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Danny Ainge on iconic play vs. Notre Dame, choosing BYU and trading Jazz All-Stars

Former BYU great recounts his game-winning shot in the Sweet 16 (and reveals he never intended to be the one shooting it)

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Utah Jazz CEO Danny Ainge walks the court at the end of team practice at the Zions Bank Basketball Campus in Salt Lake City.

Utah Jazz CEO Danny Ainge walks the court at the end of a team practice at the Zions Bank Basketball Campus in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Sept. 29, 2022.

Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

There is a new twist to the biggest basket in BYU history. It turns out, star guard Danny Ainge was looking for someone else to take the final shot that upset Notre Dame in the 1981 NCAA Tournament.

Ainge wasn’t afraid to shoot, he just didn’t think he would get the chance.

“They had played a box-and-one on me the whole game,” Ainge told the “Y’s Guys” earlier this week. “I thought they for sure were going to trap me somewhere on the court. My intention was to get up the floor as fast as I could, and I was going to have to pass.”

AP810320078.jpg

BYU’s Danny Ainge drives past Notre Dame’s John Paxson in a Sweet 16 game, March 20, 1981. Later, as the game clock wound down, Ainge took the ball coast-to-coast to score the winning basket.

Associated Press

Trailing 50-49 with eight seconds remaining, Fred Roberts threw the inbounds pass to Ainge and the senior took off. He was midcourt with five seconds left and dribbled around his back to elude Notre Dame’s John Paxon to bring the ball into the frontcourt.

“Because their defense was spread out, I was able to weave my way in and get by them,” Ainge said. “I was anticipating having to hit (Greg) Ballif or Steve Craig. Somebody was going to need to make a shot — that was really what was in my mind at that point.”

Ainge kept driving to the basket and no one from Notre Dame got in his way.

“I was just pushing it up the court and they never stopped me and so I just went all the way and it just happened,” he said.

The coast-to-coast layup dropped through the net with two seconds remaining, giving BYU a stunning 51-50 victory in the Sweet 16 and the program’s first and only trip to the Elite Eight.

“We had no business winning that game. But when they got up by 13 they slowed the game way down,” Ainge said. “I remember (coach) Frank Arnold saying, ‘They are letting us stay in this game.’ We couldn’t guard them if they had stayed aggressive, but they slowed it down and allowed us back into the game and we were very fortunate to win.”

Snowballs and stitches

Ainge never planned to attend BYU. The three-sport All-American from Eugene, Oregon, had the attention of just about everybody — and for basketball, baseball and football. It wasn’t until Elder Marvin J. Ashton of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints visited his home stake that things started to change.

“He was a University of Utah guy, and they were recruiting me at the time as well,” Ainge said. “He said to me, ‘If you are worthy of going to BYU, you should at least look into it. I’m not going to tell you where you should go to school, but you should make a visit.’ I probably wouldn’t have made a visit had he not encouraged it.”

Ainge packed his bags for Utah with no idea how his life was about to change.

“First of all, (BYU players) Scott Runia and Greg Anderson were the guys taking me out,” Ainge said. “The first thing we did was go to a movie. We ran into Mark Handy. He was a senior who had played with my brother. He got into a snowball fight with a couple of guys who were throwing snowballs at his truck. So that was fun.”

Welcome to Provo.

“After the snowball fight, we got over to the dorms and I meet Alan Taylor, who was a year ahead of us. He was on probation because he threw a kid out of the second dorm window. I asked him, ‘Why did you do that?’ He said, ‘The kid got my homework wet.’ I thought, ‘OK, I guess that justifies that.’”

Danny Ainge is author of the most famous play in BYU basketball history.

Former BYU great Danny Ainge hoists his framed college jersey during a number retirement ceremony in his honor Saturday, March 8, 2003.

Associated Press

It was at this point Ainge started to really think, “These are guys I want to play with.” But his weekend adventure was just getting started.

“Scott and Greg had borrowed four snowmobiles and we were going to go to Strawberry Reservoir the next morning,” Ainge said. “A big snowstorm came that night and they called the campus police on themselves and then got on their snowmobiles and were riding around campus trying to ditch the campus cops. It was hilarious. And I go, ‘These are my kind of people!’”

The next morning the guys made their way to Strawberry, where Ainge proceeded to drive his snowmobile off a 10-foot cliff.

“The handlebar went right into my chest and hit me in the face. I fell down and was unconscious,” he said. “Blood was coming out of my head. The guys were up top looking down at me and thought I was dead.”

