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Ainge takes BYU down memory lane

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At the conclusion of the halftime ceremony, Danny Ainge was a satisfied man. His wife and children were at his side. His jersey had been retired to the rafters of the Marriott Center. His old teammates and coaches surrounded him.

And there was this: The Cougars were a monster and the place was rocking, just as it did 22 years ago when Ainge played.

Only thing missing was Orlando Woolridge.

If Saturday's events didn't stir something inside you, it can mean only one of two things: You aren't a Cougar fan, or you're not old enough to remember when Ainge was playing. Of his six children, four grew up among friends who knew of Ainge's exploits as a college or professional player. Others discovered him when he coached the Phoenix Suns. But friends of his two youngest children, ages 7 and 9, only know him as That Guy on TBS.

"Those kids that age have no idea of who I am, other than someone who broadcasts NBA games," he said.

BYU honored Ainge at halftime of Saturday's win over Colorado State with a ceremony fit for a king — or at least someone who can dribble through five Notre Dame players and score a layup in four seconds. In the 1981 NCAA tournament, that's what happened. Ainge challenged five strapping Irish guys — OK, Irish players — and won. (Actually, former coach Frank Arnold says he went through six players. "He had to go around one guy twice," said Arnold.)

Since then, it has become the most talked-about moment in BYU basketball history. The in-bounds pass from Timo Saarelainen, the behind-the-back dribble at mid-court and, finally, the layup that barely cleared Woolridge's fingertips and sent BYU to "Elite Eight" round of the NCAA tournament.

"I'm probably the most recognizable (former BYU player), but certainly not the best player," Ainge said modestly.

Actually, the drive against Notre Dame is only slightly more famous than another Ainge Moment. The occasion was an NBA melee between Ainge's Boston Celtics and the Atlanta Hawks. In the confusion, someone got a finger bitten. (That was long before Mike Tyson made eating opponents fashionable.)

Ainge has spent the better part of two decades trying to debunk the rumor that he took a bite out of Tree Rollins. In truth, he says, it was the other way around. The headlines shouldn't have said "Man Eats Tree!" They should have said "Tree Eats Man!"

On Saturday, though, there was no mention of Rollins, only Ainge and BYU's basketball history. He was presented a bronze ball and a framed jersey he wore as a player. His wife was given a gold-and-diamond pendant shaped like the number 22.

He concluded his halftime remarks to the full-house crowd (22,702) by thanking current coach Steve Cleveland and his team for bringing the program back from oblivion. Indeed, the place had a lot of its old swagger. The moment the ball went up, the crowd began complaining about the calls and waving signs. It chanted "Air ball!" when a Rams player missed a shot. It called "M-V-P!" when senior guard Travis Hansen was introduced, and when he was taken out.

"Rise and Shout" was, naturally, No. 1 on the Hit Parade.

BYU controlled the game from the start, collecting nine offensive rebounds in the first half alone. The Cougars got all the loose balls, snatched all the long rebounds. Early in the second half, the lead climbed to 16 and they were on their way to a co-championship. As they cut down the nets, the speaker system repeatedly blared "We Are the Champions!"

Hansen, who is nearly as feisty and competitive as Ainge, grabbed the microphone and told the cheering crowd, "We got a lot more basketball to play. Here we go, babe!"

It was loud. It was jubilant.

It was 1981 again.

"Oh, man, it was spectacular," said Ainge, recalling what it was when 22,000 strong packed the Marriott Center.

And it isn't over yet.

E-mail: rock@desnews.com