And in the semifinals of the Eastern Regional against Notre Dame, he made what will become one of the most famous scoring plays in NCAA tournament history. With BYU trailing 50-49 and only eight seconds left, Ainge broke away from a press and caught an in-bounds pass about 85 feet from the basket. He eluded one defender with a reverse dribble and took the ball behind his back at midcourt to get by two more. High up in the stands, Don and David Ainge started celebrating. "It was three or four seconds early, and the people behind us told us to sit down," says Don, "but we knew it was over." On the bench, Arnold watched patiently, too, as Ainge avoided the final defenders and scored his layup. "I wasn't that worried. If they were pressing us, we were simply going to give Danny the ball and say, 'Do your thing.' Great coaching, huh?"
There's another side to Ainge, however. Fans who had tired of the all-Mormon, All-America, all-vanilla image of Ainge got a glimpse of that other side in the Cougars' subsequent loss to Virginia. The guy can be a pain in the butt on the court. He griped at his teammates constantly, at Arnold occasionally and at the officials when a call went against BYU, even drawing a technical foul. When things didn't go BYU's way, displeasure was etched on Ainge's boyish face. "All my boys are very facial," says Kay Ainge, "and it has gotten them in trouble from time to time."
But it never sullied Ainge's image in the Mormon community. "Down here in Florida, Danny is just another baseball player," said Michelle during spring training. "But in Provo you wouldn't believe it. Danny is it." "I graduated from Brigham Young and I'm a Mormon myself," says Lee Benson, sports editor of the Deseret News in Salt Lake City, "but if there's one thing that's disturbing about Mormons, it's this habit of not admitting they're human. They seem to have that problem with Danny."
Ainge isn't vanilla. For one thing, his basketball style was taken right off the playground. It often included the kind of shots that cause a coach to rise off the bench in protest before saying, "Oh, the heck with it." And Ainge wasn't a workaholic on defense. Arnold first called him a "poor" defensive player, then amended that to "average."
Ainge was also recognized as the team's top Arnold impersonator; the coach would often walk into practice when Ainge was wrapping up one of his imitation chalk talks. And then there was the Great Hawaiian Sunburn Scandal when BYU played in Honolulu's Rainbow Classic during Ainge's sophomore season. Arnold told the players to be off the beach at a certain time, but Ainge talked three teammates into staying out 45 extra minutes with him. When they changed into their uniforms that night they could barely move because of sunburn, and BYU played poorly before pulling out a victory. "We were tired, half dead for that game," says Arnold. "I scolded Danny like I never had before. But even then I couldn't stay mad at him. He just gives you that big, silly, blue-eyed grin."
Nobody seems to be able to stay mad at Ainge. Some of his BYU teammates have told him to shut up after he has criticized them on the court. He and his best friend on the team, Steve Trumbo, exchanged words in the locker room after one game when Trumbo thought Ainge had popped off one too many times. "But that's just Danny," says Trumbo. "It never was a real problem on this team because he didn't stay angry at you. You knew he was telling you something to make you better. The guy's the most unselfish person I've ever met." Even the older, more hardened players in the Toronto organization get along with the youngster they used to call "Pup." Says Bosetti, "He's a good kid, an excellent kid."
That's it exactly. Ainge is a kid—a kid with exceptional athletic gifts and a big, silly, disarming grin. Those gifts and that smile are going to be tested in the next couple of years because Toronto players and fans want to see a return on the Jays' investment. If he produces, it's just another installment in the Ainge Success Story; if he doesn't, his faith in himself and his personal values may be truly tested for the first time in his life.
Ainge's private life is far different from the average pro athlete's and, by all accounts, falls well within the demanding Mormon code of conduct. He and the former Michelle Toolson met on their first day at Brigham Young when Ainge asked to sit beside her in a health class. They married in their sophomore year and had Ashlee almost nine months to the day after the wedding. Michelle is now four months pregnant with their second child, who is due on the last day of the season, when the Jays will be in Seattle.
Ainge has never found the no-tobacco, no-caffeine, no-premarital-sex, no-a-lot-of-things code at Brigham Young to be a problem. "I'm sure some guys struggle with the code," he says. "I know guys who have. But I've been expected to live that way my whole life, so it didn't change because I went to Brigham Young. I get razzed about a lot of things, sure. They tried to get me to chew tobacco when I first got to Syracuse. They told me you couldn't make the big leagues without doing it. It didn't bother me. Nothing like that does. If your faith is strong, you don't worry."
And Ainge's faith is strong. In himself and in his future. So, for now, heaven can wait.