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The direct approach

In backcourt or front office, Ainge always a straight shooter

WALTHAM -- Dick Motta, notorious for his hard-line approach, had just been hired to turn around the 7-21 Sacramento Kings. It was Jan. 4, 1990, the day he was officially named coach, and he gathered his players to tell them a thing or two. "The first thing he said was, `You better play my way,' " recalls Jerry Reynolds, who was removed as coach and bumped upstairs to the front office. "He told them, `If you do everything I say, and listen to me, then you'll get what I have' -- and then he held up his championship ring."

The room was respectfully silent, but only for a matter of seconds. That's how long it took Kings guard Danny Ainge to chime in.

"Hey coach," Ainge said. "They really better listen to me. I've got two rings."

"And he wonders why Motta traded him," chuckles Reynolds.

Danny Ainge, the Celtics' new director of basketball operations, has undoubtedly been called many things in the wake of his decision to trade team cocaptain Antoine Walker to Dallas a week before the season starts, but nobody has branded him reticent, hesitant, or indecisive.

His unwavering confidence and penchant for speaking his mind (even when a little diplomacy would suffice) have defined him in the infancy of his front office reign. When the media asked him why he traded Walker, he -- gasp! -- told them the real reason. It may have been easier, and more appropriate, to extol Walker's virtues and chalk up his departure with the generic (and usually deceptive) mantra of "going in a different direction."

But no. Ainge explained that he wasn't crazy about Walker's shot selection. He wondered aloud about Walker's conditioning. He declared the player's "grasp" on the team had evolved into a negative. Naturally, Walker reacted adversely, and Ainge has been scolded for making comments that will be sure to come back and haunt him, particularly on Dec. 17, the day the Celtics play Dallas for the first time.

"I don't see it that way," says Ainge. "I was traded from Boston once. I had to leave friends, a great team, but at the same time, I was looking for new challenges. I had the date we played them circled, too. I scored 37 points, but I wasn't motivated by bitterness or hatred. I had to show my big brothers."

Two of those "big brothers" -- Kevin McHale and Larry Bird -- are also running teams in the NBA. They, too, are known for their candor.

"Danny is going to tell you what he thinks -- maybe to a fault," says McHale, the Timberwolves general manager. "What you see is what you get. If you don't like the answer, then don't ask the question."

"Sometimes, I regret things," Ainge concedes. "Sometimes, I pick up the paper in the morning and say, `Dang, did I say that? I probably shouldn't have.' But then I don't worry about it anymore. I move on."

Misses and hits

He was a brash kid of 22 when he joined the Celtics in 1981, extricating himself from his baseball contract only after the Toronto Blue Jays sued the Celtics to block them from signing him. He oozed charisma, and his seasoned teammates waited expectantly to see if the hype surrounding this kid was warranted.

"I laugh when I hear Danny say Antoine takes too many shots," says a gleeful Bird, now president of the Indiana Pacers. "Look who's talking. Danny was a gunner. I remember [former Celtics coach] Bill Fitch telling him, `You're shooting about the same percentage as your batting average.'

"M.L. Carr told everybody Danny was another Jerry West. After a few days of Danny missing all those shots, I turned to M.L. and said, `Hey, I thought Jerry West scored a lot of points.' "

"I remember Max [Cedric Maxwell] sitting there counting out loud, `1 for 10, 2 for 12, 3 for 17 . . .,' " Ainge said. "At the end of practice, Fitch pulled me aside and said, `It's not as easy as you thought, is it?' I didn't say anything, but I was thinking it was easy. I was used to being double- and triple-teamed in college, and now, all of a sudden only one guy was guarding me. Sure, I was missing, but I knew that would change."

As Ainge continued to put up shots and deflect the jabs of his teammates, Bird and McHale took note of the kid's perseverance and toughness.

"He was struggling big-time," says Bird, "but he kept shooting. We'd get on his case, but it didn't bother him. He had plenty of confidence. He just had to get over the first three months and settle in. Once he did, Danny became a hell of a player."

In his inaugural Celtics season, Ainge averaged just 4 points a game and shot 35.7 percent. He never came close to shooting that badly again.

"I had a hard time," Ainge acknowledges. "I thought I was a better player than Chris Ford and Gerald Henderson. But I wasn't playing, and my anxiety started building up. They were calling me `Danny Ain't.' For the first time in my life, I wasn't getting it done."

He put himself through a grueling offseason, and won Fitch over upon his return. He became a starter on a 1982-83 Celtics team roiling with turmoil. They were swept by the Milwaukee Bucks in the playoffs, and Fitch was fired.

Ainge and his family retreated to Disney World for a week, where he carried his son Austin on his shoulders all through the park. Soon thereafter, he awoke at 2 a.m. in excruciating pain, drove himself to an Orlando emergency room, and was injected with a pain-killer. It wasn't until a week later, when he went to Provo, Utah, to conduct his summer basketball camp, that he realized he was in trouble.

