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Remembering devilish Danny Ainge, the 5th Wheel on the great Boston teams of the 1980's - and why opposing fans loved to hate him

One of the best athletes in Celtic history, he was traded at his peak, then brought back as GM to oversee the 17th banner

Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images

Before Christian Laettner became the most hated player in college basketball, one could make a case that Danny Ainge held that unenviable NBA title in the mid-1980's before Bill Laimbeer took the crown away.

A supreme athlete and competitor with a baby face tinged by impish mischievousness, the occasionally brash Ainge infuriated opposing fans and players with his refusal to back down while backing it up with a dagger shot or unpopularly feisty play, time and again. 

Just ask Digger Phelps, or the Lakers, Pistons and 76ers.

Despite a slender and unimposing physique, Ainge is still the only U.S. athlete to be named a high school All-American in football, basketball and baseball at North Eugene, Oregon. He won big at every level, and in multiple sports.

Ainge was a fine shooter (career NBA 85% foul shooter, 47% field goal shooter and 38& three-point bomber), a very good passer, solid ballhandler, a good defender, and a smart player who was tough in the clutch. And yes he was quite athletic, even though he rarely if ever dunked after he broke his arm in college being fouled from behind on a driving stuff try. 

In a five-year stretch as a starter for Boston from 1984-88 when they won two titles and made four NBA Finals, he shot 88 percent from the foul line, including 90.4 percent in the 1985-86 championship season. Ainge averaged as many as 15.9 points and 6.2 assists a game, despite taking just 9.4 shots per game during his Boston tenure.

However in spite of his efficient play as the fifth option on arguably the best starting lineup in NBA history that featured four other Hall of Famers, fans found it easy to dislike Ainge, an All-Star talent in his own right. 

Many perceived (and portrayed) him as somehow privileged, whiny, a spoiled sport-jumper who was disloyal to the pristine national pastime, his contractual obligations and the Toronto Blue Jays. On the floor, he wore his emotions on his sleeve (and expresive face), especially if he thought a call was wrong, unlike Bird, Parish and DJ.

When the Lakers celebrated openly at home on their bench moments before clinching the memorable 1987 NBA Finals over a valiant and completely beaten-up Celtic squad, it was the fiery Ainge who found himself standing nearby as the last seconds ticked off. 

He watched on, refusing to acknowledge defeat, hands on hips in denial. The youngest Celtic starter stomached the self-absorbed, taunting Laker party for a few seconds alone before making a disdainful face and turning away in disgust. 

He knew that a rested and healthy LA had barely gotten by an injury-ravaged team playing six more brutal playoff games at far less than 100 percent. Just for getting past Milwaukee and Detroit in consecutive seven-game epics played over 26 days, and then extending the Lakers to six games despite some truly awful officiating in games four and six, the Celtics showed their mettle as true champions - yet would not be recognized for this great basketball achievement.

Having won so much in the past, the Celtics were cut no slack nor given credit for moral victories, no matter how great they were. 

"They might be better athletes, but we are better basketball players," Ainge defiantly proclaimed about the storied 1980's Laker/Celtic rivalry. 

In spite of his baby-faced appearance, in reality Danny was a fiercely combative multi-sport standout who just wanted to play pro basketball after struggling in major league baseball, probably the first time he had ever not excelled at a sport. 

Celtic patriarch Red Auerbach picked Danny, who would have been a top five selection had he not declared he was playing baseball, early in the 1981 draft's second round, just on the off chance he might change his mind. 

It turned out to be another wise, low-risk gamble by Auerbach that paid off big when Danny did opt for the hardwood. Not only was Ainge a tremendous competitor, he came up big regularly on the biggest stages. In round two of the 1981 NCAA tournament, Danny rose from a sick bed (flu) to torch UCLA for 37 points in a 78-55 blowout of the defending national runner-ups. 

Ironically, the Bruins had rejected Ainge as a recruit four years earlier for being supposedly "too slow." Ainge clearly was motivated by revenge to prove UCLA wrong, and he did so to devastating effect, showing what kind of heart he had when ill, no less - 17 years before a famous Bulls guard was universally lauded for a similar effort in the NBA Finals at Utah.

