It was approximately 2 p.m., EDT, when Red Auerbach backed the Enola Gay out of the hangar.
He and Bill Fitch had just taken Tracy Jackson of Notre Dame with their first of two second-round picks, and now the Trail Blazers, Jazz, Spurs, Kings and Spurs again were selecting before the Celtics would choose again, at No. 31.
The names droned on. Brian Jackson of Utah State. Howard Wood of Tennessee. Gene Banks of Duke. Eddie Johnson of Illinois. And, finally, Ed Rains of South Alabama at No. 30. Red was now zeroed in.
He gave the word to team vice-president Jan Volk, and the bomb was ready to drop, the target being the rest of the league. "Boston takes Danny Ainge of Brigham Young," Volk intoned. At that moment (2:05, EDT) six NBA general managers reached for the Maalox, two lurched for the Valium and three more went for the Digitalis. The remaining 11 fainted.
What does Red know that we don't know? Is Ainge ready to quit baseball already? Where did we go wrong? How could we defend Boston with something like Ainge in the lineup? When will Auerbach stop tormenting us?
The Celtics felt they had very little to lose. They had gotten 6-foot-5 Wyoming guard Charles (Tub) Bradley on their first pick, and he was the man they wanted all along. "Bradley," said Auerbach, "is an athlete. He can run, jump and rebound." Said Fitch, "He's not a great shooter, but he does things well in pro conditions, on the move. He may be as good an athlete as there is in the entire first round. If you ask me, Who is he?' I'd say he's Don Chaney with a little better offense."
At No. 25 they took Jackson, another 6-5 guard. Unlike Bradley, Jackson comes with strong shooting credentials. The Celtics had a choice between Jackson and Oregon State guard Ray Blume, who wound up being taken by Indiana at No. 36 before being traded to Chicago for Lamar University bombardier Mike Olliver, who was taken at 32. "He's a pure shooter," submitted Fitch. "He plays tough, and when he was out of the lineup they were affected greatly. He didn't play the last 2:51 of the Brigham Young game, and that was as much a reason why they lost as Ainge's coast-to-coast drive."
But the coup was definitely the selection of the 6-4 Ainge, who averaged 24 points a game this year while making every All-America team. "So many people threatened to take him before us," Fitch explained. "Atlanta was trying to work out a deal through the Braves, whereby they would get him and let him play both sports. Portland was interested at No. 26. We couldn't be sure. We couldn't let it interfere with our preparation."
Ainge insists he won't easily abandon baseball, but he admits that the lure of the Celtics is strong. "Had any other team but Boston drafted me, there would be zero chance of me playing basketball," Ainge said. "There is no question that Boston has the style and the mystique that appeals to me. But I still don't think this is the year. I plan on playing baseball a lot more than one year. I have a committment to playing baseball, and I plan to honor that committment."
Ainge would have been drafted by somebody, somewhere, but the idea has seemed more feasible since his batting average has been in the .100s all season. "I'm sure that if I were hitting .300, or even .400, I'd still be bothered," Ainge says, "but not this much. But the fact that I'm hitting what I'm hitting doesn't mean I consider myself a failure at this game yet. I am flattered to be taken by Boston, but I still want to play baseball. Mr. Auerbach said he wouldn't pressure me, and I will not succumb to pressure, anyway. The decision will be made by me and my wife."
The idea to draft Ainge was never far back in the mind of Messrs. Auerbach and Fitch, while owner Harry Mangurian simply felt it was a logical thing to do. "He may have gone number one if he were available," Mangurian reasoned, "and how many times do you get a chance to draft a number one pick? (Ed. note: The answer is, A lot more often than rivals wish to think about). Ainge has a lot of options, but when you consider the Celtic tradition, the new championship, the type of team we have and the age of our guards, he's got to consider coming with us. It's up to us to convince him that if he doesn't want to play baseball, he has a tremendous opportunity in Boston. But, for us, drafting him was just a good calculated risk."
For the rivals, who now are consigned to a summer of sleepless nights, the drafting of Ainge was something else. It was another Auerbach bombing mission, and they didn't even know the war was still on.