"I pull up to take my first shot since the season ended," says Ainge, "and my shoulder blade goes flying out to the side. I couldn't shoot at all."

Ainge consulted with various specialists. He was diagnosed with "winging of the scapula." He had nerve damage in the shoulder, probably sustained during his collision with Tree Rollins toward the end of the previous season (just before the famous "Tree Bites Man" altercation). He would need nearly nine months to recover. But the pain was minimal, and Ainge said he could play through it; team doctor Thomas Silva concurred.

"So about halfway through the season, [general manager] Jan Volk calls me in," Ainge says. "He says he and Red [Auerbach] had been watching me, and they wanted to know why I was shooting so many shots lefthanded. I told him, `Jan, it's because of my injury.'

"He said, `Oh. Dr. Silva said that was all in your imagination.' "

Volk remembers Ainge's injury, and the team's decision to keep it quiet, but he disputes Ainge's version of the conversation in his office.

"At no time did I doubt that injury was real," said Volk. "Nor do I remember Dr. Silva doubting that."

By summer, Ainge's shoulder had healed. He played in the San Diego Summer League and was named MVP. Henderson was traded. Ainge was again the starter.

"I always knew Danny was the kind of player I liked," says former coach K.C. Jones. "He feared nothing. He was the most determined guy I had."

`Coach on the floor'

The brief period of doubt became a blip on the radar screen. Ainge was an integral part of the 1986 championship team. He became a reliable and feared 3-point threat. He also began to grow older. The big brothers were aging, too.

During the 1988-89 season, Ainge lost his starting job to young guard Brian Shaw.

"One night, we're heading to the Capital Centre [in Landover, Md.], and our bus gets a flat tire," says Volk. "We quickly called for a van to begin transporting the players to the arena.

"The van arrives, and Danny starts yelling, `OK, all starters, get in the van!' Someone had to grab him and tell him, `Hey, Danny, you're not a starter anymore.' He forgot."

Later that season, Ainge was traded to Sacramento, where he started and averaged 20 points a game.

"One day Danny comes up to me," says Reynolds. "He said, `Coach, I figured out what's wrong with our team.' I said, `Great, Danny, please enlighten me.' He said, `Well, I'm the best player on the team. We'll never win consistently with me as the best player.'

"I liked his frankness. I'm not sure if I coached him or if he coached me. The thing about Danny was, he was always right. He was challenging. I had to kick him out of practice a few times. He would start taking that `coach on the floor' idea a little too far."

"That's a bit of a fabrication," Ainge protests. "I remember being pulled out of drills, but kicked out of practice? I don't think so. Did I have an opinion? Yes. Did I do whatever I wanted? No. Did I have fun? Sure. The game is supposed to be fun."

Friendly advice

If the Walker deal doesn't pan out, nobody will be smiling in these parts. The dividends -- Raef LaFrentz, Jiri Welsch, and a draft pick -- are unknown commodities.

"It's a risky deal," says Bird. "But Danny has a vision of how things should go, and I don't think his vision is to get into the first round of the playoffs. He wants to win the whole thing.

"Some GMs would never consider doing what he's just done. No way. But whether it's a good deal or not, you have to take some chances. Danny is bright. He understands the game. There's no question in my mind he's going to do well.

"The only thing he's got to do is get rid of that swami he's got, that mind-reader. Tell him to do his own thinking."

Bird is referring to Jon Niednagel, the "brain doctor" who studies brain patterns of players to discern certain characteristics. Ainge, one of the biggest proponents of his work, hired Niednagel as a consultant with the Celtics.

"Tell Larry that his coach [Rick Carlisle] calls Jon all the time," Ainge retorts. "Jon was at my house, and Carlisle talked to him for an hour on his cell. Larry has more scouts than I have -- twice as many. I'll take my swami over his whole scouting staff.

"Larry thinks his own way. I think my own way, too. The swami had nothing to do with the Antoine Walker trade. He's my consultant -- and Rick's, too."

Ainge has already talked twice with Bird about potential deals. He talks to McHale almost every week. The message from Minnesota is the same every time.

"I've told Danny this before," McHale says. "The biggest thing is he's got to be patient. In the beginning, you want to do this deal and that deal, but over the long haul you realize you shouldn't pull the trigger unless you are really, really happy with it."

Does McHale think Ainge pulled the trigger too soon on Walker?

"I can't say that," he says. "I don't know the particulars of everything. I do know it's hard to make changes."

Does Danny Ainge need to change the way he does business? Does he need to hold his tongue when asked for the unvarnished truth?

"Once in a while, you need to hold certain stuff in," says Reynolds. "Like I told Danny, `You know, it is possible to have an unspoken thought.' "

Ainge understands this, but sometimes he can't help but let the words come tumbling out. There will be days when it costs him. There will be days it benefits him. He doesn't care either way. When you've got two championship rings to back you up, you tend to trust yourself.

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