When Ainge did come back to basketball and arrived in Boston out of basketball shape, so much was expected of the All-American that he was almost doomed to come up short, especially after over a year away from hoops and joining a team already chock full of stars. 

There was no way he could even approach the 24.4 ppg he scored as a senior star at BYU, or even half that, given the lack of shots and minutes to go around.

His penchant for making clutch shots suggests his competitive greatness. And that he sacrificed or felt uncomfortable doing or shooting more when his Hall of Fame teammates were healthy. Their system really did not bring out the best in Ainge as it did for the other four Hall of Fame starters.

I strongly suspect that Ainge never totally adjusted to not being the go-to guy in the NBA that he had been in high school and college. His natural instincts to take over were constantly curbed by giving way to Larry Bird, DJ, Kevin McHale and Robert Parish. 

Furthermore, he was the youngest and most athletic of the great Celtic starting five. Yet with the team fast breaking much less than in the early 1980's and focusing more on its deadly halfcourt offense with the emergence of McHale as a superstar, this slowdown hampered Ainge, whose talents would have been better utilized with a faster tempo. 

He finally relaxed by 1986 and changed his mindset to take advantage of his great supporting cast. Paraphrasing, he once said, "I decided to quit feeling guilty about taking shots with all those Hall of Fame teammates, and started thinking that if I made a mistake, they would pick me up."

Unfortunately, a few years later with Bird sidelined for virtually a whole season with double Achilles surgery and question marks about his return Danny was traded. 

A lot of the heart and energy of the aging Celtics left with their youngest and most active starter just as he was taking a larger role with the team and had earned his first and only All-Star bid earlier in that 1988 calendar year. Boston realized too late how many intangibles Ainge brought to the table, along with his significant talents.

When Ainge was traded to the Kings, he went from Boston's fourth or fifth option to being probably Sacramento's best player. Danny netted his highest ppg at 20.3 over the last two months of the 1988-89 campaign for the Kings, and scored at an 18.5 clip with 6.2 assists and 4.1 rebounds over 103 games in Sacramento.

He then spent his final five seasons from 1990-95 as a very productive reserve on some fine Portland and Phoenix teams, averaging nearly 18 ppg per 36 minutes. 

Danny's veteran presence helped his teams reach perennial contender status and two more Finals, making him one of the few men to play key roles with three different franchises in the championship series (four with Boston, one each with the Suns and Blazers).

Ainge usually came up big when his more famed Celtic teammates were hurt, or double-teamed. The main way teams defended Boston in their glory years was to double one of the big three and leave Danny or DJ open. If they hit the open perimeter shot, so be it, as defenses were content to live with that possibility. And more times than not, Ainge delivered. 

Wherever he played Danny was a whirling dervish of hyperactive energy and competitiveness who made things happen, usually good. Sometimes he took ill-advised shots or made a bad pass, usually out of trying too hard to do too much and live up to the lofty standards of his Celtic teammates.

And he rarely shied away from confrontations or a big moment.

There he was, back-pedaling and entreating Piston guard Joe Dumars to take a swing at him in a late 1980's playoff game, hoping to draw an ejection or at least a technical before the Detroit guard thought better of it.

There was Danny, burying two big long jumpers to beat Detroit in the final quarter when they left him open in that seventh game of 1987, just two weeks after he had suffered a sprained knee in a seventh game win over the Bucks. His grit and clutch play showed there was a lot of toughness beneath the soft-looking exterior. 

There was Danny, taking a full-force running start cheap shot in the back from Isiah Thomas as the final seconds in game seven of the rancorous 1987 Eastern Conference finals ticked down, injuring Ainge briefly. 

Two years before that Ainge canned two late 22-footers as the shot clock expired in game four of the 1985 Finals before a hostile Forum crowd to help Boston rally and win at the buzzer, 107-105.

There was feisty Danny, slamming the ball on the parquet floor at the buzzer to punctuate a Celtic win in game three of the 1987 Finals, a move that told the cocky Lakers they would not be swept and had to be taken seriously, despite all their injuries. He later hit a long runner at the first period buzzer of game five in that series to spark a Celtic blowout.

There he was, going nose to nose in the 1985 playoffs vs. Detroit in an argument with former Notre Dame star Kelly Tripucka in what Sports Illustrated cynically called the "great crybaby caucasoid" showdown. 

