Danny Ainge turns 52 on St. Patrick's Day. He is a born Celtic and one of the most confident, fearless executives in professional sports. That's why he's not afraid to trade his starting center two months before the playoffs, even when his team has the best record in the conference.
Sports came naturally to Ainge. He was an All-America in everything in high school. He played two seasons of major league baseball for the Toronto Blue Jays before he joined the Celtics. He won two championships with Boston, starting alongside four Hall of Famers -- Larry Bird, Robert Parish, Kevin McHale and Dennis Johnson. He's been an NBA head coach and GM and was a color commentator for TNT.
Ainge is a superior judge of talent. He started stalking Rajon Rondo when the point guard was in high school. He believed in Rondo long before anybody else in the NBA. He also knows how to find players who compliment superstars: guys like James Posey, Eddie House and P.J. Brown (back when the Celtics were champs and Ainge was Executive of the Year in 2008).
A devout Mormon, Ainge says he has never smoked or tasted alcohol. He married his wife, Michelle, when he was a sophomore at BYU and they have six children and three grandchildren. Last week he watched the Celtics at home against the Suns on Wednesday and against the Warriors on Friday, and on Thursday he was in the stands at Wellesley High watching his youngest son, Cooper, play in the Massachusetts State High School Basketball Tournament.
Ainge doesn't worry about what's written about him or what's said on sports talk radio. He can drown out the noise. He's going to do what's best for his team, even if it appears radical or draws excess criticism.
I crushed him when he traded Kendrick Perkins at the deadline in late February. I finally got a chance to talk to him about it when the Celtics returned from the west coast last week. It went like this:
Me: "I hate this deal. Tell me why I'm wrong. You were positioned to win the championship and now you're not as strong."
Ainge: "I think we're stronger. I think our offense and our defense will be every bit as good, if not better, as long as we get some bodies healthy."
Me: "This team was built for this year. Who trades your starting center with eight weeks to go when you are leading the conference?"
Ainge: First of all, we were leading the conference because of Shaq. We had a better record with Shaq than we did with Perk. Our offense was better and our defense was at least the same. I don't think Perk is Perk yet. I hope that he becomes that for Oklahoma City's sake. We thought it was going to take some time for Perk. He wasn't the shot-blocker or the rebounder that he's been in the past. We think that by adding Jeff Green (Green had 21 against the Warriors last Friday), Nenad Krstic and Troy Murphy, we think we're a better team than we were. Shaq was starting for us when we had the great run this year. Baby [Glen Davis] was finishing for us. So we basically lost middle minutes.
Me: You're banking on Shaq being Shaq in the springtime (O'Neal has not played in a game since Feb. 1).
Ainge: "He's better than he was in the fall."
Me: "What about cutting the heart out of your team? What would it have been like if DJ had been taken away in the middle of a season?"
Ainge: "DJ was a star. Nobody put more time and effort into helping Perk become a better player and a better man than me. I spent so much time with Perk. I feel like I raised him in the NBA. I'm a big fan of Kendrick Perkins. I just think we have every bit as good a team now, and it helps us for the future. And the numbers back that up. Now if Shaq and Jermaine [O'Neal] can't play we could be in trouble. But Perk's out for three weeks right now. He's coming off an ACL tear and he's got a sprained MCL on the other knee, so the health of all of those players is in question. I'm a Perk fan. Love him as a player. But I think he's a player that is not irreplaceable. Time will tell."
Me: "This is bold. How long were you contemplating this?"
Ainge: "Not a long time. But we got some calls on things that we thought would be good for us."
Me: "You know that we'll blame you if you don't win the championship now."
Ainge: "I'm all right with that. Blame me all you want. Do I get all the credit if we win?"
And that was that. The end of our debate. I walked away thinking about how I'd never have a conversation like that with Bill Belichick. It's easy to love the results Belichick produces, but it's too bad he's not more willing to discuss his moves.
Ainge will get some of the credit if the Celtics win another title, and he'll get most of the blame if they don't. But he doesn't care about the fury or the fallout. It's part of what makes him a good general manager.