The past several weeks have exposed a Danny Ainge that younger Celtics fans may not be familiar with.
A young Ainge playing with the two-time title winning Celtics. A veteran Ainge playing with the Portland Trail Blazers and the Phoenix Suns in the NBA Finals against the Bulls in “The Last Dance.” An aging Ainge running helplessly at John Paxson as he drained the clinching 3-pointer to lead the Bulls over Ainge’s Suns. And finally, a 30-something Ainge leading the Suns as a head coach, coaching a young Jason Kidd and rookie Steve Nash.
What’s more, Ainge has lived quite a basketball life outside of Boston, beginning when general manager Jan Volk dealt him to the Sacramento Kings, into the hands of general manager Bill Russell.
Ainge spent 14 years away from the Celtics organization after that trade, and it was a well-lived time for Ainge, who went to two NBA Finals, became a coach, and then spent two stints with Turner Network as an analyst.
There is a Forrest Gump-type story for Ainge, who found himself in the middle of 1990s basketball history after his post-Celtics tenure. But first, he had to accept being the first of those 1980s Celtics teams shipped away as the youth movement began.
Ainge said he wasn’t broken up about the deal.
“I just felt our team after the ’87 season was just not the same,” he said. “The health of Larry [Bird] and the health of Kevin [McHale], those are guys who were two of the top five guys in the NBA and they weren’t the same players. And the team, when they lost Len Bias, they needed to try to find a way to replace those guys.
“I just thought it was a logical time because we had DJ [Dennis Johnson] and [Jim] Paxson and Brian Shaw and Reggie Lewis, there were just a lot of guards and they needed bigs.
“And I didn’t feel like the Celtics were going to be contender any time soon.”
Ainge was sent to the Kings, a franchise that had been a mess since moving to Sacramento, with Brad Lohaus for Joe Kleine and Ed Pinckney on Feb. 23, 1989, a move consummated by Russell.
“I think it made a lot of sense and I was excited about it,” Ainge said. “Bill Russell was my general manager and he had talked with his good friend K.C. Jones about me. I was excited to go to Sacramento and after that first year, there was a lot to look forward to in that franchise.”
The late-1980s Kings were essentially cursed and wrought with tragedy. Pervis Ellison was the first overall pick in 1989 and played 34 games before being traded. Promising guard Ricky Berry committed suicide before the 1989-90 season. Kenny Smith was sent to Atlanta in the midseason and Ainge, with standout forward Wayman Tisdale, and the Kings won just 23 games.
Coach Dick Motta approached Ainge after the 1989-90 season and told the 31-year-old that the Kings were going to rebuild — again — and asked him where he wanted to be traded. Ainge preferred Portland, close to his hometown of Eugene, Ore., giving him a chance to play with a team that had just reached the NBA Finals.
“I was excited,” Ainge said. “And I was a senior in high school when the Blazers won the championship in 1977 and I was a huge fan. My biggest concern was I had to beat out Drazen Petrovic. I had to try to be the No. 3 guard. I had a lot of respect for Drazen and we grew very close. Being a third guard on that team was a fun two years.”
Portland lost to the rival Los Angeles Lakers in the 1991 Western Conference finals, one of the more disappointing losses in franchise history because the Blazers were heavily favored. It was Ainge’s third time losing to the Lakers in the playoffs, and watching Magic Johnson and his buddies celebrate a trip to the Finals was a bitter experience.
“That was a disappointing ending to the season,” Ainge said. “I felt like we should have beaten the Lakers. But they played better toward the end of the series.”
The Blazers reached the Finals the next season and ran into Michael Jordan’s Bulls. Ainge was on the floor for Game 1 when Jordan drained six first-half 3-pointers and then shrugged in the direction of Johnson, who was working for NBC.
“Six threes in the first half,” said Ainge. “Michael, he’s the best, very special, very driven. I was a little worried when people were comparing Michael and Clyde [Drexler] before the series started. From what I saw, Michael was going to try to make a separation there. Clyde was a terrific player, but he just wasn’t Michael Jordan.”
After the 1992 season, Ainge was a free agent and he listed three teams as preferred destinations: the Blazers, Suns, and Bulls. Phoenix general manager Jerry Colangelo called Ainge at midnight on the opening of free agency, and the two had a deal 10 minutes later. Ainge did not have an agent throughout his career.
Ainge has made dozens of midnight calls to free agents as general manager of the Celtics, and the attention from Colangelo was flattering. Ainge was on his way to join the Suns, who had just traded for Charles Barkley and were ready for a title run of their own.
Phoenix is where Ainge would spend most of the next seven years, three as a player and four as a head coach. The Suns reached the Finals in 1993, again facing the Jordan Bulls. In the pivotal Game 6, Scottie Pippen drove the lane and fed Horace Grant, who immediately found a wide-open John Paxson for the clinching three.
“I remember saying in the huddle, telling everybody, ‘No threes! No threes!’ ” Ainge said. “That was a tough loss. That was a loss I wasn’t willing to admit, ‘Oh these guys are definitely better than us.’ ”
A 36-year-old Ainge was a free agent after the 1995 season, after the Suns lost two consecutive seven-game playoff series to the eventual champion Houston Rockets. He contemplated remaining in the NBA or even taking a big-money contract in Europe, but former Sacramento teammate Michael Jackson (no, not that one) asked him if he’d like to be Turner Network’s top color analyst.
After one season, Ainge got another call from Colangelo, this time asking him to become a top assistant for longtime coach Cotton Fitzsimmons, who had returned to the sidelines to take over for the fired Paul Westphal. Eight games into Fitzsimmons’s second season, the Suns were winless and the exhausted coach called Ainge into his office to inform his assistant he was resigning immediately.
At age 37, Ainge was a head coach.
He led the Suns to three consecutive playoff appearances at a time when the Duncan-Robinson Spurs and Kobe-Shaq Lakers were emerging in the Western Conference. Ainge’s teams never made it out of the first round, and then he had an infamous clash with Robert Horry, who tossed a towel in Ainge’s face after he was removed from a game. The Suns shipped Horry to the Lakers a few days later, much to Ainge’s chagrin.
“My take, it was just not a big deal at all,” he said. “I didn’t want to trade Robert. But Jerry was adamant after that incident. I kept saying that Robert is the kind of guy that as we get better we need him. In Robert’s mind, he had played in the shadow of Hakeem [Olajuwon], he wanted the ball in his hands. It wasn’t a great fit for our team. But personally, I never thought that was a big deal.”
But it was an indication that Ainge’s patience for coaching wasn’t long.
“I enjoyed those years of coaching, but in the year that I left we had the lockout and it lasted and I was home more and I knew I probably should not be coaching anymore,” he said.
Ainge convinced himself to return for that 1999-2000 season after the Suns acquired Anfernee Hardaway to join Kidd, rookie Shawn Marion, and Clifford Robinson. The enthusiasm lasted 20 games, as Ainge resigned and the Suns named assistant Scott Skiles head coach.
Ainge returned to TNT and planned to stay there until new Celtics owners Wyc Grousbeck and Steve Pagliuca lobbied him three times to become general manager.
Ainge said those memories of his post-Boston career are cherished and sometimes he mixes up the years and the stories.
“I’m a little tired of going down memory lane,” Ainge said. “I’m looking for some fresh sports. It was good for a couple of weeks, but it’s been getting boring actually. But it’s been fun to watch and reminisce. Those years after Boston were fun. I was able to do a lot in those years.”