The end was near for the Celtics’ Big Three. Larry Bird was playing with an ailing back. Kevin McHale’s ankles had swelled to the size of golf balls. And Robert Parish was nearly 37.
So team president Red Auerbach made a difficult move in an attempt to get younger. He traded Danny Ainge in his prime and Brad Lohaus to the Kings for Ed Pinckney and Joe Kleine.
Ten months after that February 1989 trade, Ainge faced his former team in Sacramento and dropped 39 points on the aging Big Three. Ainge, now the Celtics’ president of basketball operations, was reminded of that night after Kevin Durant scored 39 points against the Thunder on Nov. 3.
According to the Elias Sports Bureau, Durant joined Ainge and Stephon Marbury as players who scored the most points the first time they met their previous team. Marbury scored 39 on the Timberwolves as a member of the Nets in 2000.
Ainge fondly remembers his outburst against the Celtics on Dec. 27, 1989.
He made 12 of 21 shots, made all 13 free throws, and added six rebounds and nine assists. Ainge acknowledges he wanted payback for the trade, but he still laments the fact that the Kings lost the game, 115-112, in overtime, as Bird nearly matched Ainge with 37 points.
“The best way for me to explain it is, I grew up with two older brothers that I looked up to that were both very good players,” said Ainge. “Playing against them was always a source of pride. I sort of felt that way when I was playing against Kevin and Larry and Robert and D.J. [Dennis Johnson]. I felt like I was playing against my older brothers when you want to show them that you’ve got it. I remember being very excited and having a great game.”
Ainge said he wasn’t exactly broken up about the trade. The Celtics were aging, while the Kings were emerging with Wayman Tisdale, Rodney McCray, and Kenny Smith. But the 1989-90 Kings never found success — as Pervis Ellison played just 34 games because of injuries — and finished 23-59.
“The general manager that traded for me was Bill Russell, which was ironic,” Ainge said. “I enjoyed my time in Sacramento. I felt like we were an up-and-coming team. I felt like the Celtics team was on its way down. Larry was in two casts with double Achilles’ tendon surgery. Kevin had the broken foot, and D.J. and Robert were aging a little bit. It turned out to be the best thing for me. I had a fun one year in Sacramento, but it was disappointing with all the injuries we had.
“The No. 1 pick in the draft was Pervis Ellison and he went from ‘never nervous Pervis’ to ‘out of service Pervis.’ Broken foot, couldn’t play. Tisdale was holding out for a contract. Kenny Smith was traded. We had a solid foundation that could have been pretty good that sort of fell apart, and the next year I’m traded to Portland.”
The Kings shipped Ainge to the Trail Blazers in August 1990, and he played for two years in Portland before being dealt to Phoenix, where he spent the final three years of his career, before becoming the Suns’ coach in 1996.
“I played in a lot more playoff games after I was traded from Boston than I did in Boston,” he said. Actually, Ainge played 112 playoff games as a Celtic, starting 75, and 81 with the Trail Blazers and Suns.
After Durant scored 39 against the Thunder and Ainge’s name was circulated as being the first player to tally as many as 39 in his first meeting against a former team, he received a slew of text messages.
“I remember that game, but it’s something I never think about,” Ainge said. “It was something that I thought about only because it was brought to my attention. That’s the only way I knew about it. I do know that when you’re playing against your old team, it is special. It’s fun, at least it was for me. I really respected those guys that I won championships with in Boston.
“At the same time, it wasn’t like I was crushed about being traded, either. I was looking forward to the future. The last five years of my career, I played on contending teams, and that was a lot of fun.”
Ainge played in back-to-back NBA Finals with the Trail Blazers in 1992 and Suns in ’93, losing to Michael Jordan and the Bulls both times.
Brown advised by Abdur-Rahim
Jaylen Brown has played well during his short time with the Celtics, and he has erased any concerns about whether he was worthy of the third overall pick. While he did not hire an agent through the draft process, he did have a support system that included former NBA forward Shareef Abdur-Rahim.
Abdur-Rahim, 39, is now the NBA’s associate vice president of basketball operations, and like Brown he came to Cal from Atlanta. The two bonded while Brown was making his college decision.
