September 27, 2007
Larry Bird hasn't played golf this summer.
The Pacers general manager has been too busy attempting to halt his team's free fall.
``If I had Kevin Garnett, then I could play golf,'' Bird quipped Monday, with former teammate Danny Ainge in the crosshairs of his laconic wit.
It's also been a restless summer for Baron Davis, who is dissatisfied with Golden State's sluggish approach to a contract extension. When he looks east, again at the Celtics and good friend Paul Pierce, the Warriors point guard believes he sees an example of the right way to do business.
``He's a kid in a candy store,'' Davis said of the C's captain last week during a visit to Reebok's Canton headquarters. ``They've got a lot of weapons now, and the good thing is that this organization has always believed in him. He was waiting to see what they were going to do, and to their credit, they made it happen.''
Even one year ago, when Ainge's plan - defined as many different things by many different people - was the subject of routine deconstruction and withering criticism, these comments would have been unthinkable.
The Celtics director of basketball operations was the envy of no one. His team somehow was getting younger and more injury-prone, all at once. The Antoine Walker lobby still hadn't forgiven him. The Ricky Davis experiment was a failure. If medical bills counted against the salary cap, the MRI charges for Raef LaFrentz and Wally Szczerbiak alone would have created a luxury-tax problem.
But when the Celtics begin training camp tomorrow with media day, the embattled Ainge still will be on his feet.
Two years ago, nobody took his seriously when he said he was acquiring pieces with the hope of making a major, team-changing trade. When he came close to landing Allen Iverson during draft week in 2006, the attempt drew only mild curiosity. Most viewed his bid as a pipe dream.
But now that he has added Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen to Pierce, and grouted in around his starry trio with a proven supporting cast that includes James Posey, Eddie House and Scot Pollard, even the Red Sox seem to have more non-believers.
Celtics ownership, which has stood behind Ainge through every dilemma - often to public derision - also has an opportunity to crow right now.
``We've been looking at Banner 17 all these years, and suddenly the future seems at hand,'' managing partner Robert Epstein said during yesterday's media luncheon, a comment that should put everyone on notice if it hasn't happened already.
Now that the plan finally has taken shape, they better make it work.
Ainge could get resentful, of course. Who could possibly forget that unbearably naked moment when he was booed the night Cedric Maxwell's number was retired?
If ever there was an opportunity to raise a fist in vindication, this would seem to be it for the C's boss.
``I understand the world that we live in,'' he said. ``I don't feel vindicated. I understand that there are steps along the way, and everything has a way of changing. There are things I would do differently, and things we've done that are very good.
``People saw things differently than I did, but 2 1/2 years ago I said this was going to be an important summer. The development in the games of our young guys was going to be an important factor, and I think that's the way it worked out. I saw this as being the year that Al (Jefferson) really developed. It was also going to be the summer when we reached a crossroads with Paul.
``The draft lottery was one way to go, but making these deals was going to be another, and that's how it's worked out,'' Ainge continued. ``But I don't feel vindicated. I'm just happy that Paul Pierce really enjoys playing basketball again. I haven't seen Kevin Garnett moving around with this kind of energy in a long time. He's like a little kid.''
Though he's quiet about it, that statement also could describe Ainge right now. He's had his line in the water for a long time. Remember when he attempted to talk Karl Malone out of retirement? Reggie Miller? Fishing has been a significant part of the plan.
``I was hopeful that we could do something like this earlier than we did,'' Ainge said of the summer's eruption of Green activity. ``We could have had Iverson for a certain cost, but we had conversations about any significant player who came on the market.''
In the meantime, Ainge kept absorbing hits.
``I totally understand it,'' he said. ``I have a responsibility to the organization to support and lead these people. I've always felt confident that Wyc (Grousbeck), Steve (Pagliuca) and Bob (Epstein) were on the same page with us.
``I mean, we've always had a plan. But sometimes that plan forces you in a different direction.''
A new dawn
But enough with fantasy. It's September.
``Right now, there are expectations for a team that hasn't done anything with one another,'' Ainge said. ``There's nothing we've accomplished other than the hype.
``Maybe it's because I've been a player and a coach, but the highlight of the year for me was to see the enthusiasm in the eyes of Doc (Rivers) and Paul (Pierce). We've all been through some tough times here, but coaches and management have been able to stay together through all of it.
``It's rekindled the spirit of Paul Pierce, and that has been very evident in the way he has worked on his body and his game this summer,'' Ainge continued. ``It's different, obviously, going into a season with expectations and the hope of great things.
``This time it's not the hope of developing young players and making the playoffs. It's the hope of putting up a banner.''