It's a gamble Toronto fully expects to win. "There was something about him that told me to take a chance and get him when we did," says Gillick, who selected Ainge in the 15th round of the 1977 amateur draft, even though Ainge had already committed himself to college basketball. "We wouldn't have done it with everyone. He was special."
Special. People have been saying that about Ainge almost since he was born, on March 17, 1959, in Eugene, Ore. Some are born great, some achieve greatness and some have greatness thrust upon them. And some, my dear Malvolio, are named Danny Ainge.
Born great. Ainge's father, Don, was one of Eugene's best athletes ever: all-state in football, basketball and baseball. He received a football scholarship to the University of Oregon as a wide receiver, but his career ended when he tore up his knee. Ainge's mother, Kay, was an excellent gymnast. And Danny, who was backflipping off diving boards when he was four years old. benefited from both sets of genes.
Achieve greatness. From the time he was a baby, Danny played competitive sports with his older brothers, Doug and David, both of whom are excellent athletes. "Burnout" was one popular front-lawn sport. Doug, now 26, and David, 25, would throw a baseball at Danny as hard as they could, and he would be expected to catch it or get his teeth smashed. "On Saturday mornings we'd go out and play two-on-one football," remembers Don. "Laurie [20, the youngest of the four Ainge kids] would center the ball to me, and two of the boys would cover one receiver. It was brutal—I mean it. I'd burn the ball to them and they'd cream each other. Horrible things. David and Doug never let Danny win. I mean never." Danny remembers playing one-on-one basketball twice a day with David. "I honestly don't think we ever got to the end of a game," says Danny. "Every single one ended in a fight."
Greatness thrust upon him. "His skills were always there," says David. "And we recognized them early. We weren't jealous of him. We'd go play other kids in the city, and we'd pick Danny for our side. They'd wonder what we were doing taking that little shrimp. Well, he'd take off down the sideline and catch the ball over his shoulder. There was just something, well, special about him."
Ainge's athletic career at North Eugene High School was fairy-tale stuff: three years varsity starter in three sports. In baseball, he hit .507 his senior year and was one of the top shortstops in the state. In basketball, he led North Eugene to two straight state titles and a 52-1 record his last two seasons. In football, he caught 82 passes in two seasons before moving to quarterback his senior year because there was no one to throw him the ball. In a two-month period in his senior year he was picked to participate in state all-star games in all three sports.
Ainge's build—6'4", 168 pounds in his senior year—ruled out college football, so he decided to concentrate on basketball, choosing Brigham Young over nearby Oregon and Oregon State. Religion was an obvious factor in Ainge's decision, but not the only one. He was also inspired by Arnold's recruiting pitch. Arnold saw Ainge play once and came away unimpressed; it was Arnold's former assistant, John McMullen, who urged him to go after Ainge. On Ainge's recruiting visit to BYU, Arnold told him, "We've already got two guards. And we've recruited a kid out of Provo who's one of the best shooters I've ever seen [Greg Ballif, who played four years but could never win a starting job]. We still want you bad, but you're going to start out as No. 12." That was just the sort of challenge Ainge finds irresistible.
Arnold was 12-15 in each of his first two years before Ainge arrived, but with Ainge as a starter for four years, BYU was 80-36. In his first three seasons he averaged slightly under 20 points a game and three times made the Western Athletic Conference all-star team. Still, doubts persisted. Some of Ainge's baseball teammates who had never seen him play—BYU was on national television only twice in his career—questioned whether this skinny white kid was a big-timer. First Baseman John Mayberry often said Ainge couldn't even play on the west side of Detroit where Mayberry grew up and was himself a basketball star.
Most such remarks were spoken in jest, but they hurt just the same. "I wanted to show everyone what kind of player I could be," said Ainge. "My senior year was very important to me." So important that Ainge scored 24.4 points a game, shooting 51.9% from the field and 82.4% from the foul line.
If Mayberry needed any more convincing, Ainge gave it to him in the NCAA tournament. In the second round against UCLA at Providence, he scored 37 points in a 78-55 win. Said Mayberry, "He can play on the west side, and the east side and the north side."