I was once responsible for the safety and care of the general manager of the Phoenix Suns.
Ryan McDonough was 14 years old, traveling home from the Super Bowl in Atlanta with his younger sister. I was on the same flight. Ryan’s parents were launching a vacation from Atlanta and asked me to keep an eye on the kids and make sure they connected with the person assigned to pick them up at Logan Airport.
No problem. Ryan McDonough didn’t need any help. Not then. Not now. He was the most mature 14-year-old kid you’d ever meet, and last year, at the age of 34, he was runner-up in the NBA Executive of the Year voting after he turned the train-wreck Suns (25 wins in 2012-13) into a 48-win team.
McDonough was back home in Boston Monday night, watching his Suns play the Celtics. He stopped by the Will McDonough Press Room (named after his father) at the Garden and connected with former bosses Danny Ainge, Wyc Grousbeck, and Steve Pagliuca.
McDonough grew up in Hingham and was an excellent basketball, soccer, and baseball player at Hingham High School. He studied sports at the right hand of his dad — the toughest, most street-smart and knowledgeable sports reporter of all-time.
Ryan learned his lessons well. When he got cut from the University of North Carolina baseball team, he knew he still wanted to be around sports.
“He wasn’t going to be on the team, but he figured out other ways to be successful,’’ said Ryan’s mother, Denise McDonough.
“I realized my limitations as an athlete,’’ said McDonough. “When I got cut from the baseball team my freshman year, it was the first time I couldn’t play anymore. It made me think about what I wanted to do.
“So I did a lot of different things. I was a manager for the junior varsity basketball team. I was public address announcer for many sports at UNC. I broadcast minor league baseball for a year with the Carolina Mudcats.
“That made me realize I wasn’t nearly as good as Sean [Ryan’s brother is ESPN’s Sean McDonough], but I missed the competition. I wanted to have something to do with winning and losing.’’
After getting his Tar Heel degree, McDonough went to work with the Red Sox, but it was not a good fit. Basketball proved to be a better matchup for the son of Will and Denise McDonough.
Ryan freely admits that his father’s connections got him his start. Red Auerbach respected Will McDonough more than any other reporter. When Ryan was born in 1979, Auerbach sent a baptism gift: a plate with the image of Jesus on the cross. The plate was designed by Red’s brother, Zang, a talented artist who designed the Celtics’ leprechaun logo.
Ryan remembers being 6 years old, watching championship games with his dad and Red, then marching across the parquet floor to the Celtics locker room after another Green Team victory.
Twenty-four years after Ryan was baptized, Will McDonough got a call from Red Auerbach telling him there might be a place for Ryan with the Celtics.
“It was the same day my dad died,’’ recalled Ryan. “Earlier that day, he’d got a call from Red and Red said he had just talked to the Celtics owners and it was going to take some time, but they were going to have a spot for me. I started the next month, working in the video room.’’
Getting an internship is one thing. Many folks have parents who can make connections. But connected kids don’t stay on the job unless they deserve to stay on the job. Ryan McDonough made the most of his opportunity.
“Ryan was working as an unpaid intern when I arrived,’’ said Ainge. “He was very good. He earned the respect of not only me, but everybody in the office.
“He was a hard worker. He was focused, really driven. He had confidence.
“It was fun to watch him grow, and I felt he had as much ownership in our team as I did. He was involved in all of our decisions. He voice was very important in everything we did.’’
“Working under Danny Ainge was the best thing that happened in my career,’’ said McDonough.
Tips from Red didn’t hurt, either.
“After I got hired, I would call Red and talk basketball and pick his brain,” said McDonough. “I’d get out a pen and some Celtic stationary and write it all down and try to absorb as much as I could. I was 23 and Red was in his mid 80s.
“In 2004, I went to the University of Maryland to watch a high school all-star game. It was one of the first trips that I scouted and I sat next to Red and we watched Rajon Rondo, Al Jefferson, Dwight Howard, and a bunch of those guys.
“That was pretty neat, sitting next to Red as a young scout, and it’s something I’ll always remember.’’
On Monday, he got to watch his own team. On the Red Auerbach Court. After a visit to the Will McDonough Press Room.
Don’t be surprised if he swings a deal with the Celtics someday.
“We haven’t found a mutually beneficial deal yet,’’ said Ainge. “But it may happen. Ryan knows how the league works. If it’s the right fit, we’d make a trade with him.’’Dan Shaughnessy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org