“I told him there are a lot of resources and people willing to give you information and help you,” Abdur-Rahim said. “Get the information as needed, take your time, and make good decisions. He’s done that. He’s a smart kid. I told him to enjoy it. He’s worked his whole life to be in a situation like this, so don’t overanalyze it or put too much pressure on yourself. I think he’s doing a good job of that.”
The learning curve is steep for an NBA rookie, and Brown was thrust into the starting lineup when Jae Crowder suffered a badly sprained left ankle. Abdur-Rahim said Brown needs to meet such a challenge with passion.
“I know it’s a contradiction from what I said earlier, but you have to take it serious,” Abdur-Rahim said. “It’s only a short window you get to do this. Put everything you’ve got into it and try to work and do the most you can get out of it. All of this stuff is stuff that he does.”
Brown, 20, surprised some teams during pre-draft interviews with his appearance — he wore a suit — and his intelligence. He has a thirst for knowledge that has carried into his rookie season.
“He has asked the right questions,” Abdur-Rahim said. “The thing that he has done that I’ve been impressed with is he’s taken his time and gotten the information and made decisions that he’s wanted to make. He’s not influenced by anybody, not directed by anybody. If there is anything I tried to help him with, it’s to try to create a process to be able to make decisions. He’s done that, and the decisions that he’s made, when he looks back on them, if they are right or wrong, there are decisions that he has made. For that, he can feel really good about what he’s doing.”
Abdur-Rahim’s younger brother played with Brown in high school and is the same age. Abdur-Rahim said he watched Brown play occasionally in high school and then answered questions about college. But Brown already was focused on Cal.
“Since he was 14, I’ve been watching him grow,” Abdur-Rahim said. “I never encouraged him to go to Cal. His interest in it was his interest. He asked me what I got out of the experience. He asked me more about what the school had to offer rather than about my experiences. If anything, the thing that impresses me about him is he has an idea of what he wants to do, who he thinks he is, and what he wants to accomplish.
“I think he tries to make decisions around that and find people who have knowledge that can help him. My thing to him is to the degree that you need it, I am a resource. We are from the same place, know the same people, have taken similar journeys.”
Abdur-Rahim left Cal after his freshman season (1995-96) and was one of two one-and-dones — along with Stephon Marbury — taken in the 1996 draft. (Kobe Bryant and Jermaine O’Neal were selected out of high school.) Twenty years later, Brown was one of 10 one-and-dones selected in the first round, and the third overall pick behind Ben Simmons and Brandon Ingram.
“I said this to him, I think he did a much better job of embracing the total experience,” Abdur-Rahim said. “For me, it was basketball, basketball, basketball, and everything was a means to that. I went to class, I did my schoolwork, but it was for the purpose of being able to do this [the NBA]. I went down [to Cal] a couple of times to visit him and he did a great job of embracing the whole community and engaging everything that the school had to offer. I probably didn’t do that until I went back to finish [at Cal in 2012]. I think he did a great job of that.”
Brown wants to continue his education during his NBA career. After receiving his bachelor’s degree in sociology from Cal in 2012, Abdur-Rahim pursued his MBA from Southern Cal.
Abdul-Jabbar with plenty to say
Hall of Famer Kareem Abdul-Jabbar recently offered his thoughts on the history of the NBA and today’s game. He said the 3-point shot has had a profound effect on the game and the center position.
“Most young people don’t care about playing with their back to the basket in close, they want to shoot 3-pointers,” he said. “It’s changed the game. It’s made the game more popular. I think the game is evolving. In 1985, the Los Angeles Lakers won the world championship. That whole season we made 90 3-point shots. The Golden State Warriors made 1,077 3-point shots [last season]. I think that’s an indication how the 3-point shot has affected the game and the mentality of the young people playing the game. They want to go out there for all that money.”
Abdul-Jabbar on how centers should play today:
“When you can post up and shoot 3-pointers, you have that versatility that enables you to win games. I remember playing with teammates like James Worthy who had that type of versatility, could shoot and jump shoot and post up. I think that a little something is being lost there as we go away from a lot of post-up moves. But post-up players take high-percentage shots, high-percentage shots win games. You saw what happened to Golden State when they stopped making the 3-pointers. They lost three games in a row and lost the world championship. So the 3-pointer isn’t the answer to everything.”
