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Danny Ainge on legacy of Elite Eight team — and his investment in BYU basketball

Ainge says the legacy of the ’81 team goes beyond winning three NCAA Tournament games

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BYU great Danny Ainge signals to the fans after members of the Cougars’ 1981 team were recognized during halftime of the BYU-Portland game at the Marriott Center in Provo on Saturday, Jan. 22, 2022.

Nate Edwards, BYU Photo

Danny Ainge and the 1981 BYU basketball team returned to the Marriott Center last Saturday night, more than 40 years after doing what no other Cougars team has done since.

As a No. 6 seed, BYU beat No. 11 Princeton and No. 3 UCLA to advance to the Sweet 16, and then edged No. 2 Notre Dame to reach the Elite Eight, before falling to No. 1 Virginia and Ralph Sampson in the 1981 NCAA Tournament, one game short of the Final Four.

It marked the Cougars’ only Elite Eight appearance

Ainge, whose retired No. 22 jersey is hanging in the rafters of the Marriott Center, told reporters Saturday that the legacy of the ’81 team is more than BYU’s best NCAA Tournament run — it’s what led to that achievement and what it has accomplished since then.

“I think that team was just a really well-balanced team of size and speed and shooting and skill,” he said. “We had a lot of guys that played in the NBA and played professionally outside the NBA.” 

Ainge, Greg Kite and Fred Robertsenjoyed long and successful NBA careers.

BYU’s 1979-80 team, which earned a No. 3 seed in the NCAA Tournament and fell to No. 6 Clemson, is a team that most have forgotten about. The Cougars entered the tournament on a 12-game winning streak and finished with a 24-5 record. What the 1981 team accomplished may not have happened without the experience in 1980.

“I thought our 1980 team was equally just as good, if not better, with Scott Runia, Devin Durrant and Alan Taylor,” he said. “We had some good fortune. The loss in 1980 kind of propelled us into more success in ’81.”

Of course, Ainge authored the most iconic play in BYU basketball history in March 1981. 

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.

But there were other memorable games that season, like beating No. 9 Utah in the regular-season finale in Ainge’s final home game. In the tournament, beating UCLA was meaningful as well. 

“The Notre Dame gets a lot of hype because that was the game that got us to the Elite Eight. But I think the UCLA game was probably a highlight to all of us. Maybe even beating Utah that year,” Ainge said. “They were ranked in the top 10 in the nation. They had two top-10 picks in the draft. Those were two fantastic wins that year — beating Utah at home and beating UCLA, which was a No. 3 seed. It was a team that we had all grown up as the dynasty — just after the (John) Wooden years. The great Larry Brown was their coach. I think that was the last game he coached at UCLA. That was probably the highlight of our season that year.”

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. He left the Celtics last spring and in December, he accepted the position of CEO of Utah Jazz Basketball.

Now that he lives in Utah, Ainge spends a lot of time on BYU’s campus. 

But no matter how busy he was during his career as a player or as an executive, Ainge has always kept a close eye on BYU sports. 

“I’ve watched many, many games. Some years I watch all the games,” he said. “Thank goodness I watch basketball for a living, so I’ve been able to follow the Cougars and their programs ever since I left.”

For years, Ainge has evaluated players for a living. What does he think about current BYU star guard Alex Barcello?

“Alex is a fantastic player. He’s a joy to watch,” he said. “He maximizes his abilities with great character and work ethic and sacrifice and unselfishness — all the coach cliches. He’s a coach’s dream. I really appreciate and enjoy watching him play.”

Saturday, Ainge also enjoyed being reunited with his coaches and teammates from the 1981 season. 

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Members of the 1981 BYU team that advanced to the Elite Eight of the NCAA Tournament were honored at the BYU-Portland game in the Marriott Center Saturday.

Nate Edwards, BYU Photo

“We had a good afternoon, hanging out, having dinner and sharing some stories,” he said. “That was definitely a highlight — a lot of fun.”

At halftime, the team was recognized and cheered by the crowd of nearly 15,000 at the Marriott Center. Those sitting in the student section, of course, were about two decades away from being born when the Cougars made history in 1981.

“It’s nice to hear them yell even though they don’t really know who we are,” Ainge said. “We had some amazing crowds here at the Marriott Center. It’s always a fun place to come back — there’s so many great memories with 22,000 sellout crowds and all the great players that came in here and played against us in our era.”

Ainge knows there have been many unforgettable moments since, too. 

In 2020, he was on hand at the Marriott Center when BYU upset No. 2 Gonzaga in front of a sellout crowd.

“I’ve seen some spectacular games here at the Marriott Center, most recently Gonzaga a couple of years ago with my nephew Jake Toolson playing,” he said. “That was a dynamic atmosphere. That reminded me of the 1981 team and that era of basketball and our fans. It’s a great place and a great legacy in basketball. Basketball is really important in the state of Utah. There have been some fantastic players and teams that have come through here.”

After BYU beat Portland Saturday night, coach Mark Pope paid homage to the 1981 team. 

And he told them before the game, “We’ve got to take you guys off the board as the most accomplished team. We’ve got to find a way to do it somehow. It’s really special.”

Pope appreciates that Ainge, and other members of that team, are still involved in the program.

“It’s incredible. … The very best programs in college basketball, those guys are invested and engaged. It’s pretty special,” he said. “We should feel like a family and we’re really working to get there.”

Not only does Pope talk to Ainge, but he’s met with his BYU coaching predecessors, including Frank Arnold and Roger Reid from the 1981 coaching staff. 

“We’re trying to tap into all we have. We have meetings where we do Xs and Os (with former coaches). Same with Danny. Danny’s been super generous,” Pope said. “It’s not really detailed specific to BYU but it’s exploring the game. What I love talking to Danny about is the trends and the directions of the game because he’s like the front vanguard. Whoever can get close to that front is going to win. All those guys were so generous.”

More than 40 years later, Ainge and that 1981 BYU team casts a long shadow on campus. Not only that, but the ’81 Cougars continue to care about, and be involved in, this era of BYU basketball.