No doubt Tripucka was still haunted by Ainge's length of the court driving layup that beat senior Kelly and the entire Irish five just before the buzzer in the 1981 Sweet 16 "Holy War" epic, 51-50 - this after Tripucka had nailed a difficult long right side jumper to give ND a one-point lead with just seconds left.

There was the skinny redhead absolutely blowing by Michael Jordan in his 63-point game at Boston during game two of the 1986 playoffs for a clutch driving layup that sent the game into overtime before Boston prevailed, 135-131. 

People forget his tying drive, lost in the plethora of great plays in that epic, and how Ainge left Jordan completely in the dust off the dribble and soared down the lane for a huge tying basket at the end of regulation.

And there's Danny tackling Atlanta seven-footer Tree Rollins after an elbow was tossed at him as the Hawk center ran upcourt, starting a brawl in the 1983 playoffs that eventually found Ainge at the bottom of a big pile. 

Rollins bit Ainge's finger clear down to the bone in the melee. Yet somehow despite the "Tree bites man" headlines (due no doubt to Ainge's burgeoning reputation as an agitator), the myth got twisted around into the myth of Ainge biting Rollins. 

Later in the same post-season, former Celtic sixth man and then-Buck head coach Don Nelson infamously called Ainge a "dirty player," a label that unfairly stayed with him for years.

There's 76er guard Sedale Threatt buckling Danny's knees with a right cross to the jaw in a mid-1980's regular season contest. Despite several fouls Ainge gave to stop fast breaks a la European basketball, I don't recall Ainge ever throwing a punch. Certainly not like the one Threatt landed.

There's Danny doing the dirty work of fouling Dominique Wilkins as he dribbled up the sidelines while time was running out in the epic seventh game of the 1988 eastern semifinals, aka the shootout between Larry Legend and 'Nique. 

With Boston up just three and Wilkins within striking range, the clever foul kept the red-hot Hawk from getting off a potential tying three-pointer and helped preserve a 118-116 victory. In true Ainge fashion, he embraced the "Dirty Harry" role and accepted the barbs selflessly, all in order to help the Celtics win.

There's Danny firing an in-bounds pass off the head of Mario Elie in the 1995 playoffs for the Suns vs. the Rockets, then claiming unconvincingly that it was an accident.

There's Danny calling Bill Walton "Mask" after the Eric Stolz movie character, and Kevin McHale "Herman Munster" for his barrel chested, wide-shouldered look.

Larry Bird characterized Danny as that "little brother who bugged you to death but who you liked too much to stay mad at."

"He's a devil of a player," said backcourt mate Dennis Johnson, whom he teamed with to win two NBA titles. Note the choice of words in describing Danny.

There's Danny teasing Larry Bird before the 1986 All-Star three-point shootout, telling the Legend that he and Scott Wedman should have been picked to compete instead of Larry since they were better long-range shooters. His needling helped motivate Bird to practice even more and win the first three three-point shootouts.

There's Danny coming up big time after time when Bird and or McHale were increasingly hurt in the late 1980s. A 45-point effort vs. the rival 76ers on 20-29 shooting with Bird out...then being traded to the Kings 10 weeks later.

There's Danny pouring in 39 points (12-21 FGs, 2-5 on 3's, 13-13 FTs) for the Kings in Sacramento in his first game vs. the Celtics after they traded him on Dec. 27, 1989. Ainge tossed in 13 points in a row at one point, but his last-second leaner from 24 feet missed to give Boston a 115-112 overtime win. 

Bird (37-11-10 and the clinching foul shots) playfully nudged Ainge away from the ball on the opening tip-off, but after the loss Danny didn't shake any Celtic hands as he walked off angry, being a great (hurt) competitor.

There's Danny the elder statesman veteran off the bench helping his home state Portland squad to the 1992 Finals, and then Phoenix to the 1993 Finals, both six-game losses to the Bulls. 

"He's a feisty guy, but come on, he can't guard Scottie," warned Jordan. Yea Michael, Pippen is also four inches taller and plus another 4-5 in reach, as well as much younger. I sure hope Pippen in his prime could score on Ainge.

