Ainge Dealt to Kings
The funny thing about it is that Danny Ainge had just begun to breathe easy again.
For weeks, he had opened newspapers around America and seen his name mentioned as this or that town's newest star. Game after game, city after city, question after question. All about coming. All about going.
"It was a little distracting," Ainge said. "I'd go to Houston and try to visualize myself as a Rocket. I'd go to Denver and try to visualize myself as a Nugget. I'd go to Utah and try to visualize myself as a Jazz."
He did not, however, spend much time visualizing himself as what he has become -- which is royalty of an odd sort. With less than 24 hours left before the trading deadline two weeks ago, Ainge figured he was on safe ground the morning the phone rang to inform him that, after seven-plus years as a Celtic, he was now a Sacramento King.
"I thought I'd survived," Ainge said last week. "With a week to go, I thought there'd be a trade, but two or three days before they did it, I thought it was pretty much a dead deal.
"It's been kind of funny lately. One day I looked around and Greg Kite was gone. Then Fred Roberts was gone. Then Bruce Hurst was gone. All the guys I hung around with. I thought, 'Man, that's pretty strange.'
"And then I was gone."
Danny Ainge was gone along with Brad Lohaus in exchange for Joe Kleine and Ed Pinckney, two badly needed big men, but he was not the only one going.
That is a side of professional sports only people like Michelle Ainge know about, the darker side that comes in the first days after your husband's team has sent you packing, too.
"After I got here, we had four games in five days, so I didn't have any time to look for a house," Ainge said. "Our older three kids are in school, but Michelle had to come out with the baby and look.
"She had delayed flights with bad weather, so it was about 20 hours with the baby before she got here from Boston. She's living at the hotel for two weeks while we try to find something.
"It's really tougher on my family than me. She has to do all the packing and be alone with the kids. She has by far the tougher job, but because she's from California, she's excited about moving. She doesn't have the organizational ties I do.
"I'm from the West, too Eugene, Ore., and all our family is out here, so I feel more comfortable here. But in professional sports, your team is the most important thing. The Boston Celtics could have been in Timbuktu and it would have been great."
Now, of course, only Ainge is in Timbuktu, playing in a 16,000-seat arena named after super octane (Arco), for a team that has won just 17 games, in a town that never had anything but minor league sports franchises until the Kings arrived three years ago. Some residents will even tell you things haven't changed.
But that is not to say there isn't tradition here.
When Ainge walked into Arco, he was relieved to see the Kings had their share of banners. The difference was that the only championship flag said, "ROCHESTER 1951," which was when the Kings were the Royals and Ainge was unborn.
This is what must pass for tradition in a town whose biggest sporting event for years was the annual Pig Bowl football game between the sheriffs and the police. But the hope is that Danny Ainge can change that.
"Everyone knows Danny Ainge," said Kings coach Jerry Reynolds. "They may not like him, but they respect him.
"He takes pressure off Kenny Smith. I think, honestly, Kenny and Danny are among the five best backcourts in the league, and they don't even know each other yet."
Maybe that is so, but Ainge doesn't know about the notion he can be The Franchise, either.
"I've always believed recognition is important for every player, but you get it with winning," Ainge said. "In other places, I could have scored 20 a game, but who cares? To score 20 or 25 a game and shoot three-pointers is not the way I look at it.
"I just plan to go out and play hard every night the way I've done. I may get a few more opportunities here than on a team with Larry Bird, but if a team has to build around Danny Ainge in this league, they're not going to go too far. I'm not the guy, by any means."
Perhaps not, although his career-high 45 points March 4 against Golden State in just his fourth game with the Kings might argue otherwise. Regardless, it is clear he was expected to deliver a message to the youthful Kings, and he began doing it quickly.
On a flight from Phoenix, Ainge noticed a young teammate was missing. He asked about it and learned this was not a rare occurrence. He began to mumble. Soon he was ranting. Then he was raving. This was not the way a TEAM functions.
"You need to stick together as players," Ainge said. "So much bad stuff is written and said when you lose; you have to be loyal to each other. Effort is all you can ask.
"I've been very cautious since I got here about not coming on like Mr. Celtics. I've bitten my tongue in a lot of spots because it's not the time. I just want to do the stuff I've always done in Boston.
