It’s been 40 years since Danny Ainge helped make BYU basketball nationally relevant again.

In the spring of 1981, Ainge authored one of the most famous plays in BYU sports history — and in the history of the Beehive State.

His coast-to-coast dash in an NCAA Tournament Sweet 16 game against Notre Dame featured a behind-the-back dribble at midcourt, and slicing through four Irish players, that resulted in a dramatic, memorable, game-winning layup over the outstretched fingertips of Orlando Woolridge just before the buzzer to send the Cougars to the Elite Eight. 

That marked BYU’s first, and only, Elite Eight appearance. Heck, it took the Cougars 30 years just to get back to the Sweet 16, in 2011. Ainge was the face of that BYU team that became the national darlings of March Madness in 1981.

So, 40 years after leaving Provo, is it time for Ainge to return to the state of Utah — and make an impact on the Utah Jazz?

The remarkable run of Danny Ainge

While he was at BYU, Ainge played professional baseball for the Toronto Blue Jays organization during the summers. Later, he was drafted by the Boston Celtics, where he won two NBA titles.

Ainge played in the NBA for 14 seasons, which included time with the Portland Trail Blazers, Sacramento Kings and Phoenix Suns. He even spent a stint as an NBA broadcaster on TNT. Ainge later coached the Suns for three years before being hired by the Celtics to work in their front office. 

In 2008, Ainge was voted the league’s top executive as Boston claimed its 17th NBA championship. 

Last month, on June 2, Ainge stepped down from his role as president of basketball operations of the Celtics.

Newly acquired Boston Celtics guard Kemba Walker, left, listens to team general manager Danny Ainge during a news conference at the Celtics’ basketball practice facility, Wednesday, July 17, 2019, in Boston. The former BYU star stepped down from his post with the Celtics earlier this month. Some are speculating he may land with the Jazz organization. | Elise Amendola, Associated Press

Almost immediately, there was speculation that Ainge, 62, could be a candidate to work for the Jazz, under new owner Ryan Smith, a BYU alum himself. Smith and Ainge are reportedly good friends and they have more in common than that — both were born in Eugene, Oregon. 

Ainge has maintained a close relationship with his alma mater over the years. He has plenty of friends, and family members, that live along the Wasatch Front. 

As the Celtics announced Ainge’s departure in June, Ainge made it clear that he wasn’t done with basketball. He still wants to be involved in some capacity.  

“I don’t want to not do anything the rest of my life,” Ainge told 98.5 The Sports Hub. “I want to work, but I don’t want to do very much, so there’s not that many people out there looking for somebody to hire to do very little.”

Then on June 27, Utah Jazz vice president of basketball operations Dennis Lindsey confirmed that he is moving on to an advisory position with the franchise. Justin Zanik is Lindsay’s successor to lead the Jazz front office.

There have been reports that Ainge could be a possible hire for the Jazz, who posted the NBA’s best record this season before bowing out to the Los Angeles Clippers in the Western Conference semifinals. 

“I don’t want to not do anything the rest of my life. I want to work, but I don’t want to do very much, so there’s not that many people out there looking for somebody to hire to do very little.” — Danny Ainge

Meanwhile, let’s revisit some of Ainge’s basketball highlights.

Here’s how Sports Illustrated described that iconic play against Notre Dame at that time:

“And in the semifinals of the Eastern Regional against Notre Dame, (Ainge) made what will become one of the most famous scoring plays in NCAA tournament history. With BYU trailing 50-49 and only eight seconds left, Ainge broke away from a press and caught an in-bounds pass about 85 feet from the basket. He eluded one defender with a reverse dribble and took the ball behind his back at midcourt to get by two more … On the bench, (BYU coach Frank) Arnold watched patiently, too, as Ainge avoided the final defenders and scored his layup. ‘I wasn’t that worried. If they were pressing us, we were simply going to give Danny the ball and say, ‘Do your thing.’ Great coaching, huh?”

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Days before that win over the Fighting Irish, Ainge captured the nation’s attention by scoring 37 points in a blowout of UCLA. He ended up being named consensus National Player of the Year. 

The Cougars fell to Ralph Sampson and Virginia in the Elite Eight, ending their remarkable NCAA Tournament run. 