Of course Danny made it to the major leagues as a third baseman with Toronto on talent and skill, but decided to come back to basketball late in 1981 after struggling to hit .220. Jordan never got past double-A, and that was on a gift ride as he never was even good enough for rookie ball.

The Blue Jays painted Ainge as a back-stabbing pariah, and instead of releasing him from his contract to play hoops, fought it tooth and nail, dragging Ainge through the mud and playing the jilted victim to the hilt.

There was Danny, scoring 19 clutch points in just 27 minutes in his final NBA contest in 1995 at age 36, a gut-wrenching 115-114 game seven loss to eventual champion Houston.

There's former Rocket Robert Horry tossing a towel in Danny's face when Ainge coached the enigmatic forward in Phoenix. Ainge, more humble than his reputation, took it in stride. Few coaches would have suffered such insubordination and humiliation with nary a response.

After a successful (136-90) four-year stint as an NBA head coach, Ainge came back to the Celtics in the front office and led Boston to its only NBA championship since 1986 when Danny was a key starter, in 2008.

"I just rode the coattails of these two big freaks," joked Ainge about pals McHale and Walton in the victorious Celtic locker room after they whipped the Rockets for banner number 16 in 1986.

Ainge was the John Wooden Award winner as the best player in college basketball in 1980-81, when he led Brigham Young to the elite eight, still their farthest NCAA tournament foray.

But when he joined the star-studded Celtics in December of the 1981-82 season, he had been out of basketball for over a year while playing third base for the Blue Jays. He was rusty and nowhere near being the man on this team, as he had been on a state champion team in Oregon or as BMOC at BYU.

In Boston, he was just another player, another skinny white hope guard. And not a particularly welcome one, since the Celtics had to waive a popular veteran in 11th man guard Terry Duerod, the Celtic human victory cigar at that time, to make room for the ballyhooed two-sport star. 

Danny was expected to fill a gaping two guard void in the Celtic backcourt for an aging Chris Ford, but he was not ready. For three years he struggled to find a role, starting sometimes, coming off the bench at other points. 

He averaged 9.9 ppg in 1982-83 as he started 76 games, but Boston was swept by Milwaukee and he resumed a bench role the next season behind the less-skilled defensive ace Gerald Henderson.

With his contract coming to an end in 1984 after Boston had acquired veteran defensive standouts Dennis Johnson and Quinn Buckner to go with the speedy Henderson, it appeared Danny's days in green were numbered. They were likely going to let him leave as a free agent.

But then with a coaching change from drill sergeant Bill Fitch to laid-back K.C. Jones, Ainge began to find himself and came up big in the 1984 Finals. He scored 10 huge points off the bench in game seven over 19 minutes to help Boston beat the hated Lakers for one of the sweetest titles. 

Encouraged by his resurgence, Celtic brass decided to keep Danny and trade the shooting-challenged Henderson, since DJ and Buckner were also mediocre shooters at best. The Henderson deal with Seattle netted the pick that turned into Len Bias, by the way, which should have made it an even greater deal.

Danny moved into the starting lineup for the 1984-85 season and stayed there for five years, blossoming into an All-Star in 1988. He learned not to feel guilty about taking shots with four other stars in the lineup. He used his fifth wheel status as a reason to relax and let his talents flow, reasoning that even if he missed the occasional bad shot, the other stars would pick him up.

Perhaps his new, confident attitude was best shown when K.C. Jones told the team not to shoot early three's in the huddle before a 1986 game. Then Ainge grabbed the opening tip, rushed upcourt and drained a triple. K.C. just shook his head.

There's Danny burning the Rockets and their head coach Bill Fitch in the 1986 Finals for 15 points and 5.5 assists per game while shooting 56 percent from the field. It was personal vindication for Ainge, who said "I felt like Bill Fitch didn't think I was a very good player" when he coached him in his early NBA career from 1981-83.

The prototype hyper, outspoken kid, Ainge was the main butt of team jokes and needling until Walton arrived in 1985. Danny was a quick, pesky guard who had the gall to be in your face despite being pasty white, very facially expressive and combative (read whiny to his detractors) and all of 175-180 pounds. He became the one guy on those great Celtics teams that fans could hate. engendered by green-is envy.

