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Danny Ainge isn't the steeple on Boston's historic Old North Church. But he is the lightning rod on the city's old North Station, the landmark that houses the Garden. Ainge deflects and absorbs all the hostile bolts directed the Boston Celtics' way. "Gotta have a lightning rod or the house burns down," says his teammate M.L. Carr.
Like the Celtics as a whole, for whom he will start at guard as they defend their NBA title against the Los Angeles Lakers in the championship series, Ainge is seen as confrontational, confident, even arrogant. He is booed at every stop on the NBA tour, even in Utah, where he was an All-America at Brigham Young. When a photo of Ainge getting a pie in the face appeared on the cover of Utah Holiday magazine, that publication had one of its bestselling issues ever. "I guess people are envious that things come so easily to Danny," says Cedric Maxwell, the Celtic forward. "He's too American, too Mormon, too apple pie."
This year the hoots have grown louder, largely because Ainge is finally fulfilling the expectations he raised four years ago when he left baseball's Toronto Blue Jays, waited out a bitter legal battle between the Jays and the Celtics, and signed a $400,000-a-year contract to play basketball. Only five guards who played at least 20 minutes a game shot better than Ainge's 52.9% this season; one of them was the Lakers' Byron Scott (page 42), whom Ainge will be matched against. "If Ainge outplays Byron Scott, we'll win the championship," Celtic teammate Larry Bird declared in The Boston Herald.
Though he struggled with his jumper during Boston's first-round playoff series against Cleveland, Ainge was able to resume his consistent outside shooting against Detroit and Philadelphia. He has even made several plays normally reserved for such Celtics as Bird and Dennis Johnson. None has been as spectacular as his legendary Stormin' Mormon Dash in the '81 NCAA tournament—a five-second-long full-court dribble-drive through the Notre Dame defense for a winning layup on the last play of the game—but a few have been just as crucial.
Consider Game 5 against Philadelphia last week in Boston, when the Celtics closed out those modern-day redcoats, the 76ers. Less than two minutes remained as the Sixers' Bobby Jones looked inside and bounced a pass toward Moses Malone. One if by land! Ainge ranged to his right, fielded the ball as if it were an infield one-hopper and made off with it to the other end, where the Celts extended their lead to five points.
Barely a minute and a half later, however, Boston's lead was only two when Malone hauled down a rebound of a miss by Bird. Two if by air! Ainge came flying down the lane at Malone and knocked the ball off Malone's leg and out of bounds. The Celtics clinched the game (102-100) and the series (4-1) when Bird picked Andrew Toney clean on the Sixers' final possession. "Of all the players on their team, I thought Danny Ainge was the weak link, but he was the one who beat us tonight," Charles Barkley said.
Still, they boo. "Maybe it's because he switched sports," says Boston forward Kevin McHale, groping for an explanation. "Maybe people view him as they would a little boy and don't take him seriously," says Johnson, mindful of his youthful visage. Ainge hardly helps matters by sullying his face with the most excruciating scowl at the least provocation. "He gets that look when he misses a shot, too," says the Celtics' Greg Kite, who played with Ainge at BYU. "It's just such a contrast to his regular expression that fans and officials pick up on it."
It also happens that Ainge is a born mischief-maker. Like almost every other self-respecting retired baseball player, he plays a lot of golf, and on this day his golf cart is stuck in the mud. Mike Carey, a reporter for the Herald, straddles the cart's back wheel, rocking the vehicle while Ainge guns the engine.
Vroom! The engine catches and the cart roars over Carey's foot.
"Danny!" screams Carey.