There always seems to be a distressed look on Danny Ainge’s face when he’s on a basketball court. It varies from merely a wince, when he misses a shot or commits a turnover, to a full-scale scowl when he feels he has suffered an injustice.
Maybe that is why Ainge, more than any other Boston Celtic regular, is disliked in every National Basketball Assn. city. Fans, even in his native Utah, boo Ainge. They taunt him. They look at that scowl and can’t help themselves.
Every neighborhood, it seems, has a kid such as Ainge. He’s very talented, but always threatening to take his basketball and go home. The problem, some believe, is that the 26-year-old Ainge has never grown out of that children’s temperament.
“Ever since I was a kid, my mom always told me, ‘Danny, you’ve got stop making those facial expressions,’ ” Ainge said after Tuesday’s practice at the Boston Garden. “But it’s just me. I play with a lot of emotion. I don’t think I’m a crybaby or cocky. This is the way I’ve played since I was 5 years old.”
Emotion is as much a part of Ainge’s game as his outside shooting. If the Celtics’ off-guard tried to suppress himself, perhaps he wouldn’t be as effective. In the Celtics’ 34-point win over the Lakers in Game 1 of the NBA championship series, Ainge’s dominant qualities were once more on display.
He made 9 of 15 shots Monday, including six straight long-range jumpers at one point in the first quarter when the Celtics buried the Lakers, and was involved in a second-half scuffle with Laker guard Byron Scott. When Scott hit Ainge in the back with a forearm, Ainge recreated his days as a third baseman with baseball’s Toronto Blue Jays and fired a strike at Scott’s back.
So, after Tuesday’s practice, Ainge was surrounded by writers who wanted his account of his latest emotional outburst.
“These things happen when you play basketball,” said Ainge, who had watched the incident on film earlier Tuesday and said he laughed at it. “They happened when you were a kid out on the playground. You have a disagreement. That’s what it was with Scott, a disagreement. It isn’t anything at all.”
For some reason, when a fight involves Ainge, it is made into something more. In most cases, Ainge is considered the villain regardless of the circumstances.
There was the celebrated Tree Bites Man incident in the 1983 playoff series between the Celtics and Atlanta Hawks. After an exchange of elbows with Atlanta center Tree Rollins, Ainge found himself wrestling on the ground with a player six inches taller. Rollins then bit the middle finger on Ainge’s right hand to the bone.
Ainge’s reputation is such, however, that many people think he was the one doing the biting.
“I was on a plane with the team recently and a guy was describing the Celtic players to a lady,” Ainge said. “The guy says, ‘There’s Larry Bird, one of the best players in basketball.’ Then the guy says, ‘There’s Danny Ainge, one of the meanest guys in the league. He bit a guy’s ear off one time.’ ”
During the Boston-Milwaukee playoff series in 1983, Coach Don Nelson of the Bucks was fined by the NBA office for calling Ainge a “cheap-shot artist” and saying that everybody in the league hates Ainge.
Even now, two years after Nelson’s comment, it still bothers Ainge.
“Nelson apologized to me, but it’s my opinion that the league forced him to apologize after they fined him,” Ainge said. “It definitely bothers me that people have that opinion of me and fans boo me. It was pretty tough to handle at first because, first of all, I don’t think I’m a bad guy or anything. Another player could do the exact same thing I do on the court and nobody would say anything. I’m playing on a team where I’m the target.”
Not only has Ainge been the target of taunts and boos the last three seasons, he was considered a bit of a failure.
Ainge, used to success during with college career at Brigham Young, found that difficult to accept. After leaving baseball to join the Celtics in 1981-82, Ainge mostly sat on the bench his first two seasons under Coach Bill Fitch. Fitch left for Houston before the 1983-84 season and was replaced by K.C. Jones, but Ainge was the fourth guard last season and wasn’t much of a factor in the Celtics’ championship.
Now, that has changed. But it wasn’t a sudden transformation, by any means. While other Celtic players relaxed during the off-season, Ainge took his wife and three children to Southern California, where he spent much of his time playing in summer basketball leagues.
Committed to improving his game, Ainge made the trip at his own expense and even bought his own insurance in case he was injured during a summer-league game. The investment turned out to be a good one. Ainge gained confidence and consistency in his outside shooting.
“A player’s confidence goes in peaks and valleys,” Ainge said. “Even Larry Bird is up and down. Last year, my confidence was as down as you could get. I just made a commitment to myself to improve in the off-season. I had gotten to the point where I wasn’t afraid to shoot but I wasn’t looking to shoot. I was the leading scorer in some of those summer leagues and I became aggressive offensively.”
Ainge brought that newly found confidence to the Celtics’ training camp last fall, hoping to move into the third-guard spot. If everything went well, Ainge told himself at the time, he might beat out Gerald Henderson and become Dennis Johnson’s backcourt mate.
When Henderson sat out part of training camp in a contract dispute, Ainge impressed Jones and Celtic President Red Auerbach enough for them to trade Henderson to Seattle for a future draft pick.
The pressure became more intense at the start of the season, when he was constantly compared to Henderson. Every game, Ainge had to prove himself.
By playoff time, though, the doubters had been silenced. The Celtics won one more game this season with Ainge starting than they had last season with him on the bench, and Ainge contributed more than Henderson had in 1983-84. Ainge averaged 12.9 points a game, shot 52.9% from the floor, had 399 assists and 268 rebounds--all more than Henderson had produced the season before.
“I don’t hear all you guys screaming for Henderson anymore,” Laker Coach Pat Riley told Boston writers after Game 1. “I’ve always thought Ainge was a good player.”
Ainge says his improved play is a result of confidence and consistent playing time.
“Last year, my role wasn’t defined,” he said. “I’d play 25 minutes one night, then only five minutes the next night. It’s tough to play basketball in that type of situation. You can’t be consistent. When they made the trade, I was very excited about the fact that there would be minutes to be played available for me. I felt I had the first shot at the starting assignment.
“I feel more confident now because I know what’s expected of me, and I feel confident because I know I can do what’s expected of me. Baseball is more of a mind game than basketball, but you still need encouragement. K.C. has stuck by me. When I miss four or five shots in a row, he is the first to tell me to keep shooting.”
The Celtics’ opponents in this spring’s playoffs also have encouraged Ainge to shoot. If a team has to choose from among Bird, Robert Parish, Kevin McHale, Dennis Johnson or Ainge to leave unattended, they pick Ainge.
After Ainge had gone 0 for 6 in a first-round loss to Cleveland, that seemed like good strategy. But Ainge bounced back and had a productive series against Detroit and played exceptionally against Philadelphia in the Eastern Conference finals.
In the last four games of the Philadelphia series, Ainge made 56% of his shots and made an important steal and rebound--over Moses Malone, of all people--in Game 5. After the series was over, 76er forward Charles Barkley gave Ainge a left-handed compliment, which Ainge feels is better than no compliment at all.
“I thought Ainge was their weak link,” Barkley said. “But I guess that’s not true anymore.”
Said Ainge: “Other teams can consider me the weak link if they like and give me the open shots. As long as my teammates still get me the ball, I’ll put it in. There isn’t a shot I take that I don’t think I can make.”