The MacKay Files: Danny Ainge

Danny Ainge, President of Basketball Operations for the Boston Celtics, describes himself as a "golf-fanatic" and maintains a 5 handicap at Wellesley Country Club and Old Sandwich Golf Club. (photo Keith Sliney)

Danny Ainge has fashioned one of the most successful careers in the annals of sports, and his legacy still has a few chapters yet to be written.

Currently, he is the President of Basketball Operations for the Boston Celtics, a promotion he received in 2008 after the team won its 17th World Championship. He was also named the NBA Executive of the Year. Previously, since 2003, he had been the Executive Director of Basketball Operations.

Ainge, now 54, is best known, of course, as the Celtics star guard who, in 1981, joined Larry Bird and an All-Star cast for his first eight years in the NBA, went to the finals four times, and won the last two Celtics World Championships in 1984 and 1986 before the 2008 victory.

From the Celtics, Ainge went to the Sacramento Kings in 1989 for one year and then on to the Portland Trail Blazers for two years before finishing his playing days with Charles Barkley and the Phoenix Suns for three years, retiring in 1995. Ainge helped lead Portland (1992) and Phoenix (1993) to the NBA finals but lost to Michael Jordan and the Bulls in six games both times.

Ainge will always be remembered for his unrelenting, in-your-face defense and his deft, nothing-but-net three pointers, becoming only the third player in NBA history upon his retirement to make 1,000 or more shots (1002) from behind the arc.

After a brief stint with TNT as a color analyst, Ainge returned to the Suns as head coach for three years, 1996-1999, and guided them to three post-season berths. Another stint with TNT ended when he accepted the position with the Celtics in 2003.

Ainge, a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, is also well known for his basketball prowess at Brigham Young University where he won the 1981 John Wooden and Eastman awards in his senior year as the nation’s best college basketball player. He rose to national prominence in the 1981 NCAA March Madness when he took an inbound pass under his own basket with eight seconds left and dribbled the length of the floor to lay in the winning hoop over highly favored Notre Dame, 51-50.

Not as readily remembered is that Ainge played second base for the Toronto Blue Jays during the summers of his sophomore through senior years, 1979-81, but only hit .220 and realized, along with Red Auerbach, that he belonged on the court and not on the diamond.

A native of Eugene, Oregon, Ainge began his impressive sports accomplishments at North Eugene HS, where he was named a high-school first-team All-American in football, basketball, and baseball, the only athlete in the nation to this date to be so honored.

Danny Ainge and his wife Michelle live in Wellesley and have six children and 11 grandchildren.

He has been a self-avowed golf fanatic since he was a teenager, and I used this knowledge to track him down at the Deutsche Bank Championship Pro-Am over Labor Day Weekend. An accomplished golfer himself, Ainge was playing with Jordan Spieth, new Celtics Coach Brad Stevens, team co-owner Steve Pagliuca, and former host of the DBC, Seth Waugh.

The Pro-Am at the Deutsche Bank Championship in 2013 brought together a memorable fivesome: Deutsche Bank Executive Director Seth Waugh, Jordan Spieth, Danny Ainge, Boston Celtics Coach Brad Stevens, and on the tee Celtics Managing Partner Steve Pagliuca. (Vicky MacKay)

LBM: Did you enjoy your day at the Deutsche Bank Championship Pro-Am?
DA: Yes, a great day, especially playing with Jordan, such an up-and-coming star. What a great ball striker! Coach Stevens, Steve, and I had our moments, too, and it was a pleasure to play with Seth Waugh, an excellent golfer. We all thoroughly enjoyed the round.

LBM: How did you get into golf in the first place?
DA: My father and grandfather loved to play golf, and they would take me as a child to the local par-3 course. When I was 10, I’d bicycle to the course with the bag on my back. I became serious about golf at age 16 when I started caddying at the Eugene CC. A year or so later, I received my first real golf lesson there—from Peter Jacobsen, then an All-American at the nearby U of Oregon. He saw me hitting balls on the range, liked my natural swing, and gave me tips about achieving an athletic stance and understanding the fundamentals of the swing. Tips to this day that I remember and utilize, especially when my swing goes south. He got me excited about the game, and I began to shoot in the 70’s that summer. I have been a golf fanatic since then, and I certainly appreciated what Peter did for me. We have played together a number of times since that first lesson.

LBM: Where do you play most of your golf now? Evaluate your game. New England golf courses that you like?
DA: I am a member of Wellesley CC, but I don’t get to play there as often as I would like because of my busy schedule and frequent travel. I do get to play some golf when I am on the road, but at the office I always have some golf clothes and my golf bag in the trunk of my car just in case I can get away for a round.
I currently have a 5.0 GHIN Index, and over the last 25 years, it has fluctuated from a 0 to a 5.
I like to think that one of my strengths is my driver, which I usually hit straight and about 270 yards. I hit my irons well enough, hitting my 5-iron around 195 yards. Two other strengths, I believe, are my scrambling ability and my short game.
A few of my favorite courses are Boston Golf Club, the Country Club, Kittansett, Old Sandwich, Newport CC, and Turner Hill.

