Danny Ainge isn't the steeple on Boston's historic Old North Church. But he is the lightning rod on the city's old North Station, the landmark that houses the Garden. Ainge deflects and absorbs all the hostile bolts directed the Boston Celtics' way. "Gotta have a lightning rod or the house burns down," says his teammate M.L. Carr.
Like the Celtics as a whole, for whom he will start at guard as they defend their NBA title against the Los Angeles Lakers in the championship series, Ainge is seen as confrontational, confident, even arrogant. He is booed at every stop on the NBA tour, even in Utah, where he was an All-America at Brigham Young. When a photo of Ainge getting a pie in the face appeared on the cover of Utah Holiday magazine, that publication had one of its bestselling issues ever. "I guess people are envious that things come so easily to Danny," says Cedric Maxwell, the Celtic forward. "He's too American, too Mormon, too apple pie."
This year the hoots have grown louder, largely because Ainge is finally fulfilling the expectations he raised four years ago when he left baseball's Toronto Blue Jays, waited out a bitter legal battle between the Jays and the Celtics, and signed a $400,000-a-year contract to play basketball. Only five guards who played at least 20 minutes a game shot better than Ainge's 52.9% this season; one of them was the Lakers' Byron Scott (page 42), whom Ainge will be matched against. "If Ainge outplays Byron Scott, we'll win the championship," Celtic teammate Larry Bird declared in The Boston Herald.
Though he struggled with his jumper during Boston's first-round playoff series against Cleveland, Ainge was able to resume his consistent outside shooting against Detroit and Philadelphia. He has even made several plays normally reserved for such Celtics as Bird and Dennis Johnson. None has been as spectacular as his legendary Stormin' Mormon Dash in the '81 NCAA tournament—a five-second-long full-court dribble-drive through the Notre Dame defense for a winning layup on the last play of the game—but a few have been just as crucial.
June 2, 1985
Consider Game 5 against Philadelphia last week in Boston, when the Celtics closed out those modern-day redcoats, the 76ers. Less than two minutes remained as the Sixers' Bobby Jones looked inside and bounced a pass toward Moses Malone. One if by land! Ainge ranged to his right, fielded the ball as if it were an infield one-hopper and made off with it to the other end, where the Celts extended their lead to five points.
Barely a minute and a half later, however, Boston's lead was only two when Malone hauled down a rebound of a miss by Bird. Two if by air! Ainge came flying down the lane at Malone and knocked the ball off Malone's leg and out of bounds. The Celtics clinched the game (102-100) and the series (4-1) when Bird picked Andrew Toney clean on the Sixers' final possession. "Of all the players on their team, I thought Danny Ainge was the weak link, but he was the one who beat us tonight," Charles Barkley said.
Still, they boo. "Maybe it's because he switched sports," says Boston forward Kevin McHale, groping for an explanation. "Maybe people view him as they would a little boy and don't take him seriously," says Johnson, mindful of his youthful visage. Ainge hardly helps matters by sullying his face with the most excruciating scowl at the least provocation. "He gets that look when he misses a shot, too," says the Celtics' Greg Kite, who played with Ainge at BYU. "It's just such a contrast to his regular expression that fans and officials pick up on it."
It also happens that Ainge is a born mischief-maker. Like almost every other self-respecting retired baseball player, he plays a lot of golf, and on this day his golf cart is stuck in the mud. Mike Carey, a reporter for the Herald, straddles the cart's back wheel, rocking the vehicle while Ainge guns the engine.
Vroom! The engine catches and the cart roars over Carey's foot.
"Danny!" screams Carey.
"What?" Ainge yells, unthinkingly knocking the cart into reverse and running over Carey's foot again.
While Ainge is wreaking his havoc, his teammates occasionally join in the catcalls. Some of the looser veterans, Maxwell and McHale among them, will roll their eyes and mutter, "Running wild!" and the soberest vet, Bird, will chew him out. "He's like your little brother," Bird told Peter May of The Hartford Courant earlier this season. "Sometimes he makes you so mad you just want to beat him up. But you can't because you like him too much."
Ainge accepts it all. "I've had people ask me why Larry always yells at me," he says. "I'm just the guy people pick on. I'm the guy [Celtics coach] K.C. [Jones] picks on. It's hard to yell at Larry or Robert [Parish] or DJ.
"The booing bothered me at first, but now I just expect it. I know a lot of it comes from my personality. I was booed in high school and college. I've just always showed a lot of emotion and played aggressively. Everywhere I go, people think I'm the dirty little guy who bit Tree Rollins' finger."
Actually, Ainge was the bite-ee, not the biter, in that curious episode two seasons ago that began when he wrestled Rollins, the Atlanta Hawks' center, to the floor during a playoff game. Ainge mixed it up with New York's Darrell Walker last spring, and last month, in Game 6 against Detroit, he squared off briefly with the Pistons' Kelly Tripucka, also a combative sort, in what was known in some quarters as The Great Caucasoid Crybaby Dukeout. "Larry and he were going at it every time down the floor," Ainge says, "and then I bump him off a pick and he goes crazy. I watched the game films, and I didn't do anything different than Larry did."
