percent in the Finals and dropped in 19 points on the Saturday afternoon in the Garden when the Celtics wrapped up the 1986 NBA title.
The Celtics would start the gradual decline of the Bird Era after the ’86 title, but Ainge’s career was still very much on the upswing. He had his best year in 1988, with 16 points/6 assists per game, but the C’s decided to use him as a trade chip. Concerned about the lack of inside play as Robert Parish and Kevin McHale got older, Boston dealt him to Sacramento as the key piece in landing center Joe Klein. The trade didn’t work out well in the Hub.
Ainge showed he could be the prime scorer in Sacramento, averaging 20 ppg, but the teams weren’t any good and he was eventually acquired by Portland, a title contender who valued his experience. Perhaps it’s a good thing Ainge got his licks in on Jordan back in the 1986 playoffs, because MJ would be the stumbling block in Ainge’s pursuit of another title. His Portland team lost to Chicago in ’92 and then Ainge went to Phoenix the following year as a free agent. The Suns had acquired Charles Barkley and, like Portland, wanted the former Celtic guard for his championship pedigree. They made the Finals, but fell to the Bulls.
1995 was Ainge’s final year as a player and he immediately took over as Phoenix head coach in 1996. Ainge coached the Sun for three years and made the playoffs each time, but they never advanced out of the first round.
After spending a few years out of basketball, Ainge returned to Boston in his current capacity as President of Basketball Operations. He made waves when he traded Antoine Walker almost as soon as he was on the job—not just once, but twice, after Walker made a brief return to Boston in 2005.
But no trade matched his performance in the summer of 2007, when he dealt a total of ten players in two separate deals that brought Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett to Boston. The deals ensured Paul Pierce would be happy in the Hub and set in motion another Big Three era. It bore immediate fruit with one title in 2008 and would have produced another in 2010 had Kendrick Perkins not been injured in the NBA Finals in Los Angeles.
The Celtics are currently in a gradual transition phase right now as they look to move into another championship era. And Ainge is there, yet again, to put his imprint on the history of the NBA’s greatest franchise.