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At Last, The Kid's A Big Hit
Alexander Wolff
June 03, 1985
A batting bust as a Toronto Blue Jay, Danny Ainge has found the range with the Boston Celtics
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June 03, 1985

At Last, The Kid's A Big Hit

A batting bust as a Toronto Blue Jay, Danny Ainge has found the range with the Boston Celtics

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"What?" Ainge yells, unthinkingly knocking the cart into reverse and running over Carey's foot again.

While Ainge is wreaking his havoc, his teammates occasionally join in the catcalls. Some of the looser veterans, Maxwell and McHale among them, will roll their eyes and mutter, "Running wild!" and the soberest vet, Bird, will chew him out. "He's like your little brother," Bird told Peter May of The Hartford Courant earlier this season. "Sometimes he makes you so mad you just want to beat him up. But you can't because you like him too much."

Ainge accepts it all. "I've had people ask me why Larry always yells at me," he says. "I'm just the guy people pick on. I'm the guy [Celtics coach] K.C. [Jones] picks on. It's hard to yell at Larry or Robert [Parish] or DJ.

"The booing bothered me at first, but now I just expect it. I know a lot of it comes from my personality. I was booed in high school and college. I've just always showed a lot of emotion and played aggressively. Everywhere I go, people think I'm the dirty little guy who bit Tree Rollins' finger."

Actually, Ainge was the bite-ee, not the biter, in that curious episode two seasons ago that began when he wrestled Rollins, the Atlanta Hawks' center, to the floor during a playoff game. Ainge mixed it up with New York's Darrell Walker last spring, and last month, in Game 6 against Detroit, he squared off briefly with the Pistons' Kelly Tripucka, also a combative sort, in what was known in some quarters as The Great Caucasoid Crybaby Dukeout. "Larry and he were going at it every time down the floor," Ainge says, "and then I bump him off a pick and he goes crazy. I watched the game films, and I didn't do anything different than Larry did."

Ainge is still haunted by Milwaukee coach Don Nelson's charge, leveled during the 1983 playoffs, that he's a "cheap-shot artist." He considers the remark a psych-out ploy, because it came right after he had scored 25 points against the Bucks. "I wasn't a factor until I had a great game, and then suddenly I became a 'cheap-shot artist,' " Ainge says. Of Nelson's tactic, he adds, "It worked. Next game I got three cheap fouls in the first six minutes." Though Nelson sent Ainge a note of apology, Kite says, "That label hurt Danny. He didn't think it was true, and he still resents it."

Ainge considers the Jays partly responsible for his bad rep. During the trial at which the Celtics tried to free Ainge from his baseball contract, then Blue Jays president Peter Bavasi testified that if Ainge were to abandon Toronto, it would be like "an ailing wife being left behind by her husband for some blonde floozy from Boston." Yet Ainge believes the Jays had given up on him as a player and were willing to let his image as a "contract breaker" develop, all in the hope of prying some cash loose from the Celtics. (Toronto did eventually win a reported $500,000 settlement.) "The trial was traumatic," he says. "I don't think I'd have gone through it if I hadn't had the chance to play in Boston."

Then again, he might have, for basketball never really left his blood. Ainge began playing for the Blue Jays while still at BYU, and by his senior year was already questioning his commitment to baseball, wondering whether it had been based on wrong impressions. "We had thought there were a bunch of druggies in the NBA," says his wife, Michelle. Adds Ainge, "I couldn't help but wonder, 'Is basketball something I'll regret not doing the rest of my life?' " In 1980, when he signed a new three-year contract with Toronto, Ainge said he preferred baseball's pace. He also said that baseball would be easier than basketball on his knees. "It was," Ainge says. "I never got on base."

Ainge was in Chicago to play the White Sox when he heard the Celtics had made him the 31st pick in the 1981 draft. The third baseman Toronto general manager Pat Gillick once described as "the next Brooks Robinson" chucked his .187 batting average to try his hand at pro basketball, a game of which he once said, "I find it dull, no variety."

It is sort of dull to stand outside and take unchallenged jump shots, but that's what Ainge has turned into an art this season. Defenses must collapse on Boston's frightening front line and take their chances leaving Ainge and Johnson open. "It's a completely different shot from the ones I got in college," Ainge says. "Sure, you take lots of open jumpers as a kid by the garage. But now I'm never the guy who's supposed to take the first shot. Sometimes I won't get a shot for five minutes, and then I may get three in a row."

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