As the Boston Celtics head toward a crucial Game 6 in the NBA Finals on Thursday, the man who essentially built that team through a series of hires, stealth trades and leadership was on his way this week to San Jose to visit his aging father, Don Ainge.

Danny Ainge, a legendary Celtics player and Naismith College Player of the Year winner at BYU, is now an executive with the Utah Jazz. He paused for a few minutes at the airport for a phone interview about the Celtics’ roster, which has his fingerprints all over it.

“You know, it’s been fun watching their success,” said Ainge. “I guess it’s just like anybody you know well and have spent time with and watching them succeed at anything, it brings me joy.”

The Celtics are a highly energetic defensive juggernaut, a team that absorbs adversity and keeps and possesses an extremely competitive personality. Boston faces an experienced, veteran playoff team in the Golden State Warriors, led by shooting icon Stephen Curry.

If Boston ends up winning the championship, somebody ought to send Ainge a championship ring even though he left his post as president of basketball operations just over a year ago, June 1.

“I wouldn’t expect that, no, not at all,” said Ainge. He’d prefer to credit the current coaching staff and executives and remain a satisfied observer with connections.

But anyone who knows the Celtics fully credits Ainge for building the current team. Owner Wyc Grousbeck certainly does.

Ainge moves

Ainge recommended longtime Butler University coach Brad Stevens to coach the Celtics when ownership went looking for a fresh face and approach to the franchise Xs and Os. Ainge suggested Stevens be elevated to an executive role before he left Boston.

Four of the five starters for Game 1 of the NBA Finals were drafted by Ainge during his time as president of operations. Six of the rotational players were brought to Boston by Ainge.

Folks credit Ainge for a remarkable trade with the Brooklyn Nets that ultimately led to Boston landing Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown in the draft. It was a brilliant strategy and added to the lore of the team Ainge had a hand in during the past 18 years.

Ainge said the team that taking on the Warriors has different personalities and strengths, but one thing that stands out is that it is very young.

Why did Danny Ainge join the Utah Jazz and return to the NBA?
What’s Danny Ainge like as a GM? Rival executives dish
Danny Ainge made a good first impression in Utah — and it stuck

“I think that they all have different traits,” said Ainge. “They all are different people with different skills and different talents and different personalities. And I think what you hope would happen is that the good things rub off on each other.

“I think you’ve seen this group of guys grow over time; going to the conference finals now four times. This is the first trip to the finals, but they’re still young. Jaylen is 25 and Jayson’s 24. So, they’re still very young and they’re learning.”

In battling Golden State, Boston is down 3-2 to a titan of the game.

Youth vs. titan

“They’re going up against a great team,” said Ainge. “It’s a dynasty that’s been there many, many times. So there’s a lot to learn through this process, but they’ve learned from one another through all they’ve been through.”

In Brown, picked in the 2016 draft out of Cal, Ainge and Stevens found an all-star combo guard who can guard four positions, elevate over anybody on the court, and deliver electrifying scoring binges that can take over a game.

Since Boston drafted Brown, only 10 players have scored more playoff points than he has, and those guys are headed for the Hall of Fame. During that same time, only three players have appeared in more playoff games.

In a sense, Brown represents a lot about the personality of Ainge, who played both professional basketball and baseball and will always be considered a unique athletic talent in many realms.

Ainge was part of a high school All-America team in 1977 that included Magic Johnson, Albert King, Danny Vranes and Jeff Rutland when he played for North Eugene High in Oregon.

When Ainge disagreed with the draft experts and used a No. 1 pick to take Tatum from Duke over consensus frontrunner star Markelle Fultz, his gamble paid off. Bravely moving Hall of Famers Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett in 2013 to obtain wiggle room and new acquisitions is considered some of the most daring yet brilliant administrative moves the league has ever seen.

Ainge has three NBA championship rings, two as a player and one as an executive.

This is textbook Ainge: unbridled confidence, bold decision-making and unpredictable moves. 

His court-long shot in a high school playoff game at the University of Oregon’s McArthur Court remains one of the longest field goals in facility history.

The Ainge touch

In high school, Ainge was All-American in baseball, basketball and football, a rare accomplishment that is thought to be unmatched by many observers.

His iconic dribble and score to help the Cougars beat Notre Dame in the 1981 NCAA Tournament regionals in Atlanta triggered BYU’s historic run to the Elite Eight under Frank Arnold.

Ainge had a reputation as an intensely competitive athlete. He remains so on the golf course when he plays with his buddies, including Jazz owner Ryan Smith

The moves, the deals and the evaluations made by Ainge for the Celtics definitely made Boston what it is has become today.

Now from afar, working with the Jazz, he is entertained, satisfied and admiring of the Celtics.

“Yeah, they’ve been a dominant defensive team and that’s been fun to watch. They’ve been up and down offensively, had their great games and stretches where they’ve struggled, but their defense is their calling card. It has been fun to watch those guys beat some amazing teams. This year, very formidable teams with great players.”

Ainge isn’t comfortable taking credit for Boston’s run to the finals.

“First of all, this is not my team. This is Brad’s team and Ime Udoka’s team, right? I had a small part in it, but they’re the ones that are running the ship this year to get the guys going.”

Ainge told the move by Stevens to move Kemba Walker opened the door to some significant roles for the current Celtics.

“I think that by moving Kemba, it allowed Marcus (Smart), Jaylen (Brown) and Jayson (Tatum) and Robert Williams to really thrive in positional size, with Horford taking up a big responsibility in the front line for Robert and moving Jaylen, Jayson and Marcus to their positions where they have size advantages. It’s just a better fit. I think that is really clear.”

View Comments

Asked what stands out about Boston’s run, Ainge turns philosophical, referencing the trend these days of being in a rush, the gotta-have-it-now mindset in sports and life in general.

“I feel it’s always difficult to be patient in the world we live in. Sometimes patience with individuals and patience collectively with groups. There is a lot of outside noise, so I am grateful for the patience that we showed.”

And that quote gives a little insight into what Ainge would likely advise Jazz fans as he tries to help owner Smith set sights on the future of the franchise.

It worked in Boston.

Danny Ainge, left, CEO of Utah Jazz Basketball, talks with Jazz head coach Quin Snyder, right, before Game 6 of a first-round playoff series Thursday, April 28, 2022, in Salt Lake City. | Rick Bowmer, Associated Press
Join the Conversation
Looking for comments?
Find comments in their new home! Click the buttons at the top or within the article to view them — or use the button below for quick access.