The Danny Ainge you don’t know
Most basketball fans know Danny Ainge in one of two ways.
Number one: Ainge, the solid NBA pro. Over a 14-year career, Ainge averaged 11.5 points per game, made one All-Star team, and won two NBA titles with the Boston Celtics.
Number two: Ainge, the NBA executive. From 2003-2021, Ainge directed the Celtics’ front office, earning the nickname “Trader Danny.” Most notably, he helped deliver Boston its 17th banner in 2008 following ambitious trades for Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen. He now oversees basketball operations for the Utah Jazz.
But before Ainge engaged in epic Celtics-Lakers clashes during the 1980s and long before he fleeced the Brooklyn Nets in a trade for the ages, Ainge was a star at Brigham Young University.
A BIG star.
After a standout prep career at North Eugene High in Oregon, where Ainge was a Parade All- American in basketball and baseball as well as an all-state receiver in football, Ainge traveled to Provo and immediately made an impact for the Cougars. While the team stumbled through a 12- 18 campaign, Ainge averaged 21.1 points per game in his first year on campus.
Over the next two seasons, Ainge led the Cougars to 44 wins and a pair of WAC titles. BYU also made back-to-back appearances in the NCAA Tournament for only the third time in program history.
It was during his final season in Provo, however, that Ainge crafted enduring memories and propelled BYU to new heights. He blitzed Utah State for 39 points and torched Wyoming for 40 points. In the regular season finale, Ainge dropped 35 points on ninth-ranked Utah in a 95-76 Holy War victory for the Cougars.
At season’s end, Ainge was named a first-team All-American joining Ralph Sampson of Virginia, Indiana guard Isiah Thomas, and forwards Kelly Tripucka of Notre Dame and Mark Aguirre of DePaul.
“Danny is the most complete, versatile collegiate guard I’ve ever worked with in 25 years of coaching,” BYU head coach Frank Arnold said.
Earning a #6 seed in the NCAA Tournament, BYU traveled across the country to Providence. After dispatching Princeton 60-51 in the opening round, Ainge led the Cougars against mighty UCLA. He took 22 shots. He scored 37 points. And BYU dismantled UCLA 78-55.
“There is no doubt that the young man has a special gift,” UCLA coach Larry Brown said of Ainge.
In a Sweet Sixteen slugfest against second-seeded Notre Dame, Ainge authored what many BYU fans consider the most iconic play in BYU hoops history. With 8 seconds left, Ainge took the inbounds pass 85 feet from the basket and weaved through the Irish defense before dropping in a layup over 6-9 Orlando Woolridge. BYU’s 51-50 upset win over Notre Dame gave the Cougars their first – and still only – Elite Eight appearance.
“We wanted to control Ainge and we did that until the last 8 seconds,” a dejected Notre Dame coach Digger Phelps said post-game. “We knew he was going to get the ball, but he’s just too good an athlete. He just took it down the floor and right through five people.”
While Ainge’s BYU career would end in the Elite Eight against Big Ralph and Virginia, Ainge cemented his place in BYU lore and carved his name into the NCAA record books in the process. The 1981 Wooden Award winner as the nation’s top player, Ainge completed his college career on a run of 112 consecutive double-digit scoring games. His 2,467 points – all accomplished before the arrival of the three-point line – were all-time career scoring records for both BYU and the WAC.
“If I could make a living playing college basketball, I’d do it,” Ainge said at the conclusion of his BYU career.
It was a noteworthy comment given that Ainge actually did make a living doing something else while starring for BYU on the hardwood. In the summers of 1979 and 1980, in fact, Ainge played in 125 games for the Toronto Blue Jays. Many talent evaluators considered him destined for stardom in that sport.
Though Ainge considered baseball his future, the curveball and the mystique of the Boston Celtics pushed him to basketball and the aforementioned 14-year NBA career.
In 2003, BYU retired Ainge’s #22 jersey, the first men’s basketball player in BYU history to receive that honor.
It turns out the Danny Ainge you don’t know was perhaps the Danny Ainge most worth knowing.