SALT LAKE CITY — The way Steve Trumbo told it, there wasn’t much to discuss with Danny Ainge.
BYU was trailing Notre Dame in the Sweet 16 of the 1981 NCAA Tournament, with eight seconds remaining. Coach Frank Arnold had, moments earlier, told his team to “just play street ball.” He believed they could take the Fighting Irish head-on. Following the late-game timeout, Trumbo, a starting forward and free spirit nonpareil, admitted he hadn’t been listening.
“Danny,” he said, “What am I supposed to do?”
Said Ainge, “Don’t worry about it. Just get the ball to me.”
Thirty-six years later, the ball is again in Ainge’s court. Boston is in the Eastern Conference finals and Ainge has the same mojo he did when he took the in-bounds pass, dribbled end-to-end, and sent Notre Dame packing. He’s now the Celtics’ president of basketball operations and his team on Tuesday drew the No. 1 pick in this year’s draft.
Meanwhile, the Celtics have the salary cap space to pursue the Jazz’s Gordon Hayward or someone similar. That scenario is enhanced by the fact Hayward’s college coach is now with Boston. Opponents beware. Both in college and now, it’s wise to hustle back defensively when Ainge is coming.
The trick for the Celtics right now is getting back on LeBron James. Boston sustained a 13-point loss to Cleveland in Game 1 of the conference finals, thanks to James’ 38 points.
But if there’s one characteristic that identifies Ainge, it’s confidence and boldness. That was true when he was a player, scrapping and sometimes even fighting with opponents for an advantage. It was also a bold move when Ainge quit as coach of the Phoenix Suns, 20 games into his fourth season, telling management he wanted to spend more time with his family. Soon he was in a better place, working his way up the corporate ladder with the Celtics.
That’s when the alpha Ainge again took over. He traded All-Star Antoine Walker, acquired Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen, won a championship, picked up an Executive of the Year Award, shipped out future hall of famers Garnett and Paul Pierce, and made off with Isaiah Thomas in a multi-team swap. He bartered the deal that led to this year’s top draft pick and hired previously immovable Butler University coach Brad Stevens.
The Celtics have gone from 25 wins to 53 in three years. It’s no secret that with the top pick and possibly a key free agency addition, Boston can move into position to win an 18th NBA championship.
It has been said that Ainge has slowly rebuilt the Celtics, but he actually doesn’t do many things slowly. His team went from 24 to 66 wins between 2007 and 2008, the largest single-year gain in league history.
"Sometimes you need to be patient," Ainge told media after the draft picks had been announced Tuesday. “It's hard for me to be patient. I like action, but we have a good group of guys around us.”
Ainge had a good group around him in 1981 at BYU, too: Fred Roberts, Timo Saarelainen, Steve Craig, Greg Ballif, Gary Furniss, Greg Kite. Ainge went on to become national player of the year. He won two championships as a Celtics player and appeared in the 1988 All-Star Game.
Now he has as much flexibility with the Celtics as he could hope. He can trade for a star or keep the top pick in the draft, plus shop the free agent market.
“Trader Dan” is keeping his options open.
“Again, there’s just a lot of good fortune,” Ainge said on Tuesday, in the understatement of the year. “There’s a lot of luck involved and we’re sitting here right now in the Eastern Conference finals with the No. 1 pick. There’s a lot of good fortune that’s come our way.”
Good fortune, good planning or just plain good grief, the Cs are back. It wasn’t luck that propelled Ainge’s famous basket against Notre Dame, even though his game-winning shot grazed the fingertip of Orlando Woolridge on the way up. Nor has he accidentally rebuilt the Celtics.
The key to Ainge’s success lies in that driving shot in 1981. The Celtics may trail in the conference finals against Cleveland, but the verdict isn’t yet in. Leave the planning to him. He’ll think of something.