Ever the competitor, Ainge was still upset about that setback more than 20 years later. 

“I feel like we underachieved that season,” Ainge told the Deseret News in 2002. “We should have beaten Virginia. I’m still mad we didn’t beat them. We were a Final Four-quality team.”

There are plenty of Ainge-Jazz connections from the days when Ainge was a player as they did battle on the court. Under Ainge’s leadership as president of the Celtics, Jazz fans will remember that in 2017, Gordon Hayward bolted the Jazz for Boston to be reunited with his college coach, Brad Stevens. 

Phoenix Suns players Danny Ainge, Charles Barkley and Kevin Johnson are all smiles as they confer late in the triple-overtime period of their 129-121 win over the Chicago Bulls on Sunday, June 13, 1993 in Chicago. The former BYU star stepped down from his front office post with the Boston Celtics earlier this month and some are speculating he may land with the Jazz organization. | Mark Elias, Associated Press

At the time, Ainge was Public Enemy No. 1, or maybe No. 2, for Jazz fans because it was seen as a major blow to the Jazz’s future.

That, of course, turned out not to be the case. In June of that year, the Jazz selected a guard from Louisville named Donovan Mitchell. So maybe all is forgiven.

Weeks after Hayward signed with the Celtics, disgruntled Jazz fans had an opportunity to dunk on Ainge. Or at least dunk him. 

As part of a fundraiser for his son’s congressional campaign in Orem — Tanner Ainge was running a congressional campaign in the Republican primary — Danny Ainge agreed to allow Jazz fans to avenge the Hayward signing by stepping into a dunk tank. For $25, fans could throw a ball and send him into the water. 

As it turned out, Tanner Ainge lost in the primary to then-Provo Mayor John Curtis. But he later was elected as Utah County Commissioner. In May, Tanner Ainge resigned to accept an appointment to work with Gov. Spencer Cox’s administration.

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If Danny Ainge were to join the Jazz in some capacity, University of Utah fans that are also Jazz fans probably wouldn’t like it. Then again, there are plenty of them that weren’t even born when Ainge was playing at BYU. 

Brad Rock, former columnist and Jazz beat writer for the Deseret News, covered Ainge during Ainge’s college days. He was at The Omni in Atlanta when Ainge vanquished Notre Dame. 

“I had been at the newspaper for three years. I covered (BYU quarterback) Jim McMahon in the Holiday Bowl with the miracle pass,” Rock remembered. “Three months later, I covered Danny Ainge driving against Notre Dame. It happens and I’m going, ‘That made for a good story. I’ll probably see a lot of these.’  Forty years later, I didn’t see anything more dramatic. I saw a lot of exciting things, some Jazz games and bowl games, but nothing more dramatic than those two things.”

Rock remembers that during the timeout before Ainge’s famous play, BYU forward Steve Trumbo, a free spirit of sorts, was staring into the crowd, caught up in the moment. 

“Suddenly they break the huddle and start walking onto the court,” Rock said. “Trumbo runs over to Ainge and says, ‘Danny, what are we supposed to do? I wasn’t listening.’ Ainge says, ‘Don’t worry about it. Just get me the ball.’”

Back then, BYU belonged to the Western Athletic Conference, which produced plenty of outstanding athletes and interesting characters. Ainge was one of them.

“Danny Ainge was a phenomenal college player,” Rock said. “Danny was pretty colorful. My recollection is, as front office people and players go, he was more straightforward than most of them. He didn’t really dodge stuff that much. I always liked the guy.”

Though he left Utah in the early 1980s, Ainge always acknowledged his college roots in Utah. In 2003, Ainge’s No. 22 became the first retired number by the BYU basketball program. 

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Ainge’s son, Austin, played at BYU from 2002-07 before becoming the director of player personnel for the Celtics, a position he still holds.

Rock remembers Danny Ainge coming into the press room in Salt Lake City years ago, looking at Rock and other local reporters, and saying, “How are my friends from Utah?”

Maybe it’s time for Ainge’s stellar basketball career to run through the Beehive State for one more dash. He has the experience. He has connections here.

As he’s proven for four decades, Ainge knows basketball at every level. Maybe he could help the Jazz. Y. not give him a shot?  

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