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Seems Like Old Times
June 30, 2008
Twenty-two years after their last NBA title the Celtics earned their 17th, as G.M. Danny Ainge reconnected the franchise (and this author) to a storied past of retired numbers, Hall of Famers and one-namers
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June 30, 2008

Seems Like Old Times

Twenty-two years after their last NBA title the Celtics earned their 17th, as G.M. Danny Ainge reconnected the franchise (and this author) to a storied past of retired numbers, Hall of Famers and one-namers

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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.

"My first story after I started working for SI was on you," I tell him.

"I 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.

The 2007--08 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.

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