This Ainge shooting to make name for himself
Wellesley High soph following family tradition in basketball
WELLESLEY - Luke Day figured it was inevitable.
“I heard about him when he was in the eighth grade,’’ said Day, the boys’ basketball coach at Wellesley High. “He was good, but maybe not as good as people expected him to be because of his name. I was afraid of that.’’
The name is Ainge, Cooper Ainge, yes, son of Danny, the former Boston Celtics standout and now the team’s president of basketball operations. “I was afraid people would say, ‘Oh, Ainge’s kid,’ ’’ recalled Day.
Ainge, 16, is not setting the Bay State Conference on fire, but the 5-foot-11 sophomore is making an impact. Against Dedham, in a tie game with 4.5 seconds left, the inbound pass went to Ainge.
“He dribbled through traffic, through the press at 100 miles per hour and saw Blake Dowling in the corner,’’ said Wellesley athletic director John Brown. “Dowling hit a 3 at the buzzer. It was a great play,’’ capping a season-high 10-point performance by Ainge.
In a matchup against Framingham High, with 5-10ths of a second left in regulation, Ainge made two free throws to tie the game, after grabbing the rebound off a teammate’s miss and being fouled. “I was really nervous,’’ Ainge said, with the game on the line.
“Both shots were swishes,’’ said Day. “Like he was shooting in the backyard.’’ Wellesley won it in overtime.
Ainge was hoping to make varsity as a freshman, but Day says “there was no need to accelerate things. He had a good freshman year. This year, he was clearly a varsity player. His ballhandling got better. His decision-making is pretty good.’’
In 16 minutes per game, Ainge is averaging four points and five assists. “Right now, we’re asking him to be the ballhandler,’’ said Day. “He’s got some good instincts.’’
“My dad always helped me with fundamentals,’’ said Ainge. “The biggest thing he taught me is to be tough on the court. Don’t be soft.’’
His father is the only athlete to be a high school first team All-American in three sports, starring in football, basketball, and baseball at North Eugene High in Oregon. At Brigham Young University, Danny Ainge won the John Wooden Award as college basketball’s player of the year. Drafted by the Toronto Blue Jays in 1977, he played baseball in the big leagues for parts of three seasons, but a .220 batting average persuaded him to take Red Auerbach’s offer and sign with the Celts after being taken in the 1981 NBA draft.
No surprise then that Cooper said, “I’ve always been around basketball.’’
His dad coached the NBA’s Phoenix Suns in the late 1990s. “At games, when I was about 5 or 6,’’ he said, “I’d sit on the floor with the ball boys. My older brothers played with Steve Nash when he was a rookie.’’
Ainge’s siblings Austin, 30, and Tanner, 28, won a couple of championships in high school. Austin followed his dad to BYU and now coaches the Celtics’ Development League team, the Maine Red Claws.
“Cooper loves to play, he’s just starting to grow,’’ said Austin Ainge, who was a volunteer assistant coach with the Wellesley freshman team last year. “His game is evolving as his body gets stronger and quicker.’’
The six Ainge kids grew up in Phoenix, where the four boys engaged in some serious hoops.
“We had a court in the backyard,’’ said Cooper, the second-youngest, ahead of Crew, 14. “We had cousins who lived about a mile away. We were always playing two-on-two.’’
Cooper would constantly be dribbling a basketball around the house. His mother, Michelle, was not exactly unhappy when 5-year-old Cooper joined his first league. “Basketball’s definitely been my favorite sport since then,’’ he said. But there is also this. “The kid can throw a football 50 yards,’’ said Brown. “He ought to be a quarterback.’’
Ainge played football for the first time when he was in eighth grade, but did not go out his freshman year. “He wanted to get ready for varsity basketball,’’ said Brown.
Ainge may get his chance on the gridiron next season, with plans to go out for Wellesley High’s football team.
For now, the aim is to get Wellesley (8-4 at midweek) to the postseason for the first time in four years.
The Ainges had the entire team over the house for dinner Thursday night: “You could see these kids really like each other,’’ said Danny Ainge. He and his wife sent some of their children to private school, but Cooper will stay at Wellesley. “Michelle is really involved in the community, and she loves the public school system,’’ he said.
Ainge and senior David Mykravantz are both point guards, but Day occasionally plays them at the same time. Wellesley’s go-to guy is 6-3 senior Evan Kulak, whom Day said is “as good of a high school shooter as you’re going to find.’’
Kulak will be graduating, so Ainge is expected to look for his shot more next season.
“To get more minutes I’ve got to get better on defense,’’ Ainge said, a point emphasized by his father, “and be smoother with the ball.’’
Ainge is a quick study. “There’s such an innate athleticism to him.’’ said Day. “I wish Cooper had his father’s height.’’ Danny Ainge was 6-foot-1 at age 16, and 6-4 when he played for the Celts.
Danny Ainge attends as many of Cooper’s games as possible. It doesn’t faze Cooper. “I’m so focused on the game,’’ he said. Same deal when he’s on the bench. “I’m looking at who I’m going to guard,’’ Cooper said.
Father and son always talk after a game. “He tells me what I have to work on,’’ said Cooper (with an emphasis on defense). He shoots around at the Celtics’ practice facility, and sometimes watches practices. Favorite player: Rajon Rondo. “He’s fun to watch; he’s so quick,’’ he said of Boston’s point guard.
If he had his druthers, Cooper prefers the West Coast, the weather being a consideration, and “I have a lot of family out there.’’ Like his father and brother, he aspires to play at BYU. “It would take a lot of work,’’ he said.
But his immediate goal is to help the Raiders win basketball games, and in the fall, football matchups.
I’ll tell you what,’’ said Brown. “He’s an athlete.’’
They said that about Cooper’s father, too, a long time ago.
Lenny Megliola can be e-mailed at firstname.lastname@example.org