It is late in 1988, and the Celtics are heading west to begin a road trip. Years before they would go on to run their own teams, Danny Ainge and Kevin McHale are sitting on the plane trying to figure out what moves the Celts will make before the trade deadline.
It’s a .500 team that’s missing Larry Bird after ankle surgery and just months removed from a loss to the Lakers in the NBA Finals. Something must be done. Ainge and McHale settle on a scheme where the club will package draft picks and players from the lower end of the rotation for more immediate help.
And because they are essentially 12-year-olds in adult bodies, they even set the plan to music. Paraphrasing The Coasters’ “Yakety Yak,” they laugh as they sing.
“Take out the garbage and the trash
“Or we won’t get no playoff cash.”
Nice, but would you mind buckling your seat belt? The plane’s about to land in Denver.
It is 30 years later on Halloween, and Ainge, 59, is sitting in his office within the Celtics’ new and palatial practice facility aside the Mass. Pike. It’s been more than 15 years since he took over the basketball operations here, and he’s talking about player options and current team issues, with tales from the old days regularly slipping in a side door.
Amid the yakety yak, a question arrives from left field. It’s far from the flow of the talk, but suddenly it seems obvious.
What the hell are you still doing here?
“I don’t know,” says Ainge, at once bemused and earnest.
He’d been with four teams in 14 playing seasons before bouncing into television and coaching. When he was hired by the Celts in 2003, he couldn’t have imagined he’d be in the same job now. To explain why he is, Ainge turns the question around on the reporter.
“You’ve been doing this since, what, 1985, right?” he says. “So when you first started it, you thought it was the coolest thing in the world.”
That’s only because it was, I reply.
“I know,” he says. “I’m just saying, a lot of people would die to do what you do — not knowing all the stuff that isn’t so great about your job. That’s sort of like I feel I’m so fortunate to have my job. You know how many people would love to be able to make decisions for the Boston Celtics? They don’t know all the difficult things that go with it, and it sounds a lot better than it really is.
“But it’s pretty stinkin’ good.”
At present, Ainge’s resume as president of basketball operations includes one championship in 2008, a Finals loss to the Lakers in 2010, three conference finals losses and a heart attack in 2009. He would go on to execute a quick and thorough rebuild beginning in 2013, and he insists the ’09 incident didn’t have him contemplating an exit.
“No, but I think the health issues always make you look at things differently,” Ainge says, leaning back in a chair by the window to the practice courts, folding his arms behind his head and looking away. “I mean, they make you put things in perspective. But if I wasn’t enjoying what I’m doing, I’d for sure be gone. But there’s probably also a time when I feel like it’s better for the team if I move on and do something different. I have no idea when that is, but there may come that time.”
Ainge unfolds himself.
“But I don’t think about it all that much,” he says. “I really love doing what I’m doing. I guess I’ve never felt like I was close to leaving. But I know that there’s a time when they’ll be tired of me — they probably already are tired of me. But I’m havin’ a blast. I love it.
“I love doing what I’m doing, and I feel like working with the people that I work with is a lot of fun. We get along great, and I think it’s just really unique in the NBA and in professional sports, for that matter, to have the relationships that we’re talking about between ownership, coaches, players, management, and I feel like it’s just a really unique situation and I’m having a lot of fun doing it.”
There was no grand plan for his career arc. The plans have been limited to where the Celtics are now and where he needs them to go. That’s why he couldn’t have comprehended the present back in 2003.
“You know, I don’t know. I’m not sure what I thought then,” he says. “I’m not sure what I guessed. Heck, when I was a player, you don’t know from year to year, and I feel like this is the same in this job. I mean, I’ve heard people that have worked in NBA front offices tell me that when they’ve been fired that, you know, they don’t ever want to work in basketball again. You know, they’re so soured by it.
“But my experience has been completely different. I developed a really good relationship with all of the ownership group, and I’ve been very fortunate. I’ve had two really good coaches that have been a blast to work with. And now we have a new facility and a really young and energetic staff that keeps me on my toes, and I feel like we have things under control. Our medical staff has quadrupled in size, and our players are really well taken care of.”
The thought of the Auerbach Center and all the bodies now on the team services payroll triggers another flashback. Ainge laughs.
“I think we need to go back to Hellenic College if we have a two-game losing streak and go show that we won three banners from Hellenic College when it was our practice facility,” he says. “I think our guys will appreciate what they have here — not that they don’t.”
Hellenic sits on a beautiful campus in Brookline, but it’s fair in many ways to call the single-court gymnasium Spartan.
“It’s legendary,” says Ainge. “That’s where Larry Bird practiced. It’s where Red Auerbach played racquetball. Those were fun days. I have great memories from Hellenic College.”
And like Red at an advanced age heading off to do battle, Ainge is still invigorated by the competition. As much as anything, that juice is why the hell he’s still here.
“I do love the competitiveness of it,” he says. “I agree. But I also love the interaction. I love the people I work with. If I didn’t love the people I work with, I’m not doing this. I think that’s the most important thing. That’s what makes work worthwhile.”
Ainge talks again about the size of the organization and how it was much more manageable for Red. Then he refocuses on the competition and adds, “Yeah, I like that.”
Time for family
He could leave tomorrow. Ainge could move back to the Phoenix area and supplement any lost income by fleecing friend and former Red Sox pitcher Bruce Hurst on the golf course. Or he could simply travel around the country with wife Michelle visiting their six children and 15 grandchildren. Life could be a lot easier without trade talks and player agents and reporters and being judged a genius or idiot based on that night’s result.
“You know what?” he says, pausing to take it all in. “I mean, there’s times in I guess everybody’s job that it feels overwhelming, and, yeah, this job at times, I’ve put more time into this job than I did as a coach or than I did in 2003. It’s overwhelming at times. But I really like our players. You can tell that when you talk to me. I love being around them.”
And the grandkids get their playing time because, hey, Danny Ainge is the one who makes out Danny Ainge’s schedule.
“That’s the best part of my job,” he says. “I work more than I ever have, but because I don’t have to be with the team every single day, there are more times when I can be at important things. Like, I’ve been to a few weddings this year. Unfortunately, I’ve been to a few funerals. I have time for life things, and I can schedule my work around some of them.
“So, yeah, I have a son [Crew] playing basketball at Utah State, and hopefully when I’m going out to scout I can slip into Utah State and catch a game. But seven of my grandchildren are nearby, so I see them more than the ones in the West. And then in the summertime I get to spend a lot more time with them in San Diego and in Utah.”
Not going anywhere
Ainge scrunches his face as he ponders a future he rarely tries to picture.
“No, I don’t really look forward to being retired,” he says. “I don’t think I will leave this job ever and, like, retire. At least not in the near future. I don’t see doing that, no. I need to be doing something. I’m too hyper. My wife and I have had 40 years of a great marriage. I think that if I was home too much, it might not last much longer. I think she needs me out of the house at least six or eight hours a day.”
And Ainge, like a 12-year-old longing for recess, needs to intersperse his schoolwork by cracking wise with those around him.
He laughs again and nods when asked if he recognizes a certain line from “Sunset Grill” by Don Henley: “What would we do without all these jerks anyway? Besides, all our friends are here.”
“I don’t know about the ‘jerks’ part,” Ainge says. “But I guess that kind of covers it. As long as they still want me here and I’m enjoying it, I’m in.”