"But, yeah, I've noticed some things. I don't know if it comes from losing or what, but guys walk out late to practice or a bus or plane. In Boston, if we had a 10 o'clock practice, everybody was there a half-hour to an hour early. Here I walk in at 10:25 for an 11 o'clock practice and I'm the first guy here.
"In Boston, you played with all types of injuries. Here you don't, and maybe that's right. In Sacramento, they look to the future. In Boston, it's right now."
Yet Ainge had to admit it was changing there, too, in subtle ways . . . and in some not-so-subtle ones like the win and loss columns. There was still talent and nightly effort, but the fire was being banked.
"Too many people on the team are keeping their emotions in this year," Ainge said. "It's not the same feeling on the Celtics. I think it's because of losing. It's not easy to wave that towel over your head when you're losing. It takes something extra.
"When Larry first went out, I thought we had some great talent. I thought we'd still be very good. Now I really don't believe the problems stem just from Larry's absence. Last year in the playoffs, we played terrible basketball. Our depth was in question, and then we lost our best player, and that made things worse. Suddenly, we weren't winning."
So, just as suddenly, there were no more stories to read. Danny Ainge was gone in exchange for depth.
"I got traded because they thought it would help the team," he said. "It was business. I learned this was a business a long time ago."
A cold, hard and sometimes surprising business.
He is the same insufferable, lovable, excitable, pesky, nasty, wonderful player you always cheered for in Boston Garden. Danny Ainge is no longer part of a tradition steeped in championship banners. Instead, he settles for signs in Sacramento that read, "Hey Boston, Ainge you jealous?"
Who ultimately got the better of the deal that sent Ainge, along with Brad Lohaus (now playing in Minnesota) to the Kings for Joe Kleine and Ed Pinckney? The Kings wanted a veteran leader, a scorer, an inspiration. The Celtics wanted backup help for Robert Parish and Kevin McHale. The trade has been as advertised for both clubs, but neither is much better off than before they made the deal.
Boston now desperately needs a guard the caliber of Ainge. Sacramento yearns for the kind of depth that Kleine and Pinckney provide.
In spite of it all, Ainge has wowed 'em in Sacramento with his unique blend of frankness and humor. In the team press guide, under "After pro ball I hope to:" Ainge responded "Never need a real job." Under random thoughts, he posed this lofty question: "Why are there no gas pumps at ARCO Arena?"
As always, he takes the 3-pointer when he's open and remains outspoken on just about everything. Here are some samplings of his other random thoughts:
On Larry Bird: "Larry at one time was the greatest player in the game. I always felt when I played with Larry he made my job so much easier because he took all the pressure off you. But what he does by taking the pressure off you is also take some of your responsibilities away. In that regard, Larry makes your job easier, but he doesn't make you better on the floor.
"A guy like Magic Johnson looks to get other people involved in the game first. It's just two different ways of leading a team.
"People said Kevin McHale missed Larry last year, and that's what hurt him. What Kevin missed was another forward to pass him the ball. Kevin is a great player no matter who he plays with. If he played with Magic, he'd average 40 points a game. No, that's an exaggeration.
"But the perfect example of all this is Chief Parish. He had the best season of his career when Larry was out."
On Greg Kite, now a Kings teammate: "I tried to get Greg here in training camp. We had Jawann Oldham and Ben Gillery, neither of whom were healthy, and I thought Greg was better than anyone we had.
"His defense in the post has been great. He did a nice job on Akeem Olajuwon. He hurts us a little offensively, but when we go to a smaller lineup we get killed defensively underneath."
When asked if the Kings fans appreciate Kite more than the fans in Boston did, Ainge answered, "I don't think so. When you're losing, they pick on the weaknesses of players, and Greg has some."
On Jerry Reynolds: "Jerry and I get along great, no matter what anyone says. He comes and asks my opinion a lot. We play tennis in the summer. Sure, we've had some disagreements, but that's OK.
"I'm a little disappointed Jerry won't finish the year as coach. This franchise has already gone through a lot of adversity. Changes aren't always for the better. I felt if we were patient we'd be OK with the team we had.
"It was kind of like that last year in Boston. They got a little uneasy with how the team was playing without Larry and they made a change they might not have had to make."
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