You couldn't hate Bird. He saved the NBA and was the best player in the world for nearly a decade, and had a backstory that fostered sympathy. McHale received some hate for his long arms and unusual appearance, but even his detractors had to admit he was unstoppable inside and a top defender. 

Besides, the down-to-earth Kevin was gregarious and friendly, would talk to anyone and had a superb sense of humor. He even got Moses Malone to laugh and chat a few times, a tough task.

DJ and Parish were well-liked around the league, as Dennis was the nice guy of the Celtics who often helped fallen opponents up after a collision. Robert was the quintessential stoic, quiet Chief who shunned the spotlight and did hos job quite well. Walton had battled back from so many injuries over the years that he became a tragic figure to even those who disliked him at UCLA and Portland.

That left Danny to be the one Celtic haters spewed their venom at the most. Before Laettner even played a game for Duke, Ainge sported an "I Hate Danny Ainge" t-shirt in warm-ups on the road. 

It is a cultural truth in a society guilt-stricken by slavery that mostly white fan bases feel comfortable in saying how much they hate top white players (see Ainge, Rick Barry, Laimbeer, Laettner, John Stockton, JJ Redick, Aaron Craft, almost any good or great white player at Duke since 1990...), because it is much more socially acceptable to boo a white player, especially in a black-dominated sport, and not vic eversa. 

Besides, that shows that booing white fan who hates Laettner, Ainge or Barry makes them not prejudiced, right? Right?? Hmm.

I mean, who does this skinny white redhead think he is, playing in the NBA, and at a high level? And whining! Jeez, he should have gone to Duke. Probably would have had he been a decade younger. Of course, the line that makes complaining "whining" or competitive and righteously defensible is linked to race, facial gestures and anger as well. 

Charles Barkley constantly complained about calls, but is seldom if ever called a whiner, because he was big, aggressive and had an intimidating manner and phyique. When Ainge did virtually the same thing, it was called whining. It seems telling that Danny was singled out as a major pain in the backside for doing what many others did. His backers called him Danny Ainge-l. His detractors called him much worse.

People who think of Danny as a villain might be surprised to know though that the religiously devout Ainge doesn't drink, smoke, or carouse, like many pro athletes do, and has had the same wife for over 30 years. When the Celtics celebrated titles with champagne and beer, he celebrated with soda. 

Many also do not know that he had a heart attack at 50 due to a family history of heart disease and overwork as Celtic GM and as a Bishop in the Mormon Church, not to mention raising a large family.

And that despite his many confrontations as a player, he just loves to play and compete, and does not hold grudges. This even though many NBA players mistreated and abused him, and used him as the Celtic scapegoat/poster boy for hate. Even Earvin Johnson tried to strangle Danny in a game before Bird intervened.

His solid but not eye-popping career per game stats do not do justice to his ability and efficient all-around contributions for numerous top-notch teams. He averaged 11.5 points and four assists a game over a long career from 1981-95, but in just 26.6 minutes a game since he was a starter for 508 of his 1,042 career outings. 

Projected over 36 minutes, his career averages jump to 15.5 ppg and 5.4 assists, plus 3.6 rebounds. When he retired he was one of the few players with over 1,000 three-pointers made.

His playoff averages over a whopping 193 games per 36 minutes are 13.6 points, 4.7 assists and 3.2 rebounds per game with shooting percentages of 46 from the field, 40 from beyond the arc and 83 at the charity stripe. His teams made the playoffs 12 out of 14 seasons and went all the way twice, but could easily have won four or five titles in his six Finals if they had better team health and luck.

Whether one viewed him as Danny Ainge-l, the villain or somewhere between both extremes, beyond the numbers the fact remains that the Oregon native was a great three-sport high school athlete, and one of the best college guards of his generation. 

He was a legitimate major league baseball player before expansion from 24 to 30 teams who was rushed to the majors, which probably stunted his development. He then became a two-time NBA champion player, an NBA All-Star, a successful coach and a champion GM. 

That is a pretty darn good athletic resume few can surpass for all-around achievement. 

I wonder if Danny Ainge likes Christian Laettner...maybe he should have been a Celtic, too.

To contact the author directly, you can email Cort Reynolds at

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