Ainge survived, but he required a trip to the emergency room for stitches.

“That night was the baptism of (future teammate) Mike May and I think that baptism touched me more than anything in my life up to that point,” Ainge said. “By the time I got home from that visit, just all of the experiences, the coaches, professors and players — I had never really been around other LDS kids that were like them. I was very excited to go play there. My experience on that recruiting trip at BYU changed my whole life.”

Elder Ashton’s prompting was a game-changer for an athlete that could have taken his game wherever he wanted. Ainge visited a number of schools who tried to win him over.

“At one school, the two best players on the team tried to sell me cocaine,” he said, noting the incredible contrast from his BYU visit that included a snowball fight, a snowmobile outing and a spiritual awakening.

“The BYU experience changed my life forever,” Ainge said. “I’ve never once doubted that it was the right call.”

Trading Mitchell and Gobert

As an NBA executive, including his current post as CEO of the Utah Jazz, Ainge has learned to make tough decisions and stick with them no matter how adamantly the public may disagree.

“I’ve just been scrutinized as a player for so many years. I have pretty thick skin,” he said. “Trading away good players is always hard, but it’s not because of the media scrutiny. It’s hard because of the relationships you develop with people.”

Jazz owner Ryan Smith hired Ainge to put a championship team together. Ainge won two NBA titles as a player and a third as president of the Boston Celtics.

“I’m just a chain link for Ryan,” he said. “I’m here to look for blind spots that they might have as they are making decisions.”

The first blind spot Ainge noticed was the Jazz didn’t have any assets, which limited their vision for the future.

“They had sold out and were trying to win. I can’t say that was a wrong decision,” Ainge said. “They just didn’t have any assets to trade. I asked the guys as we were sitting there on draft day, ‘Is this fun?’ We didn’t have any picks. No opportunities to do anything. Free agency came a week later, and I go, ‘Are we having fun yet?’ We were over the tax. These were the discussions I was having as I was getting to know the front office.”

A decision didn’t come quickly, but it was unanimous when it did. The Jazz needed to shake things up and that meant Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert, among others, were going on the trading blocks.

Utah Jazz guard Donovan Mitchell (45) cheers Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert (27).

Utah Jazz guard Donovan Mitchell (45) cheers Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert (27) up after a play at Game 3 of an NBA basketball first-round playoff series at Vivint Arena in Salt Lake City on Thursday, April 21, 2022.

Mengshin Lin, Deseret News

“It wasn’t me coming in and saying, ‘We’ve got to do this,’” Ainge said. “I’ve been watching Donovan since he was 16. I don’t want to trade Donovan Mitchell. Guys like Donovan are hard to find.”

The Jazz dealt Mitchell to Cleveland and Gobert to Minnesota in exchange for talented, but affordable roster players and a treasure trove of future draft picks to construct a championship team — a similar formula Ainge followed in Boston years earlier.  

With star players Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett aging, Ainge traded them to Brooklyn for enough draft picks and assets to turn the Celtics back into a youthful contender. Boston had won the 2008 championship and lost in the Finals in 2010. Ainge recognized the need to overhaul the roster if they were to ever make it back and he had the guts to do it.

“With Paul and KG, it wasn’t hard because they were older and they were going together and had a chance to probably win more than our team that year,” he said. “It was a no-brainer for our franchise, but I had to convince people that this is what we had to do.”

Eight years after the trade with Brooklyn, and a few other deals, Boston returned to the NBA Finals.

It’s been 25 years since the Jazz were in the Finals and Ainge is determined to get them back there.

“I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t think it was possible,” he said. “It’s hard to win it anywhere. Winning in the NBA is challenging. Winning a playoff series is hard. Winning is going to be difficult for sure.”

Winning also requires tough decisions. It was Ainge’s decision to shoot the shot that upset Notre Dame. It was his decision to choose BYU over almost everybody. And, it’s his decision to spend the latter part of his basketball career tinkering with the Jazz and chasing another title.

Jazz forward Ochai Agbaji talks to CEO Danny Ainge during a Utah Jazz practice at the Zions Bank Basketball Campus.

Jazz forward Ochai Agbaji talks to CEO Danny Ainge during a Utah Jazz practice at the Zions Bank Basketball Campus in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Sept. 29, 2022.

Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

Dave McCann is a contributor to the Deseret News and is the studio host for “BYU Sports Nation Game Day,” “The Post Game Show,” “After Further Review,” and play-by-play announcer for BYUtv. He is also co-host of “Y’s Guys” at ysguys.com.