“He’s the best all-around athlete I’ve ever seen.”
--Larry Bird, on Danny Ainge
Sometimes, not often--maybe once or twice in any one season in places like L.A. or Boston, and less often in Sacramento--mere games of ball suddenly and unpredictably become something else.
Tests of character, even.
Fields of honor, where courage is measured by the rebounds you grab or the jump shots you hole.
Sometimes, professional basketball becomes something more than another day at the office for rich guys with too-active thyroids. Sometimes it’s almost like Christians and lions.
Wednesday of last week was like that at Sacramento’s Arco Arena.
History will record that the Boston Celtics beat the Sacramento Kings in overtime, 115-112, and not a lot else. That’s how it goes for a losing team in an out-of-the-way town on the faraway coast, where the games are over long after the early editions of the papers are in print.
The wire service stories noted well down in their articles that “Danny Ainge led Sacramento with 39 points.”
Even here, and probably rightly, the headlines were devoted to Larry Bird, whose 37 points spurred the winners.
But for the people who understand what has gone on here, who appreciate how much water there is in the hold of the Kings’ leaky ship, Ainge made the same lasting impact as the night he dribbled the length of the court, knifed through two defenders and holed an impossible buzzer shot to beat Portland.
There haven’t been many games in this town for fans to remember forever.
Wednesday’s was one, even though the Kings lost it.
“I wish I had four Danny Ainge’s as teammates. With his desire and hustle, we’d never lose a game.”
--Chicago’s Michael Jordan
Ainge came to play Wednesday. He came to play the way Edwin Moses always came to run hurdles. Ainge has always come to play, too, but against his old teammates, the Celtics, he took it up one more level. His eyes were like saucers. Adrenaline ran out his ears.
What evolved was a joust, so to speak. Bird and Ainge, slugging it out, shot for shot, pass for pass.
It seemed no more likely than George Foreman going the route with Mike Tyson.
For their eight years together in Boston, Bird was lord of the manor and Ainge merely the butler.
Bird is on everyone’s all-time first five, right there with Wilt and Russell (or Kareem), Jordan and Oscar (or Magic).
And Ainge, a guard buried in the taller man’s shadow, played in only one All-Star Game during his years with the Celtics.
Given Sacramento’s 6-20 record, he probably won’t play in this one, either.
His numbers in Boston, in the company of Bird, Robert Parish, Kevin McHale and Dennis Johnson--11 points nightly, and not quite five assists--probably won’t be enough to persuade anyone 10 years from now, or 20, to vote him into the game’s Hall of Fame.
His more impressive numbers here, which could be whatever he wanted if he weren’t so team-oriented, will probably be dismissed by historians because the team isn’t winning.
But Danny Ainge is a great player.
A Hall of Fame player.
A player who deserved a better fate than to run out his string with a bad team like this one.
“Ainge is an effort player. There is no better competitor in the game.”
To get Ainge last February, the Kings gave up two big guys--which was too much, since they sadly lacked size.
And for the big guys in question, Joe Kleine and Ed Pinckney, Ainge was more than the Celtics could afford to give up.
The big guys, by all accounts, were reluctant to go; and Ainge, though reluctant to say so, didn’t want to come, either.
It was one of those rarest of deals--one that didn’t help anyone.
In Sacramento, Ainge stands out from the rest like Secretariat did in his Belmont. Yet three of his teammates are paid four times as much. The club owner keeps saying it will all even out. But considering how rarely things even out on this ballclub, Ainge surely must wonder.
Still, he’s a pro. And a pro makes the best of things.
No one has ever played harder, against longer odds, as Ainge did Wednesday.
Laboring 45 of the 53 minutes, he carried the Kings on his shoulders, going hard to the basket, launching three-pointers, diving after loose balls with no regard for his elbows or his knees or his face.
He came out smoking early, helped his team build a lead, and down the stretch he took over, as if he could undo the Celtics all by himself, simply through the force of his will.
It was a daring performance by a lad who dares greatly.
Filling out an information form for the Kings’ annual press guide, under “Embarrassing Moments:" Ainge wrote, “I don’t get embarrassed.”
He hit 12 of his 21 shots, and all 13 free throws. He handed out nine assists, and grabbed six rebounds. He played hellacious defense, even blocking two shots.
But none of that was enough. He left the floor quickly, head down, upset. It went into the books as a 10th straight defeat. No one took the loss harder.
It was a performance his teammates would do well to meditate on.