I WENT FOR A
LONG, long walk and came back to the same place, a 360-degree journey to find
Danny Ainge, 27 years later.
story after I started working for SI was on you," I tell him.
remember," Ainge says. "Dunedin, Florida."
Dunedin was and
still is the spring training site of the Toronto Blue Jays. The 22-year-old
Ainge, a third baseman, was trying to establish himself as a big league
starter. He ended up batting .187 in 86 games that season and abandoned
baseball for the NBA.
Ainge was also a
starting guard on the first championship team I covered as SI's NBA writer, the
1985--86 Boston Celtics, so to an extent our careers have run on parallel
tracks, though I am far more aware of that than he is. "That was a special
team," Ainge says. "Larry was lucky he had so many great players around
him. Kevin was lucky he got to play with Larry. Chief was lucky to be there,
considering he started with Golden State. DJ wasn't always happy with his teams
[Seattle and Phoenix] before he got to Boston. It was a magical time."
You knew those
Celtics stars by one name. Larry stood for Bird, Kevin for McHale, Chief for
Robert Parish, DJ for Dennis Johnson.
Now it's another
magical time in Boston, the anti-Cleveland, the city of Williams and Yaz, of
Shore and Orr, of Russell and Cousy, of Manny and Big Papi, of Brady and
Belichick. Ainge was born in 1959, three weeks before the Celtics won the
second of 11 championships they would earn in a 13-year stretch. Ainge's
shooting and hustle contributed to two of the franchise's three titles in the
'80s; he and DJ represent one of the last backcourt combos that didn't need to
be differentiated as point and shooting guards. Ainge returned to Boston in
2003 as executive director of basketball operations and general manager,
eventually building a championship team for the new millennium, erasing
memories of the fallow decade of the '90s with the best single-season
turnaround (a 42-win swing) in NBA history.
Celtics still have work to do before they can claim a special spot in the
high-bar history of the franchise—before Paul is strong enough to identify Paul
Pierce, before KG (Kevin is taken) suffices for Kevin Garnett, before Ray
instantly conjures up Ray Allen. Will Pierce's nothing-gets-in-my-way
aggressiveness stand up to Bird's? Will Garnett's 5 and Pierce's 34 join the 22
retired numbers that already hang from the TD Banknorth Garden rafters?
No pro franchise
is as obsessed with jersey numbers as the Celtics. Bird's 33, McHale's 32,
Parish's 00 and the late Johnson's 3 are up there, but Ainge's 44 remains
available; little-used forward Brian Scalabrine has worn it for the last three
seasons. When Ainge was hired to run the team, managing partner Wyc Grousbeck
lightheartedly told Ainge he would retire his jersey if he could produce a
winner. Ainge, mindful of his own limitations as a player, may not take
Grousbeck up on the offer should he make it again. But if he says yes, it's a
safe bet that McHale, VP of basketball operations for the Minnesota
Timberwolves and still a close friend, would issue a mock protest. "We
shouldn't be retiring Danny's shoelaces, much less his jersey," McHale
might say. "If Danny's jersey goes up, mine comes down." But
Danny—championship player, championship exec—is now part of the continuum.
Danny is a one-namer.
It is 11 a.m. on
June 18. Ainge has come to the Celtics' training center in Waltham, a suburb 12
miles west of Boston, to work out potential draft prospects. Dave Wohl, his
assistant G.M., is also here, but they are almost alone in their section of the
sprawling complex. Only hours earlier the Celtics had trounced the Los Angeles
Lakers 131--92 at the Garden in Game 6 to win their 17th championship, the
first since that memorable '85--86 team. Some of Ainge's players and employees
are sleeping off the celebration; others have yet to get to bed. Ainge himself
left the deliriously happy Garden just eight hours before.