Eyes Wide Open
Why did Danny Ainge leave the Suns? He took a hard look at his life
Here's some free advice for those of you hell-bent on unearthing the real reason Danny Ainge abruptly resigned as coach of the Suns on Dec. 13: Get a life!
That's what Ainge did when he left the consuming world of coaching to spend more time with his wife, Michelle, and their six children, ages four to 20. Since his announcement, which shocked everyone—Michelle included—rumors have been flying. There was an Internet report that Ainge's successor, Scott Skiles, had plotted a takeover. Wrong. There was speculation in Phoenix and Utah that Ainge quit the NBA to coach his son Austin at BYU, where he will be a freshman next fall. Wrong again. A Phoenix TV station received an anonymous phone call in which it was claimed that Ainge left because he was tangled up in a torrid affair with a dancer. "What a joke!" says Timberwolves vice president of basketball operations Kevin McHale. "Nobody has stronger morals than Danny. People are just sick."
But then, the NBA's image has been so tarnished lately that it's easy to imagine that intrigue or sleaze played a role in Ainge's choice. One day there's a report that the Knicks were entertained by strippers from Atlanta while the team was attending a mini-camp in Charleston, S.C., before the '97 playoffs. The next, Hornets owner George Shinn is being sued for sexual assault by a woman he met in Charlotte, with the civil trial and lurid details of Shinn's liaison airing for two weeks on Court TV. (A jury in Columbia, S.C., ruled in Shinn's favor.)
"I know some people don't believe this, especially if they don't know me," Ainge says. "They think I'm the whiny guy who complained to the refs all the time."
In truth Ainge is a devout Mormon who says he has never taken a drink and who, during his championship years with the Celtics, used to stay at the team hotel reading scriptures while some of his teammates were out looking for action. He tried, both as a player and a coach, to be a positive moral influence. "The single hardest tiling in coaching for me was dedicating so much of my time trying to set an example for a great work ethic and character, and the players' not caring enough," Ainge says. "But that's not why I quit."
His obsession with coaching, which led to extensive film sessions, late-night meetings and hours and hours of reading psychology books in hopes of better understanding his players, left him little time or energy for his family. All summer he contemplated resigning. The Suns started this season 13-7, but Ainge was frustrated by his team's lack of chemistry, and there were rumblings that the front office was unhappy. Were those factors in his resignation? Ainge says they were merely "little pebbles you put on the scale."
His kids' reaction confirmed his decision. "Right after I told them, my daughter Taylor said, 'Does this mean you can finally come on daddy-daughter camp-outs?' " Ainge says. "My son Tanner said, 'Can you come to our basketball tournament in Las Vegas?' I heard, 'You know, Dad, you have been kind of distant.' I said to myself, Oh, my gosh. Why did it take so long for me to realize this?"
Some have called Ainge a quitter. That's preposterous. He chose his flesh and blood over a basketball and a chalkboard. How could anyone see that as giving up on what really matters? "Listen, I'm no hero," Ainge says. "I know there are plenty of homes that have two working parents with no other options. I'm very, very lucky I can do this."
The morning after Ainge resigned, he drove four-year-old Crew to and from preschool, helped 12-year-old Taylor with her homework and then saw Tanner, 16, and Austin, 18, play hoops with six-year-old Cooper at his side. Watching the Skilesled Suns beat the Pistons that night was gut-wrenching, but no one said his decision was an easy one. It was just the right one.