On his life after basketball. He retired in 1989 after a 20-year career:
“I’m glad I prepared myself to do something beyond just playing basketball. It took a while after I retired just to get over the burnout, but once I did that it’s something that I definitely felt I should be doing. It’s been great to be able to make the transition and have the opportunity to write and have my stuff published. I’m very happy with it. There’s a certain amount of just burnout trying to maintain your skills and focus to be a professional athlete. It took a year or two to get over that, but once I did I had something else to do and I was prepared to do it. The first book I wrote was a history book. I had never seen a history book that dealt with black history for Americans and I felt that needed to be done.”
On free agency and so-called super teams:
“It’s getting more interesting that they’re trying to change the way that the game is played. There’s a whole lot of subtle things going on that’s changing the game, but it’s still an interesting game and the fans still enjoy it. I don’t think they’re doing a bad job. Everybody thought that small ball was going to dominate, but you saw what happened to Golden State when they lost [Andrew] Bogut, they couldn’t compete. Big guys still really have a prominence in the game that has not yet been totally eliminated.”
On his retirement tour in 1988-89, similar to one last season for Kobe Bryant:
“It was a tough thing because going through that ceremony before each game, it’s a distraction. It takes your mind off of the game. It’s a hard thing to deal with. Just being able to have a good relationship with the fans that enjoyed your career. That’s an important thing and I’m glad I did it. But it was a burden. I was glad when it was over. I couldn’t do two of those.”
On his pre-UCLA years and what inspired him:
“When I was in high school I was not a Knicks fan. I was a Boston Celtics fan because of people like Satch [Sanders] and Bill Russell, Tommy Heinsohn, and [Bob] Cousy. I really learned a lot about the game from watching them play. They used to play a lot of doubleheaders in Madison Square Garden, which really benefited me growing up in New York City.”
On his times at UCLA:
“My college experience was great. I’m absolutely glad that I went through it. I wouldn’t have done it any other way. I’m glad I didn’t go straight to making money. The Globetrotters tried to get me to leave college but I stayed. It wasn’t tempting. It was the right thing for me to do.”
The Nuggets were robbed of a victory Tuesday in Memphis after officials incorrectly awarded the Grizzlies the ball with 0.7 seconds left and the Nuggets leading by a point. Memphis won the game when Marc Gasol hit a shot off the inbounds pass. The NBA later said the Grizzlies were incorrectly awarded the ball and therefore should have never had a chance to win. The Nuggets have protested the game, a rare occurrence, but one that will likely result only in a statement confirming Denver’s case. It was a bitter defeat, considering the Nuggets would have ended a difficult trip with a 3-2 record, not 2-3. One of those wins came over the Celtics . . . In the “don’t get hurt in this league” category, two notable players lost their jobs this past week because of injuries. Greivis Vasquez was waived by the Nets after he needed ankle surgery and Brooklyn needed a guard. The team added former Indiana University guard Yogi Ferrell, who was waived in training camp. The Nets were so shorthanded because second-round pick Isaiah Whitehead suffered a concussion. Meanwhile, Lance Stephenson, who was getting quality minutes with the Pelicans, was waived after injuring his groin in a Nov. 4 overtime loss to the Suns. Stephenson averaged 9.7 points for New Orleans coming off the bench, but the team could not get an injury exception and were forced to release him to sign former Suns first-round pick Archie Goodwin . . . With the Celtics not having any roster space and wanting to send second-round pick Ben Bentil to NBADL Maine, he asked for his release to join the Pacers. But they also sent the former Providence College forward to the D-League and he will begin the season with Fort Wayne. Since Bentil is not on the Pacers’ 15-man roster, they do not have his NBA rights, meaning Bentil could be recalled by any NBA team. The Celtics wanted to work out a similar arrangement with Bentil . . . Farewell to former Bullets forward Greg Ballard, who died Wednesday at the age of 61 from prostate cancer. In recent years, Ballard was a mainstay at NBA arenas as a scout for the Hawks and Wizards, always bringing a bubbly personality and hearty laugh.
Gary Washburn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @GwashburnGlobe. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.