LBM: Besides Jake and Spieth, name some other golf professionals and celebrities that have been fun to play with.
DA: Billy Casper, Phil Mickelson, Johnny Miller and his sons Andy, Scott, and Todd, and Mike “Radar” Reid. I also played a lot of golf with teammates Larry Bird, Kevin McHale, and Rick Robey. I still stay in touch with Larry and Kevin. I played often with Michael Jordan, sometimes in Boston and sometimes in Chicago. He is a fanatic about golf, too. I played frequently with Phoenix teammates Dan Majerle and Charles Barkley. Believe it or not, Charles was a mid-80’s player in those days and swung without a hitch.

LBM: Who would you include in your Dream Foursome of today? Of any time period?
DA: Phil Mickelson, Johnny Miller, and Jack Nicklaus. Bobby Jones, Ben Hogan, Lee Trevino, and Arnold Palmer.

LBM: With what charities are you involved?
DA: I am involved in a number of charities, but there are two in particular. The Forever Young Foundation of former 49’er QB Steve Young, which focuses on serving youth through sports, education, and technology. And the Shamrock Foundation of the Boston Celtics, a multifaceted program that directly benefits children in need.

An avid golfer, Ainge has learned that golf, like running an NBA franchise, can often land you in precarious positions like this bunker on the 18th hole at TPC Boston. (Vicky MacKay)

LBM: In the 1981 NCAA Sweet Sixteen, your coast-to-coast lay-up earned a one-point win for BYU against Notre Dame and thrust you into the national limelight. Do those eight seconds of your life re-emerge from time to time?
DA: Yes, when others like you, bring it up, or sometimes when the NCAA playoffs replay memorable tournament moments. I don’t think of it too often, but it was certainly a defining moment for BYU and me. Ironically, in the game before against UCLA, who had gone to the Championship game the year before, I actually had a better game. I scored 37 points that night, and Red Auerbach was in the stands.

LBM: As a former MLB player, do you still take an interest in the game? Are you a Red Sox fan?
DA: Yes, I do follow baseball very closely, and, yes, I am a Red Sox fan. Even in the office and around the water cooler, we discuss the Sox. It would be very difficult to live in Boston and not follow professional sports. The Red Sox have certainly had an incredible year.

LBM: Your 1985-86 World Championship year is arguably the best Celtics team (67-15) ever. What will you always remember about it?
DA: The unwavering belief that we had in each other. That ’86 team was right in the wheelhouse of Larry’s and Kevin’s greatness. They were at the very peak of their games. Dennis Johnson and Robert Parish were older, of course, but had plenty of game left and played with All-Star intensity. The addition of Bill Walton and Scott Wedman, both veteran All-Stars, and with me just coming into my own peak, all these components served to make us confident in our ability to win. We knew how good we were.

LBM: You played tenacious defense. Against whom did this tenacity not always work?
DA: Interestingly enough it was Andrew Toney, the 76ers guard, who dominated the Celtics so much in the early 80’s he was called “The Boston Strangler.” Coach Fitch told me to be as physical as I could against him, but he continued to torch us anyway. I learned quickly that being physical did not work. In fact, the exact opposite was much more effective. By not being so intense on defense, he was not as devastating. I used this strategy against Michael Jordan, Isiah Thomas, and Magic Johnson, too, No sense getting them riled up and getting their competitive juices flowing!

Danny Ainge has a current USGA handicap of 5 at Wellesley Country Club and Old Sandwich Golf Club.

LBM: From your playing days, what non-Celtics would be your All-Star starting five?
DA: Michael, Isiah, Magic, Dominique Wilkins, and Hakeem Olajuwon.

LBM: That 2007-08 Championship season (66-16) was also a remarkable team that you put together. What will you always remember about it?
DA: I remember how exciting that year was for Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, and Ray Allen. All three had been on lottery teams the year before [the Celtics went 24-58] and had undergone disappointing times. Paul told me after the 2007 season had ended that the game was just not just as much fun for him anymore. Getting the three of them together on the same team was electrifying, and they all hit it off right from the start. Training camp was so upbeat that the team’s fortunes just changed over night. To have everything fall into place and win the Championship was absolutely spectacular.
For me, it was a more fulfilling feeling winning the World Championship as an executive than as a player. As a player, you realize that all your hard work has paid off and you are really happy, but, basically, you are most aware of how it affects you as an individual. As an executive, the Championship was more gratifying for me because, first of all, I understood the feelings of all 12 players who had won it. Secondly, I could see how it greatly affected the many people who had contributed to the team’s success—the fans, the front office, marketing, ticket sales, concessions, media, etc. I could see how much joy that Championship brought to so many.

LBM: With the 2013-14 Celtics new coach and new look, what can we Celtic fans expect to see on the parquet floor?
DA: I think the fans will watch a young, athletic team play with a lot of passion. A team that will play together, play hard, and surprise a lot of folks. I’m excited about this season and looking forward to it.

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As a caddie, greenkeeper, and Ouimet Scholar from Marshfield Country Club on Boston’s South Shore, Leigh developed his love for the game at an early age. The BA from Amherst College and MA from Dartmouth prepared him for his 36-year career in education, most of it teaching Advanced Placement English and coaching varsity golf. In 1986, a sabbatical from teaching students to writing stories for “Golf World” magazine prepared him for his second career in golf journalism. Leigh is a low-handicap golfer who has won the Golf Writers Association of America’s championship seven times. He is currently a member of Southers Marsh Golf Club in Plymouth, MA, and PGA Golf Club in Port St. Lucie, FL.

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