Ainge is still haunted by Milwaukee coach Don Nelson's charge, leveled during the 1983 playoffs, that he's a "cheap-shot artist." He considers the remark a psych-out ploy, because it came right after he had scored 25 points against the Bucks. "I wasn't a factor until I had a great game, and then suddenly I became a 'cheap-shot artist,' " Ainge says. Of Nelson's tactic, he adds, "It worked. Next game I got three cheap fouls in the first six minutes." Though Nelson sent Ainge a note of apology, Kite says, "That label hurt Danny. He didn't think it was true, and he still resents it."
Ainge considers the Jays partly responsible for his bad rep. During the trial at which the Celtics tried to free Ainge from his baseball contract, then Blue Jays president Peter Bavasi testified that if Ainge were to abandon Toronto, it would be like "an ailing wife being left behind by her husband for some blonde floozy from Boston." Yet Ainge believes the Jays had given up on him as a player and were willing to let his image as a "contract breaker" develop, all in the hope of prying some cash loose from the Celtics. (Toronto did eventually win a reported $500,000 settlement.) "The trial was traumatic," he says. "I don't think I'd have gone through it if I hadn't had the chance to play in Boston."
Then again, he might have, for basketball never really left his blood. Ainge began playing for the Blue Jays while still at BYU, and by his senior year was already questioning his commitment to baseball, wondering whether it had been based on wrong impressions. "We had thought there were a bunch of druggies in the NBA," says his wife, Michelle. Adds Ainge, "I couldn't help but wonder, 'Is basketball something I'll regret not doing the rest of my life?' " In 1980, when he signed a new three-year contract with Toronto, Ainge said he preferred baseball's pace. He also said that baseball would be easier than basketball on his knees. "It was," Ainge says. "I never got on base."
Ainge was in Chicago to play the White Sox when he heard the Celtics had made him the 31st pick in the 1981 draft. The third baseman Toronto general manager Pat Gillick once described as "the next Brooks Robinson" chucked his .187 batting average to try his hand at pro basketball, a game of which he once said, "I find it dull, no variety."
It is sort of dull to stand outside and take unchallenged jump shots, but that's what Ainge has turned into an art this season. Defenses must collapse on Boston's frightening front line and take their chances leaving Ainge and Johnson open. "It's a completely different shot from the ones I got in college," Ainge says. "Sure, you take lots of open jumpers as a kid by the garage. But now I'm never the guy who's supposed to take the first shot. Sometimes I won't get a shot for five minutes, and then I may get three in a row."
When he took three in a row last season and didn't make at least two, he got yanked. Despite Boston's title, Ainge suffered. He had been a starter, though rarely a finisher, under coach Bill Fitch in 1982-83, his first full NBA season. But his average minutes per game fell from 26 to 16 in '83-84, and during one stretch he watched Jones use forward Scott Wedman and even Bird in the backcourt. After two dispiriting outings in Los Angeles and Phoenix, Ainge resolved to devote the summer to improving his game.
He plunked down $1,500 of his own money, most of it for an insurance premium, and signed on to play in the Southern California Summer Pro League. Then he moved on to a pro-am league in Salt Lake City. In each, Ainge averaged roughly 25 points, 10 assists and, most important, 40 minutes a game. For the first time since fifth grade, he had been able to give himself to a sport during its off-season. When he was growing up in Eugene, Ore., his football, basketball and baseball seasons segued into one another. At BYU, basketball or academics kept him so busy he usually missed spring training. And a bad shoulder curtailed his summertime play after his first two NBA seasons.
No one came to the Celtics' camp last fall in better shape than Ainge. During the preseason one of the incumbent starting guards, Gerald Henderson, was holding out, and Ainge played well. When the Seattle SuperSonics offered a No. 1 draft pick for Henderson, it was too good for the Celtics to pass up. "It was like the two-quarterback situation in Dallas," Jones says. "Once we made the deal, I said nothing to Danny. He just continued to play as he had been."
Ainge exceeded Henderson's 1983-84 stats in scoring, rebounding, field-goal and free-throw percentage, steals and assists, although it must be said that he averaged 7.5 more minutes a game than Henderson had. But Ainge committed fewer turnovers despite logging that extra time. What's more, Ainge can now shoot without worrying about missing a few in a row. "Sometimes Danny's own worst enemy is himself," McHale says. Adds Kite, "He's definitely a guy who needs to be able to shoot his way out of a slump. I remember a game during his senior year with North Texas State. We were behind 13 at the half, and he'd shot something like 1 for 10. He came out in the second half and went 13 for 15."
As a Celtic, he is not expected to shoot like that. His role is scratching and clawing and clutching and grabbing, the sort of thing he did against Maurice Cheeks during one play in Game 5 of the Philadelphia series. The Sixers' guard had broken ahead of the field for a layup when Ainge ran him down and wrapped him up in a hug.
"C'mon, Danny, you do that every time," Cheeks said, shaking his head as he toed the free-throw line.
"I do it to my brothers every time, Maurice," Ainge replied, referring to pickup games with his siblings, Doug and David. "I'd do it to my wife if she were going in for a layup."
There it is. That's his style, and by golly, he is gonna follow it, no matter how many enemies it makes him. Will no one point out that Ainge amiably agreed to pose for that pie-in-the-face magazine cover? Or that he jokes about checking into a Wailers Anonymous clinic for rehabilitation? Emotionalism is a disease for which there is no cure. Or that while most of us try to keep our emotional flare-ups under control, Ainge flaunts his in the playoffs, on national TV, right out in the open, for everyone to see and so many to seethe at.
So go ahead, make faces at Danny Ainge. But he'll keep making them right back at you.