“What did you do today?” BYU’s star guard Danny Ainge asked a startled 12-year-old ball boy during pregame warmups prior to the start of the 1979-80 basketball season.
“I don’t know, I went to class,” I said, surprised he was even asking. This give-and-take began a new pregame ritual before each home game at the Marriott Center.
No matter his growing on-campus stardom, Ainge, a junior, filled his time in between warmup shots to inquire about my life in seventh grade at Orem’s Lakeridge Junior High.
Those conversations have long since left his mind, but they never left mine. Ainge has a gift to help people feel relevant. He also has a skill to make teams relevant in their quest for success.
When Ainge dribbled the basketball around his back at midcourt and split two Notre Dame defenders on his way to laying in the game-winning shot over Orlando Woolridge, he solidified himself into Utah basketball history.
The basket with :02 seconds remaining, gave BYU a shocking 51-50 victory over the Irish and moved the Cougars into the Elite Eight of the 1981 NCAA Tournament — a place BYU has never returned to despite 40 years of trying.
Since that day, Ainge has become the most decorated basketball player in school history with three NBA championships with the Boston Celtics, two as a player and one as a general manager.
Ainge balanced the jet-setting life of professional basketball with church and family responsibilities. A couple of serious health challenges also gave him pause. He had a heart attack in 2009 and again in 2019, but he has battled through it all while maintaining the same disarming smile that made him a BYU favorite.
His new hire as alternate governor and CEO of Utah Jazz Basketball comes at a perfect time.
Ainge resigned his post with Boston last year and moved back to Utah with his wife Michelle. At age 62, he is too young and knows too much to spend all day at Provo’s Riverside County Club.
The fact that the golf course is covered in snow may have sped up the negotiations with Jazz owner Ryan Smith. To no surprise, it was at a golf course in the Bahamas recently where the agreement was reached, according to ESPN.
Ainge will be free to share his vision for the Jazz and the process of building and maintaining a championship-caliber team.
Smith is smart. The billionaire and his dad, and a few others, are the brains behind the wildly successful Qualtrics. He is also smart enough to hire smarter people. It’s just good business.
Malcom Forbes once said, “Never hire someone who knows less than you do about what he’s hired to do.”
Apple founder Steve Jobs said, “It doesn’t make sense to hire smart people and then tell them what to do; we hire smart people so they can tell us what to do.”
Smith opened his checkbook last year and signed Rudy Gobert and Donovan Mitchell to enormous new contracts. It is evidence of the team he is building on the floor. Adding Ainge to the management side shows his commitment to doing the same off the court.
Over the years, Ainge watched his BYU scoring record fall to both Jimmer Fredette and Tyler Haws, but his place in the Elite Eight with the 1981 Cougars remains an area where BYU is fighting to get back to.
The Jazz have been to two NBA Finals in 1997 and 1998 but have never won a title. As with BYU, they too are fighting to get back to such a cherished location.
No one on the Jazz roster was alive when Ainge beat the Irish or when he won two championships with Larry Bird and the Celtics (1984, 1986). However, with an average age of 28, it’s safe to assume that most were in their teens when he won a title as Boston’s general manager in 2008 and was named the NBA’s Executive of the Year.
Fortunately, he has the three rings to prove it.
Now it’s up to this collaboration of talent, on and off the floor, to chart a course back to the finals. History has shown that it’s safe to follow Ainge. He has been where they are trying to go.
Ainge doesn’t remember our 1979 pregame conversations at the Marriott Center like I do. I was all ears and grabbed onto every word. The Jazz would be smart to do the same.
Dave McCann is a contributor to the Deseret News and is the studio host for “After Further Review,” co-host for “Countdown to Kickoff” and the “Postgame Show” and play-by-play announcer for BYUtv.