I heard about Danny Ainge before I ever saw him play.
He was a sophomore at North Eugene High School then and I didn’t see him on a basketball court until his junior year – when his Highlanders were racing to their first of back-to-back state championships.
I remember asking the coach of another team what this Ainge kid did that made him so good – and I got an intriguing answer.
“He does everything,” the man said. “But mostly, he just won’t let them lose.”
I saw him play two years in a row in basketball, when the state Class AAA tournament was in Memorial Coliseum and still one of the state’s big sports events.
And he was everything advertised.
He was quick, smart, tough, aggressive and made big shots. And a fierce competitor. He was really something special.
As he was in other sports. He was an all-state selection in three major sports. As a junior and as a senior. I still consider him the greatest all-around prep athlete in the state's history.
His summer job while playing basketball at BYU was playing professional baseball. At 20, he got 308 at bats for the Toronto Blue Jays – rushed to the big leagues in hopes he would choose baseball over basketball as a career. He had parts of three seasons with the Blue Jays.
He was a high school All-American in football, a wide receiver, defensive back and quarterback, and told me once he was more heavily recruited in football than in basketball.
But basketball was his chosen sport.
He began his 14-year playing career as a second-round pick by the Celtics, then had stints in Sacramento, Portland and Phoenix. He even played in an All-Star Game, along with winning two NBA titles as a player in Boston.
He was known as an aggressive, feisty player who would not back down from bigger players. He had a famous physical confrontation with Atlanta's 7-1 center Tree Rollins, who bit Ainge’s finger during the skirmish.
The lasting memory of that fight was a great headline in a Boston newspaper, “Tree bites man.”
As a Trail Blazer, he was the perfect third guard behind Terry Porter and Clyde Drexler, a swing guard who could shoot and handle the ball.
He was also a team prankster and comedian and the one who came up with t-shirts he passed out that said, “Us Against the World” – the theme for the 1992 Trail Blazers that led to the title of a book I co-authored with Kerry Eggers.
Ainge retired as a player in Phoenix and later coached the team before becoming director of basketball operations for the Celtics in 2003. In that job he engineered deals that brought Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen to Boston to team with Paul Pierce and bring the Celts a 2008 NBA championship.
He won the league’s Executive of the Year award that season.
There may be television in his future and I hope so. His sense of humor is perfect for him to be the backbone of a network’s NBA studio show.
He is a funny man who was always a pleasure to be around. He knows the game from top to bottom. And he’s led a very busy and sometimes frenetic life.
I hope now, after a few health scares in recent years, he has the time to enjoy his family and visit the golf course a bit more often.
Relax, Danny. You’ve earned it.